Rights Group Highlights Lebanon’s Pressing Need to Reform Sectarian Laws

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Lebanese citizens demanding the right to obtain a civil marriage hold a sit-in in downtown Beirut. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The problems arising from sectarian personal status laws have been growing in Lebanon. The verdicts issued by sectarian courts are unjust, which means that reforming the laws and passing a civil personal status law is now more urgent than ever — for those who still have hopes for this country.

Statistics from the Cypriot embassy show that, in 2011, more than 800 Lebanese couples tied the knot in Cyprus through civil marriage contracts. In the meantime, dozens of civil marriages in Lebanon are in limbo, pending the final decision of a minister who “does not encourage” civil marriages since “Cyprus is not that far,” as he said recently

When she was 22, Dina got married at the Jaafari Court and the couple later had a child. Following a dispute, however, Dina asked for a divorce but since her husband had to consent first, she could not divorce him unilaterally. Blackmail and threats followed.

Another woman, Nisrine, filed a complaint with the court documenting the physical injuries she incurred from her husband’s assaults. Her husband threatened to throw her off the balcony and claim she had committed suicide. The court is still refusing to grant her an annulment.

Michelle endured beatings for years to avoid losing custody of her children. When she petitioned the Evangelical Court for an annulment, her request was denied. The annulment is not granted unless it can be proven that the other party had attempted to kill the plaintiff.

Meanwhile, the judge refused to grant Nour (a Sunni Muslim) divorce because “the beating did not exceed a slap or two,” while the husband is entitled to force his wife to have sexual intercourse.

All this suffering takes place silently behind closed doors, while the bullies continue to talk loudly.

Five days ago, Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk declared that Cyprus was not very far for anyone wishing to enter into civil marriage. In other words, the interior minister issued a “fatwa” denying opportunities to those dreaming of a civil state that would protect them from the above-mentioned injustices.

The minister was following in the footsteps of Mufti Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, who told us exactly two years ago that those who agree to civil marriage, even if it was voluntary, are apostates. One “pundit” at a court even said, “Because of hormonal changes that come with menstruation, women cannot make the right choice, so how can we give them the right to divorce?”

People demanding civil marriage realize that they are facing one of the toughest battles against the Lebanese sectarian regime. The alliance of politicians, capitalists, and clergy that governs Lebanon knows well how to control “subjects” and how to prevent them from becoming “citizens.”

On Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report titled “Unequal and Unprotected: Women’s Rights Under Lebanon’s Religious Personal Status Laws.” HRW analyzed 447 recent legal judgments by religious courts adjudicating divorce, custody, and spousal and child support between 2009 and 2012.

These court rulings bring to light the multiple sectarian personal status laws in the country — there are 15 — while civil law is nearly completely absent in personal status matters. These laws may have different provisions, but they all “erect greater barriers for women than men who wish to terminate unhappy or abusive marriages, initiate divorce proceedings, ensure their rights concerning their children after divorce, or secure pecuniary rights from a former spouse,” according to the HRW report. The laws also “violate children’s rights, most significantly the need to consider their best interests in all judicial decisions concerning their welfare.”

The HRW report outlines four main problems, undermining women’s rights in particular, as a result of the laws in question, from the standpoints of: inequality in divorce rights; inappropriately equating the mother’s and father’s custody rights; economic marginalization; and lack of protection for women against domestic violence.

Of 150 rulings issued in divorce cases before Sunni and Jaafari courts, only three accepted the wife’s right to use a clause sanctioning her to initiate unilateral divorce when included in the marriage contract. However, none of the women interviewed by HRW had included this clause in their marriage contracts.

Of the 27 rulings issued by Sunni courts granting the father primary care of the children, the judges automatically adhered to the maternal custody age in 15 cases. In nine cases, the judges revoked maternal custody before the cut-off age due to the woman’s alternative religious affiliation, lack of “proper religious education” for children, “questionable” social behaviors, or remarriage, among other cited reasons.

The average value of maintenance awarded in 38 Sunni and Jafari lawsuits was LBP 300,000 ($200) a month. Judges justified this low sum by citing the collapsed economy and the low minimum wage.

In addition, judges ordered women in 23 out of 40 rulings, issued in cases of “obedience and cohabitation,” to return to the marital home or risk losing their financial rights. In 21 of these cases, judges ordered the wife to cohabit with her husband, even though she stated that she did not wish to continue the marriage.

The HRW report reviews a large number of rulings that show the discrimination in existing laws against women. However, it does not address the core issue that has to be constantly emphasized.

Indeed, when we speak about discrimination in personal status laws against women, we have to pay attention to two things:

First, discrimination is a culture that the Lebanese regime has promoted against women, Syrians, people living in poverty, workers, etc.

Second, discrimination against women is not because of gender, as much as it is because they are a weak and oppressed class.

The report does not stop at proposing only one solution, namely for Lebanon to adopt an optional civil status law, but also gives recommendations related to amending and reforming religious personal status laws and courts, and subjecting them to oversight to ensure they abide by Lebanon’s human rights obligations.

Indeed, passing a civil status law while keeping existing sectarian laws would not eliminate discrimination. If an optional civil status law is passed, what would happen to those seeking to marry in religious courts? Would we leave this segment vulnerable to unjust laws?

This is the crux of the matter. Religious laws must be reformed too, because the battle is not with religion per se, but with the regime’s exploitation of religion to oppress marginalized segments. The battle seeks to eliminate social oppression of disenfranchised segments, be they religious or non-religious.

Religious extremism is the product of injustice against socially marginalized segments, and personal status laws are one of the instruments of this oppression. Only social justice, equality, and more individual empowerment will eliminate this oppression.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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