Lebanon's Religious Courts System Discriminates Against Women: HRW

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Published Monday, January 19, 2015

Lebanese laws and courts governing marriage and child custody "discriminate against women" from all religious groups, often trapping them in abusive unions, a Human Rights Watch report published Monday said.

The demographic distribution of the small Arab country is marked by majority Christian and Muslim communities of multiple denominations whose right to oversee their own religious courts is enshrined in the constitution.

"Lebanon has 15 separate personal status laws for its recognized religions but no civil code covering issues such as divorce, property rights or care of children," the New York-based group said.

"These laws are administered by autonomous religious courts with little or no government oversight, and often issue rulings that violate women's human rights," it added.

The 114-page report, titled "Unequal and Unprotected: Women's Rights Under Lebanon's Religious Personal Status Laws," interviews women from across Lebanon's sectarian spectrum and analyses hundreds of legal judgments.

It says Sunni and Shia Muslim women have limited access to divorce, while "men... have a unilateral, unlimited right to pronounce a divorce, with or without cause."

Neither Christian men nor women are allowed to divorce, but "there are instances that allow men more grounds" for divorce or annulment.

Druze women also have limited access to divorce, "while Druze men can obtain a divorce, with or without cause," said the report.

All Lebanese women suffer from a lack of protection from domestic violence, as well as financial vulnerability if they do divorce an abusive husband, the group said.

In 2014, Lebanon's parliament passed a landmark law on domestic violence.

While it marked a significant step forward for women, it defined domestic violence "narrowly, thus failing to provide adequate protection," said HRW.

In the event of conflict between the new domestic violence law and pre-existing personal status laws, the latter take precedence, the report added.

And women who decide to divorce still face serious financial consequences, as "Lebanese law does not recognize the legal concept of marital property."

After a marriage ends, "property reverts to the spouse in whose name it is registered (typically the husband), regardless of who has made contributions to it."

The issue of child custody is just as problematic, according to the report, violating the standards set by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"Human Rights Watch interviewed women who stayed in abusive marriages, gave up their monetary rights, and did not remarry to maintain primary care of their children in cases where judges did not consider the best interests of the child," the report said.

One woman, Mireille, was quoted by HRW as saying: "I forced myself to bear beyond what a human being can take, all the injustices and violence. My daughters, who are my soul and my life, were the main reason... I couldn't even bear the idea of losing them."

The watchdog called for fundamental changes to ensure equal rights for all Lebanese, regardless of gender or religion.

In 2014, domestic violence found itself regularly in Lebanese headlines, as the tragic stories of Roula Yacoub and Fatima al-Nashar have stirred public opinion in support of a draft law which would criminalize domestic violence.

KAFA, a civil society organization advocating for women and children's rights, says it receives more than 2,600 calls to its domestic abuse helpline each year. Analysis of media reports done by KAFA shows that 25 women were killed by family members between 2010 and 2013 and at least five women died as a result of family violence in Lebanon in 2014.

Activists had criticized the law’s shortcomings, saying that it falls short of providing full protection from abuse.

The current law fails to specify domestic abuse as a crime committed against women and doesn't go far enough on the issue of child custody.

An earlier draft of the law criminalized marital rape, but the provision was removed after it sparked a backlash from religious and political authorities.

“Serious changes regarding women's rights in Lebanon still need to be implemented but we have come a long way,” Leila Awada, one of Kafa’s co-founders told Al-Akhbar in June.

The HRW report comes after Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouq opposed the idea of civil marriage in Lebanon in a televised interview on Friday, stating that Cyprus is close enough for those seeking that option.

In 2013, 10 civil marriages were conducted on Lebanese soil. Though good news, the facts on the ground do not bode well. A civil marriage conducted inside Lebanon is still treated as a precedent by the Lebanese state, with marriage paperwork are always delayed by the Interior Ministry.

Secular activists have intensified efforts to push the government to adopt a law legalizing civil marriage — an issue that has divided the country’s political and religious figures — after Kholoud Succariyeh and Nidal Darwish signed a civil marriage contract in November 2013.

Succariyeh and Darwish waged a battle in 2013 to officially register their marriage in the Directorate General of Personal Status (DGPS) to ensure the “legitimacy” of their son Ghadi.

After their victory, the interior minister emerged declaring their marriage a precedent, but tried to impose conditions, arguing that “to protect their rights and their children’s rights, spouses should not leave their religious communities pending a personal status civil law because there is no nineteenth sect in Lebanon.”

The union was rejected by the interior ministry at the time.

The couple ‘married’ on the basis of resolution 60, issued by the French high commissioner in 1936, stating: "People who do not belong to a particular sect are subject to civil law in personal status issues."

In 2014, Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, the mufti of the Lebanese Republic, issued a fatwa condemning civil marriage. He wrote: “Any Muslim official, be they an MP or a minister, who supports the legalization of civil marriage, even if it is optional, is an apostate and outside the Islamic faith.”

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)


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