On 7 April, the Lebanese internal security forces intercepted a kidnap attempt by British child recovery agents on a Beirut street. The agents were acting on behalf of an Australian woman, Sally Faulkner, to recover two of her children, Noah (4) and Lahela (6), whom she claims were taken by her ex-husband last year and retained without her permission in Lebanon.

The Guardian reported yesterday that the Mount Lebanon General Prosecutor has charged Faulkner and eight others, including four members of the Australian 60 Minutes team, with attempted kidnapping. This is a charge that if proven could carry a sentence of up to 20 years and include hard labour.

The children's father is Shi'a and resides in the area near Beirut known as the southern suburbs. The kidnap attempt took place in Hadath, a Christian area which borders onto Dahiyeh, the famed Shi'ite 'Hizbullah Heartland'. Reports state that the father was aware the kidnap attempt was coming and had alerted police in advance of it, hence the swift arrest of the TV crew, the mother and the child recovery agents.

However the plan to recover the children was already flawed. Firstly, because Hadath has a strong community spirit and it is unlikely that no one is watching you. In such a neighbourhood people would not have stood idly by without notifying the security services. Furthermore, anyone familiar with the area would know that the heavy traffic between Hadath and central Beirut in the morning would preclude a fast getaway. So even if the perpetrators could have driven off it is unlikely they would have got far before the security services caught up with them.

In Australia this event has received a lot of public attention because it involves Australians, and famous ones at that. Had a Lebanese person attempted the same thing inside Australia it would doubtless have generated public outrage and demands that the foreigner be held accountable to Australian law. I am unable to explain why there has been minimal interest in the episode among the general public in Lebanon, despite the fact that foreigners came to the country to knowingly commit an illegal act. 

However this event does draw attention to the role sectarianism plays in Lebanon's legal system and the way it often negatively affects women.

The child custody laws in Lebanon fall under clerical judicial authority and each religion has its own religious court that determines family law. As Shi'a, the al-Amin family are subject to the Jaafari court that represents Twelver Shi'ism in Lebanon. Sharia law in Shi'ism permits the award of custody to the mother for males until the age of two, and to females until the age of seven (however this can vary). But the issue of child custody is one of a number of challenges faced by women across all the religions in Lebanon and which grassroots organisations have attempted to overcome.

Until very recently civil marriage was forbidden in Lebanon, but sustained popular pressure to legalise it has gained traction in recent years. In 2013 a couple wed in a civil ceremony and with the help of their lawyer invoked a previously unused French colonial-era law from 1936 which permits civil unions outside the country's 18 official sects. With the help of activists they subsequently pressured the Lebanese Government into registering their civil marriage as legal in Lebanon. Inspired by this ruling many more couples since have had civil marriages, but despite protests none have been approved to date and civil marriage continues to be condemned by the religious authorities.

Were civil marriage to be instituted legally in Lebanon, it would raise the important question of how child custody battles would be resolved without recourse to religious law and what rights such a law would grant women. It would in fact be ground-breaking for a country in the Middle East to consider family law on a civil basis.

Another pressing issue for women in Lebanon is the constant irritant that they are not allowed to pass on their nationality to their children. In Lebanon, only if your father is Lebanese can you obtain citizenship. Aside from the obvious resentment this policy generates, this is ostensibly not such a problem if you happen to be a citizen of another state. However it creates enormous problems for the children of Palestinian fathers and Lebanese mothers because it renders them effectively stateless (the Ministry of the Interior estimates that around 16,800 Lebanese women are married to Palestinians). This issue arises from a law dating back to 1925 that states the children of Lebanese women who marry non-Lebanese men are foreigners in their own country: thus far three attempts to overturn it have failed. In part this law continues to be justified by politicians on the basis of the need to maintain the delicate sectarian balance – the fear being that nationalisation of children of Palestinians will significantly increase the number of Sunnis in the country.

What is impressive about Lebanon is that women's grass roots movements continue to debate important issues in the public space, such as the legality of rape and violence within marriage. Currently an online reporting tool is trialling in Beirut which tracks where and when sexual harassment takes place. However, lack of social and legal change can often be attributed to the paralysis that occurs as a result of the sectarian political system.

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