"COURT IN THE MIDDLE" from Syria Today
COURT IN THE MIDDLE
Islamic laws applied in Syria too often do little or nothing to protect the rights of women. As Dalia Haidar reports, activists are now calling for widescale reforms.
One month after her wedding, Loubna al-Sharif was beaten by her husband several times. They had scarcely finished their honeymoon, Loubna said, and she could not understand what had led to her new husband’s sudden, harsh treatment.
A few months later, she became pregnant. She was still only 19 years old, and she wanted to keep the baby, but her husband forced her to have an abortion. He continued to beat and verbally abuse her until she finally fled to her parents’ house and filed for divorce.
But the process of divorcing her husband only prolonged Loubna’s agony.
“I became depressed by the judicial system here,” said Loubna, who is now 24 years old and works a translator for a private magazine. “It took me two and a half years to get a divorce and, in the process, my file was lost three times in the justice palace.”
But according to Loubna, her real problem wasn’t the delays, but a whole system of laws unfairly skewed in favour of men.
“Even the judge had a masculine mentality, and the lawyers were pushing me to solve it peacefully without asking for my rights,” said Loubna, who finally obtained her divorce in a Syrian court which operates under a code of so-called ‘personal status laws’ which are mainly derived from Islamic law. “They kept repeating sayings of the prophet in order to convince me to end my case.”
According to Da’ad Mousa, a prominent Damascus lawyer and women’s rights advocate, Syrian women enjoy many privileges in the public sphere that their counterparts in other parts of the Arab world are denied. They have relatively high rates of employment, political involvement and access to higher education. Fifteen percent of Syria’s lawyers are female, and in Syria’s parliament, 12% of the seats are held by women.
And yet, said Mousa, Syrian women continue to face discrimination in the personal sphere, particularly when it comes to issues of marriage and divorce.
“Women in Syria suffer from discrimination in their private lives, and it is not just related to tradition; it is also a legal discrimination,” said Mousa. A whole host of laws related to family life and women’s status should be completely rewritten, she suggested.
In Syria, there is no one court that specialises in family law. Rather, family issues are handled in three separate courts, for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, according to a range of personal status laws.
For Muslims, marriage, divorce and child custody issues are managed in the Islamic courts, located in each of Syria’s major cities. There are separate courts, known as the Spiritual Court, for both Jews and Christians, functioning, in the case of the Christians, according to the rules of each Christian sect. The Jewish courts are rarely used, although they have not been closed down.
All the courts function according to Syria’s code of personal status laws, which deal with issues related to inheritance and child custody. The personal status laws were first issued in 1953 and reformed by the People’s Assembly in 1975 and in 2003.
The latest reforms allowed divorced mothers four years extra custody over their children, up to the age of 15 for girls and 13 for boys, before the right to custody passes to the father. At 18 years old the child is deemed to be an adult and can choose to live wherever he or she pleases.
Lawyers and human rights activists say the laws are still badly in need of reform.
“The family law, which is called the personal status law, should be reviewed from the first article to the last one,” said Da'ad Mousa.
According to Syria’s personal status laws, for example, Syrian women do not have the right to pass along Syrian nationality to their children. Interfaith marriages and civil marriages are banned in Syria; even if a Syrian couple has a civil wedding abroad, their marriage will be considered illegal when they return home.
Syrian law is particularly harsh to women when it comes to divorce, say women who have been through divorce in Syrian courts. Men, according to the law, can divorce their wives directly and quickly, without a legal case, simply by telling the wife, “You are divorced,” three times.
On the other hand, women who want to divorce their husbands must navigate a multitude of legal hurdles, even though Islam theoretically gives women the right to divorce their husbands in the event of domestic violence or if the husband has a sexual problem. Women must file for separation, which generally takes about two years in Syria’s Islamic courts. If she wins the separation case, she is free to marry again.
According to Mohammed Ismaiel, a Damascus lawyer, Islam is the force that protected women’s rights to property, employment and education after generations of slavery and unfairness. The problem, he said, lies not with the laws themselves but in their implementation.
“The law is good, but the process of implementing it is really wrong,” Ismaiel said. “Prolonging the case is the main problem. We need to increase the numbers of Islamic courts and judges, and shorten the period between the trials,” he added.
Activists are currently working to change many aspects of Syria’s personal status laws. For example, an article in the personal status law gives men alone the right to pass along Syrian citizenship to their children. This poses problems for Syrian women who have short-lived marriages to foreigners; many young mothers find themselves abandoned by their foreign husbands, raising children in Syria who are not recognized by their fathers and who are denied Syrian nationality.
Not all of the legal issues that arise in families are handled in Syria’s separate religious courts. Some types of familial financial disagreements are handled in Syria’s civil courts, and issues of physical and sexual abuse in families, as well as the so-called ‘honour crimes,’ are handled in Syria’s criminal courts, the laws of which date from the French mandate era of the early 1920s.
Honour crimes typically occur when a man suspects a female relative of an illicit sexual affair, and then kills her, believing that doing so will restore his family’s ‘honour.’ Syrian lawyers and activists say that honour crimes are among the most common issues discussed in Syria’s criminal courts, and that men involved in such cases often go unpunished.
According to Da’ad Mousa, the lawyer, Syrian law actually takes into account the fact that such men would consider their female relatives’ actions a reflection on their ‘honour,’ and become incensed at the mere suspicion of an infraction. Though such cases are greatly underreported, Mousa said, more than 100 cases of honor killings were reported in Syrian newspapers between 2000 and 2003.
A group of Syrian women’s rights activists have recently launched a campaign called ‘Stop the Honour Killing,’ lobbying Syria’s parliament and Ministry of Justice to change the articles in the criminal law code (namely nos. 242, 241, 240, 239, and 548) which make it easier for men to escape punishment in the event of an honour killing. In September, a young Druze bride was killed by her brother because she had married outside her religion. Her death triggered a public outcry.
The organisers of the campaign have already collected 7,700 signatures in an online petition, and plan to send the petition to the president of Syria and the parliament, requesting changes to these articles.
Meanwhile, changes to these articles are being actively discussed in government.
“We are asking for changes to some articles in the personal status law because we feel that the current situation demands it,” said Mohammad Habash, an Islamist parliamentarian and head of the Islamic Studies Centre in Damascus. “I have personally asked for the removal of the articles in the criminal law code that permits honour killing because it directly contradicts Islam.”
Another group of women’s rights activists, the Etana Press, recently hosted a conference on the intersection of law and tradition in Syria and their effect on women’s rights. According to the conference’s organisers, their aim was to improve Syrian women’s legal status by creating dialogue between the Syrian government and local NGOs.
“This conference is trying to open a dialogue between the government and the activists, in addition to connecting between the people and the different organisations in Syria,” said Ma'an Abdelsalam, a human rights activist and the director of Etana press.
The conference, which was attended by delegations of women from all over the Middle East and Europeended by creating a list of sixteen recommendations to be presented to the Syrian government. The recommendations urged the government to review the articles of the criminal law code which make it easier for honour killings to take place, to reform the personal status law so that all Syrians are treated equally, regardless of religion or sect, to create a special civil family court for the resolution of legal issues related to the family, and to encourage religious figures to support the principle of equality between men and women.
For Loubna al Sahrif, though her experience of the Islamic law that drives the workings of Syria’s family courts was a painful one, she argues that it is the understanding of Islam that needs reform, rather than the faith itself.
“Even though for a long time time I felt like a social outcast, I am happy I did not give up and that I pursued my rights. We need to understand the way we understand and practise Islamic law.”
Courts dealing in family issues in Syria
The Islamic Court: Rules on personal issues, such as marriage, divorce and child custody, for all Syrian Muslims. The court works from the ‘personal status law’ which was issued in 1953 and was reformed by the People’s Assembly after a presidential decree in 1975 and 2003. This law is based on Islamic, or sharia’a law.
Spiritual Courts: For both Christians and Jewish from all sects.
The Christian court functions according to the particular laws of each Christian sect with regards to marriage divorce and personal issues. The court follows the ‘personal status law’ in solving other issues like inheritance and child custody.
Confessional Court: A court for the Druze, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, which functions according to Druze law.
Panel Court: Works from the criminal law that was issued on June 22, 1949, three years after Syria’s independence from France, and specialises in family crimes issues such as aggressiveness, family planning, abortion, rape, sexual abuse and so-called ‘honour crimes.’
Civil Court: Specialised in financial and estate disagreement between families and functions according to the Syrian civil law which was issued on May 18, 1949.