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Ethnographic and Transnational Approaches to Law and Legal History: A Woman Stands Before the Court in Lebanon
In 1991, one year after the end of the Lebanese Civil War, a woman petitioned the state to correct her sex in the civil registry. The petitioner had lived the entirety of the war in Lebanon, and she underwent gender reassignment surgery in Beirut six months after its end. By the time of her petition, she was sixty-two years old, had been married twice, and had parented children. Her life enters the historical and anthropological record of gender, sexuality, sovereignty, and legal practice through this court case. The case was heard by the civil personal status court in Beirut and by a judge who has since had a long and illustrious career in the Lebanese judiciary, and she and many of the lawyers and medical expert witnesses listed in the decision are still practicing. The decision itself relies heavily on French Cassation Court jurisprudence on “the family” at that time, jurisprudence that only changed in the Fall of 2022. In its summary of events, one can read an alternative history of the state and of sexuality in Lebanon and transnationally, beginning in the French Mandate era. This paper will read the court case ethnographically, and outline a methodological approach centered on multiplicity and unknowability as critical to feminist theory, history and anthropology. What histories of Lebanon, war, sexuality, gender, personal status, and transnational legal practice can we glean from this court case? What are the ethical and epistemological implications of different methodological approaches to the same research material? How does studying the legal system change the debate on the state and on sovereignty in Lebanon? What would an archival approach to queer life in the Middle East bring forth, beyond debates on subjectivity and authenticity? Can we read a queer legal archive outside the trope of criminalization? This paper will offer a transnational approach to the study of law that is anchored in sex, colonialism and its legal afterlives, and the life of one woman, standing before a Lebanese court, one year after the end of the civil war, petitioning the state. .
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