Pales­tinian lawyer fights for women, one di­vorce at a time

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In a di­vorce court where a man’s tes­ti­mony is worth twice a woman’s, vic­tory for lawyer Reema Shamas­neh is rare and of­ten bit­ter­sweet. On this morn­ing, a young nurse is des­per­ate to end her mar­riage to a truck driver who she says beat her, doused her with scald­ing tea and kept her from see­ing her dy­ing mother. But her hus­band will only agree if she for­goes all al­imony, in­clud­ing the $14,000 stip­u­lated in the mar­riage con­tract.

Ea­ger to es­cape and claim her young son, she says yes. The man stands be­fore a copy of the Holy Qu­ran and re­peats af­ter an Is­lamic judge: “You are di­vorced.” Shamas­neh blinks back tears of relief and frus­tra­tion, and then quickly com­poses her­self. “This is not a big vic­tory,” the 39-year-old lawyer says with an air of quiet de­ter­mi­na­tion. “I gave her what she wanted, but at the same time I am not happy be­cause she gave up her rights.” Dressed in the head­scarf and long robe of a de­vout Mus­lim, Shamas­neh fights for Arab women in the most in­ti­mate arena of their lives: Mar­riage and di­vorce. While coun­tries such as Tu­nisia and Morocco have in­tro­duced re­forms, brides in oth­ers must still be rep­re­sented by male guardians who sign mar­riage con­tracts. Men can di­vorce on a whim, while women must prove cause. And polygamy is le­gal only for men.

Such no­tions en­joy strong sup­port, even among women. In a 2013 poll by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, large ma­jori­ties in seven Arab coun­tries said a woman should obey her hus­band, from 74 per­cent in Le­banon to 87 per­cent in the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries and 93 per­cent in Tu­nisia. “We can­not copy the Western laws be­cause the Western so­ci­eties are dif­fer­ent and they have very com­pli­cated prob­lems,” says Maryam Saleh, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ist group Ha­mas in the now-de­funct Pales­tinian par­lia­ment.

But Shamas­neh be­lieves the laws are the way they are be­cause they were passed by men. “They were raised in a cer­tain cul­ture that says men are bet­ter than women, and this is re­flected in the laws,” she says. As a girl in the farm­ing vil­lage of Qatana, Shamas­neh would see women get the left­overs at wedding feasts, af­ter the men. And while her four broth­ers could come and go, she and her five sis­ters had to ac­count for their lim­ited move­ments. “Un­til now, there is dis­crim­i­na­tion, even with sim­ple things,” she says. “This makes me an­gry.”

How­ever, her fa­ther Mo­hammed, a re­tired con­trac­tor, wanted all his chil­dren, in­clud­ing the girls, to get an ed­u­ca­tion. Shamas­neh chose law, a pro­fes­sion that turned out to be a good fit for her prag­matic, an­a­lyt­i­cal na­ture. Her 74-year-old mother Am­neh, sit­ting across from Shamas­neh, says she is proud of her daugh­ter’s suc­cess. But her mother was against her stud­ies, Shamas­neh in­ter­jects. “At the time, it was shame­ful for a woman to study and have a job,” Am­neh says apolo­get­i­cally.

Am­neh her­self was mar­ried off at age 13, with­out her con­sent, and had her first child at 15. Four of Shamas­neh’s sis­ters mar­ried in their 20s. A fifth was forced into an ar­ranged match at 16 and en­dured a pro­longed di­vorce two years later. Shamas­neh was a child at the time. She says the bit­ter ex­pe­ri­ence, in­clud­ing the lack of em­pa­thy dis­played by her sis­ter’s male lawyer, fu­eled her in­ter­est in law.

As a sin­gle woman, Shamas­neh’s only so­cially ac­cept­able op­tion is to con­tinue liv­ing with her par­ents. She says she would move out if she wanted to, but she likes spend­ing time with her par­ents. In her child­hood bed­room, law books are lined up on a shelf above her dresser. She is fiercely pro­tec­tive of her rel­a­tive in­de­pen­dence. For her, this means not get­ting mar­ried. “I can take care of my­self,” Shamas­neh says. “I am a strong woman. I hate tra­di­tional mar­riage.”

On a typ­i­cal day, Shamas­neh ar­rives be­fore 9 am at the Is­lamic court­house in Ra­mal­lah. One re­cent morn­ing, she meets a 25-year-old client, a thin, pale woman in a frayed green robe who says she wants a di­vorce from her abu­sive hus­band. Her fa­ther is also there to tes­tify on her be­half, but her brother didn’t turn up be­cause he was sick. Shamas­neh sternly cau­tions her client that this may hurt her case, be­cause the court usu­ally re­quires two male wit­nesses or a man and two women. In a small vic­tory, the judge rules later that day that the case can move for­ward.

The grow­ing pres­ence of fe­male lawyers like Shamas­neh has helped cre­ate more em­pa­thy for women go­ing through di­vorce. When Shamas­neh be­gan prac­tic­ing 15 years ago, fe­male lawyers were rare. Now women oc­ca­sion­ally out­num­ber men in the court­house. There’s even a fe­male judge. Kholoud Al-Faqeeh de­fends the law in prin­ci­ple, say­ing that it re­flects dif­fer­ent gen­der roles, and that women some­times fail to ex­haust their le­gal rights.

Still, the judge oc­ca­sion­ally reins in men ap­pear­ing be­fore her. When a wit­ness in a cus­tody hear­ing por­trays a sis­ter-in-law as an un­fit mother be­cause she holds down two jobs, the judge, a mother of four, snaps: “Pales­tinian women work. Do you want us all to give up our chil­dren?” On an­other day, Shamas­neh chal­lenges a male col­league’s claim that Is­lamic law gives the same rights to men and women seek­ing di­vorce. She re­fuses to give in. When he ap­pears to run out of ar­gu­ments, he re­sorts to “It’s in the Qu­ran.” Mah­moud Hab­bash, the head of the Is­lamic courts in the West Bank, warns that the views ad­vo­cated by Shamas­neh and other ac­tivists could lead to the col­lapse of so­ci­ety. He ar­gues that men and women are dif­fer­ent by na­ture and re­quire dif­fer­ent rules. “The prob­lem is that in the West, you don’t un­der­stand how we treat women,” Hab­bash says. “We treat them like queens.”

Only one-third of Pales­tini­ans sup­port a wife’s right to di­vorce at all, ac­cord­ing to the Pew sur­vey. Across the re­gion, sup­port for di­vorce rights for women is even lower in Jor­dan, Egypt and Iraq, but is backed by a ma­jor­ity in Le­banon, Morocco and Tu­nisia. Some coun­tries al­low “khula” di­vorce, where a wife pays the hus­band com­pen­sa­tion to get out of a mar­riage.

With so much op­po­si­tion, Shamas­neh knows that a long road lies ahead. Progress on le­gal re­form has stalled, be­cause the Pales­tinian self-rule govern­ment has lim­ited author­ity in the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied West Bank. At home, her vil­lage re­mains deeply con­ser­va­tive. The lo­cal mosque preacher, Ya­coub Al-Faqeeh, says that while he re­spects Shamas­neh, he sharply dis­agrees with de­mands for equal mar­riage and di­vorce rights. “If women are free in di­vorce, they will di­vorce ev­ery day be­cause they are emo­tional, while men are ra­tio­nal,” he says.

Shamas­neh could em­i­grate and join two broth­ers in Dou­glasville, Ge­orgia. She has vis­ited the area seven times, trav­el­ing with­out a male chap­er­one. “Peo­ple talk, but I don’t care,” she says. Yet life in the West holds no al­lure. Ev­ery­thing is too easy, she says. The strug­gle for women in her com­mu­nity gives her life mean­ing, and she couldn’t imag­ine do­ing any­thing else. “Peo­ple in the vil­lage are re­sist­ing change,” she says. “There­fore, I in­vest my en­er­gies in the court.” —AP

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