For the first time, a couple in Lebanon has defied centuries of law and practice by getting married in their own country under civil law. Their wedding is more than a symbolic act of protest; it’s a carefully constructed legal challenge to the common practice across the Middle East of leaving marriage and all other personal affairs to clerics and their religious code.

If the couple succeeds at forcing the Lebanese government to officially recognize their marriage, the state will have to draft a whole raft of new laws to deal with everything from inheritance and custody to voting rights, since the couple has removed religious sect from their identity cards. It’s a long-overdue initiative from the embattled secularists of the Middle East. All over, clerics have had the momentum. In the Arab world, almost all states leave personal matters for the majority to Islamic law and for minorities to their own sectarian courts. Secular Jews in Israel have long bristled that marriage and conversion solely fall under the authority of the ultra-Orthodox sect, and there is no secular civil marriage. Especially since the Arab uprisings, religious forces have had the momentum. But there’s a secular response, and it hopefully will play a bigger part than it has until now, with secular activists so off balance that they’ve even stopped calling themselves “secular,” preferring the less incendiary term “civil.”

As I report in The Boston Globe Ideas section this week:

BEIRUT — Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish weren’t interested in making legal history when they got engaged last year. She’s a Sunni Muslim and he is Shia, and like many interfaith couples in this part of the world who don’t want to convert, they planned to get married outside their home country. Then, at a photography workshop, Sukkarieh met a lawyer with a cause and an intriguing proposal: Would she and her fiancé be interested in using their wedding to do something radical?

Last November, they tied the knot before a willing notary, becoming the first couple in the history of Lebanon to marry in a nonreligious ceremony. In January they embarked on what promises to be a long, fraught challenge to the legal status quo, using an obscure provision of old colonial law to demand that the Lebanese government officially recognize their marriage.

What sounds like a simple thing in the West—a civil marriage with a judge or a notary presiding, and no religious contract—is a near-impossibility in the Middle East. Their marriage, and the controversy it has triggered here, shines a light on a crucial but unappreciated way in which this region differs from much of the rest of the world. Lebanon, like almost all the Arab states, most Islamic countries, and Israel, simply doesn’t have civil laws for matters of personal status.

In the Middle East the laws governing marriage, inheritance, and sometimes even citizenship move only when religious authorities allow, which means they’ve remained almost entirely static during the last century. They stifle identity and cause countless problems for families whose members might include different faiths or different nationalities; for couples that want to divorce; for women, who often have far fewer rights than men under religious codes; and for people who want to equitably share their inheritance with their daughters.

Kholoud and Nidal are part of a wider movement fighting for a shared vision of citizenship independent of religion and ethnicity; rule of law unencumbered by the interpretations and distortions of clerics. Activists for women’s equality, due process, anti-corruption, immigration reform, and all manner of human rights and legal causes have found themselves butting heads against clerical dominion, from Morocco to Iran and farther afield. Not all of them openly wish for a fully secular state (and even some who do are careful not to say so in public), but they make up a serious movement. As Islamists gain strength, so too will the backlash against them.

“Only a secular regime guarantees freedom, even freedom of religion,” says Lina Abou-Habib, who runs a Beirut-based NGO that pushes for women’s rights around the region. One of their many campaigns hopes to force Arab governments to allow women to pass citizenship to their children—a right currently reserved, in most places, for men alone. Abou-Habib says the hegemony of clerics has led to absurdity. She’s a Greek Orthodox Christian married to a Sunni Muslim; under the prevailing legal code, since she hasn’t converted, if she were to die now her daughter wouldn’t even be able to inherit her car.

For Sukkarieh and Darwish, getting their marriage registered with the state has become a consuming second career. So far the government has withheld legal recognition of their marriage contract, but courts have recognized it—which, in Lebanon’s complicated bureaucracy, is looking like a victory for the couple. And the larger argument appears just to be beginning. Lebanon’s president came out on Twitter in favor of civil marriage; the billionaire prime minister opposed it. At the end of January, the top Sunni cleric threatened to excommunicate anyone who supported civil marriage, but the richest and most powerful Sunni politician said he supported civil marriage and opposed the mufti.

Meanwhile, other couples say they intend to follow their lead as soon as the issue is resolved. A Lebanese journalist has tentatively scheduled a group civil wedding for more couples in April, assuming the pathbreaking marriage successfully wins formal recognition this month.

It’s been 70 years since some Lebanese started talking about civil marriage, and no couple has gotten as far as Sukkarieh and Darwish. At a time when the future of the Arab state is being vigorously contested by empowered citizens around the region, secular activists have been buoyed by the unexpected landmark in Lebanon. It’s premature to read too much into it; after all, Islamists are sweeping to power in elections all over, and it could take decades for their own internal schisms and inconsistencies to create openings for a strong secular alternative. But the civil marriage faction hopes to build that, one family at a time. “We didn’t expect it,” Sukkarieh said, “but we’ve rejuvenated civil society.”

The couple is expecting a baby in the fall. The justice minister said this month that there is no legal barrier to registering their marriage, but the interior minister hasn’t actually done so. At the glacial pace at which politics and bureaucracy move here, Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish could have a baby before they have a civil marriage legally recognized in Lebanon. And it’s quite likely that a baby born to the couple this year would be out of diapers and probably talking before the state has figured out what body of law to apply to the first civil, secular child of the first civil marriage.

Read all of The Middle East’s fight for civil marriage at The Boston Globe.