Women’s rights: (Un)hap­pily ever af­ter

Le­banon’s patch­work of per­sonal sta­tus laws is fail­ing women

Executive Magazine - - Contents - NADIM HOURY is deputy MENA direc­tor at Hu­man Rights Watch. He is also the direc­tor of the Beirut of­fice.

All cou­ples hope their mar­riages will work out and they will live hap­pily ever af­ter. But the truth is that many re­la­tion­ships end in di­vorce and Le­banese cou­ples are no ex­cep­tion. Ac­cord­ing to a 2012 study by the Le­banese Cen­tral Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Statis­tics, there were al­most 6,000 di­vorces in 2010. The is­sue for th­ese cou­ples and for so­ci­ety at large is how to en­sure a fair sep­a­ra­tion that guar­an­tees the rights of each spouse and protects their chil­dren.

On that front, Le­banon is fail­ing mis­er­ably to en­sure fair treat­ment of women. It is widely known that Le­banon does not have a civil code reg­u­lat­ing per­sonal sta­tus mat­ters. In­stead, there are 15 sep­a­rate per­sonal sta­tus laws for the dif­fer­ent rec­og­nized re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties, which are ad­min­is­tered by sep­a­rate re­li­gious courts. Hu­man Rights Watch (HRW) re­cently re­viewed 447 legal judg­ments is­sued by th­ese re­li­gious courts to ex­am­ine how they han­dle di­vorce, child cus­tody and fi­nan­cial is­sues em­a­nat­ing from sep­a­ra­tions or di­vorce. The cases, dat­ing from 2009–2012, were se­lected at ran­dom.

The find­ings were trou­bling. Le­banon’s reli­gion-based laws dis­crim­i­nate against women across the re­li­gious spec­trum. Women had lesser rights than men to ask for di­vorce. Un­der Le­banon’s Shia, Sunni and Druze laws, men can de­mand a di­vorce at any time — uni­lat­er­ally, and with­out cause — while a woman’s abil­ity to ac­cess di­vorce is limited, and of­ten at great cost and af­ter lengthy court pro­ceed­ings. In prin­ci­ple, Is­lamic laws al­low women to have an ex­plicit clause in­serted into the mar­riage con­tract stat­ing that the wife can also have an equal right to uni­lat­eral di­vorce, but this right is rarely ex­er­cised due to so­cial cus­toms. Only 3 of the 150 di­vorce judg­ments be­fore Is­lamic courts that HRW re­viewed in­cluded such clauses. While di­vorce is dif­fi­cult for both men and women un­der Chris­tian laws, Chris­tian men find it eas­ier to cir­cum­vent th­ese re­stric­tions, in­clud­ing by con­vert­ing to Is­lam and re­mar­ry­ing with­out di­vorc­ing.

As a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, many women who spoke to HRW said th­ese re­stric­tions meant that they were forced to stay in abu­sive mar­riages — at great risk to them­selves and their chil­dren, and that in some cases they had to give up their fi­nan­cial or cus­tody rights in ex­change for a di­vorce. Some women even had to pay their hus­bands to seek the di­vorce.

Women also face dis­crim­i­na­tion in re­la­tion to dis­tri­bu­tion of mar­i­tal prop­erty af­ter a mar­riage ends. Le­banese law does not rec­og­nize noneco­nomic con­tri­bu­tions to a mar­riage or the con­cept of mar­i­tal prop­erty, so af­ter a sep­a­ra­tion prop­erty re­verts to the spouse in whose name it is reg­is­tered — typ­i­cally the hus­band — re­gard­less of who has con­trib­uted to it or what role a wife may have played in sup­port­ing her hus­band through­out their mar­riage.

In ad­di­tion, even though the Druze and Chris­tian con­fes­sions re­quire the spouse re­spon­si­ble for the ter­mi­na­tion of the mar­riage to com­pen­sate the other, in prac­tice th­ese amounts are usu­ally not enough to al­low women to sup­port them­selves. In Le­banon’s Is­lamic courts, af­ter a di­vorce, a woman is left with only the de­ferred mahr (dowry) stip­u­lated in the mar­riage con­tract, but this is of­ten just a sym­bolic fig­ure such as one lira or one gold coin.

Dis­crim­i­na­tion also extends to one of the most dif­fi­cult as­pects of any sep­a­ra­tion: child cus­tody. The HRW re­view of court cases found that in many cases, judges re­moved chil­dren from their moth­ers, but not their fa­thers, on grounds of fit­ness due to ‘ques­tion­able’ so­cial be­hav­iors be­cause of the mother’s sup­posed re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion, or be­cause she re­mar­ried in­stead of mak­ing th­ese de­ci­sions based on the best in­ter­est of the child.

The fear of los­ing their chil­dren was so great that some women HRW in­ter­viewed stayed in abu­sive mar­riages, gave up their mon­e­tary rights, or did not re­marry so they could keep cus­tody. “I forced my­self to bear be­yond what a hu­man be­ing can take, all the in­jus­tices and vi­o­lence,” said a Ma­ronite woman who en­dured years of phys­i­cal abuse but only sought a di­vorce af­ter her chil­dren be­came adults be­cause she feared los­ing them.

The cur­rent sys­tem is not only un­fair. It is bro­ken. Some cou­ples are con­vert­ing to dif­fer­ent con­fes­sions to be able to get mar­ried while oth­ers are con­vert­ing to get a di­vorce. And many cou­ples are sim­ply vot­ing with their feet, get­ting on a plane to get a civil mar­riage abroad. End­ing a mar­riage or de­ter­min­ing who a child should live with af­ter a di­vorce are dif­fi­cult enough de­ci­sions. The least Le­banon can do is en­sure that the laws are fair. It is time for the coun­try to adopt an op­tional civil code that would en­sure equal rights for all Le­banese who wish to marry un­der it. But it is also time to get the Le­banese state to ex­er­cise over­sight over re­li­gious courts. Not all mar­riages last, but at least we should have laws that help to give them a happy end­ing.

Le­banon is fail­ing mis­er­ably to en­sure fair treat­ment of women

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