Palestinian lawyer fights for women, one divorce at a time
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