In death and life, woman shows re­li­gious law fight

Arab Times - - FRONT PAGE -

BEIRUT, Dec 2, (AP): Na­dyn Jouny’s sis­ter taped up two mes­sages in her mem­ory in­side a closet at the fam­ily home – one of moth­erly love tinged with pain, an­other of de­fi­ance.

The first Jouny wrote to her 9-year-old son on the one day a week she was al­lowed to see him un­der a cus­tody rul­ing by a Shi­ite re­li­gious court. “Peace be upon the holy nights when you fall asleep near me,” she wrote. “Peace be upon the trace of love painted on your face and fea­tures ... This is my night.”

That night, Oct 4, would be her last with her son. Two days later, Jouny was killed in a car ac­ci­dent at age 29.

The sec­ond mes­sage, writ­ten by a rel­a­tive, has a photo of a smil­ing Jouny with her son’s arms wrapped around her neck. “They think your voice has dis­ap­peared. Na­dyn, we are your voice; get some rest ... we will fight for you,” it de­clares.

In death as in life, Jouny – af­fec­tion­ately called Om Karam, Ara­bic for “mother of Karam” – has show­cased the strug­gles of Le­banese women who are bat­tling laws that give re­li­gious courts say over many as­pects of their lives.

Le­banon al­lows its many re­li­gious sects to gov­ern per­sonal sta­tus is­sues in their com­mu­ni­ties, re­sult­ing in 15 dif­fer­ent sets of laws over such things as rules for mar­riage, di­vorce and cus­tody and visi­ta­tion of chil­dren. In cases of di­vorce for Shi­ite Mus­lims like Jouny, the Shi­ite re­li­gious courts usu­ally grant cus­tody of chil­dren to the fa­thers at age two for sons and age seven for daugh­ters. Jouny waged a cam­paign – on­line and in street protests – against the laws ever since she lost cus­tody of her son and was given visi­ta­tion rights of only 24 hours a week.

Sup­port­ers of the system say it re­flects the coun­try’s plu­ral­ity of faiths. Crit­ics say it dis­crim­i­nates against women of all faiths and means women are treated dif­fer­ently based on their sect. For ex­am­ple, di­vorced Sunni moth­ers can keep sons and daugh­ters un­til age 12.

“Women have re­ally borne the brunt of the sec­tar­ian system of gov­er­nance and we see that in the per­sonal sta­tus laws,” said Lama Fakih, Hu­man Rights Watch Beirut of­fice di­rec­tor. “These are egre­gious abuses that are re­sult­ing in vi­o­lence against women, that are re­sult­ing in out­comes where chil­dren are not be­ing taken care of by the par­ent that is most suited to take care of the child, where fam­i­lies are re­ally not well served.”

Mul­ti­ple solutions and de­mands have been put for­ward: re­form or over­sight of the re­li­gious courts, an op­tion of a civil system for those who don’t want to use re­li­gious courts, or a uni­fied civil per­sonal sta­tus law for all.

Protests con­vuls­ing Le­banon for more than a month have given a new plat­form for those de­mand­ing change. The protests erupted over pro­posed new taxes and es­ca­lated into calls for the re­moval of Le­banon’s en­tire po­lit­i­cal elite and its sec­tar­ian power-shar­ing system.

Zoya Rouhana of the fem­i­nist or­ga­ni­za­tion KAFA said the myr­iad of per­sonal sta­tus laws is in­ter­twined with sec­tar­ian pol­i­tics.

“Un­for­tu­nately, this re­nais­sance that we’ve wit­nessed and seen on the streets lately through the lead­er­ship of women ... is not re­flected in the laws,” she told a small group who had gath­ered to dis­cuss a KAFA-pro­posed draft for a civil per­sonal sta­tus law.

Jouny died just be­fore the cur­rent protests. But her face or name have at times ap­peared on pro­test­ers’ signs and ban­ners. “The beau­ti­ful rev­o­lu­tion­ary... Your soul is present here with us,” read one. At a memo­rial mark­ing 40 days since her death, can­dles spell­ing out her name in Ara­bic lit up a main Beirut protest square. “We can­not de­lay is­sues of women’s rights ... Death does not wait,” read a pin on her sis­ter Nada’s chest.

Ba­dia Fahs, a 49-year-old who has turned out for the cur­rent round of protests, first met Jouny at a protest years ago. She re­mem­bers a young woman, her hair down, wear­ing – Fahs thought dis­ap­prov­ingly – too much red lip­stick. Jouny was chant­ing, “Cor­rup­tion, cor­rup­tion, it’s un­der­neath the tur­bans,” a con­tro­ver­sial slo­gan she be­came known for, re­fer­ring to al­le­ga­tions against some re­li­gious judges.

Fahs, who cov­ers her hair with a scarf, said she was so amazed she broke into tears. “What a way to shat­ter taboos. I couldn’t be­lieve it,” she said. “Even our men can­not talk like that.”

“I would look at her and think here’s this young girl who feels like she can change the world and she is not afraid – not of a sect or of cler­ics ... What am I lack­ing?” Fahs said.

Lawyer Fa­dia Hamzeh said she of­ten hears crit­i­cism from her Shi­ite com­mu­nity that she is scan­dal­iz­ing them. She founded a Face­book page called “Revo­lu­tion of a Shi­ite woman” to ed­u­cate women about their rights in the Shi­ite courts, share their sto­ries and let them know that “if you don’t rebel, you won’t get your rights.”

“We opened the door. Most fam­i­lies are suf­fer­ing from tragedies. I didn’t cre­ate this,” she said. “We must of­fer an ex­am­ple for other sects be­cause just like we have in­jus­tices in re­li­gious courts, other sects do too.”

Hamzeh was in­spired by the or­deal of her sis­ter, who made news in 2016 when she was ar­rested and held for a few days over her re­fusal to turn over her son to his fa­ther. Jouny, she said, was one of the peo­ple who helped her sis­ter’s case be­come public and led chants in a march to the po­lice station where she was taken.

“Where are we headed when our moth­ers die feel­ing op­pressed and when we are depriv­ing our chil­dren of their moth­ers when they’re still alive?” she said.

Sheikh Moussa al-Sam­moury, a judge who sits on one of the Shi­ite courts, said, “Re­li­gious mat­ters are not sub­ject to street pres­sure. The is­sue has to do with God’s sat­is­fac­tion; God wants this or doesn’t want this,” adding, “The judge is not act­ing on a whim or on what he wants.”

But, he said, he and his fel­low judges have room to con­sider the chil­dren’s best in­ter­est on a case-by-case ba­sis. “If he’s a bad fa­ther and is not to be trusted, we don’t award him cus­tody,” he said.

Ah­mad Taleb, a Shi­ite cleric, said the so­lu­tion is to re­form the rules of re­li­gious courts, not­ing that there is more than one opin­ion on the cus­tody is­sue in Shi­ite ju­rispru­dence. He sup­ports rais­ing the ma­ter­nal cus­tody age to at least seven while al­low­ing judges to leave the kids with the mother longer when it’s in their best in­ter­est.

“Re­li­gion in its essence is mercy, not plas­tic texts,” he said. “Peo­ple who are re­li­giously de­vout, and I am one of them, de­mand change.” He said fail­ing to pro­vide solutions within the re­li­gious con­text could drive peo­ple to look else­where. “To­day in Le­banon, there are com­plaints about re­li­gious courts of all sects, Mus­lim and Christian.”

Zeina Ibrahim, who founded a cam­paign to raise the age of ma­ter­nal cus­tody, said she sup­ports the idea of a uni­fied civil law for per­sonal sta­tus but be­lieves it is a “far dream.” A more at­tain­able goal, she said, is to raise the age to seven for boys and nine for girls.

She re­mem­bered Jouny, with whom she worked for years, as “ex­tremely en­thu­si­as­tic” and ex­tremely “hurt.”

In many of her pho­tos, Jouny flashes a wide, seem­ingly care­free smile that be­lies the an­guish her fam­ily says she kept pri­vate. “She would tell me, ‘Mama, I’m burn­ing from the in­side. My son is get­ting older and I know noth­ing about him,’” her mother Ma­jida said.

Mar­ried be­fore she turned 19, Jouny’s re­la­tions with her hus­band and in-laws soured early on. There was vi­o­lence. Her sisters said they saw bruises. One day af­ter a fight with her hus­band, she tried to leave only to have her hus­band and his mother yank Karam away, her fam­ily said. Her ac­tivism on the cus­tody is­sue was born.

“She con­sid­ered her cause one for all women,” her fa­ther said. Her fam­ily said she ad­vo­cated for many causes, in­clud­ing help­ing street chil­dren and refugees and cam­paign­ing against sex­ual ha­rass­ment and the mar­riage of mi­nors.

In the Beirut square where Jouny’s fam­ily and friends gath­ered to com­mem­o­rate her death, Zainab Kawtha­rani, 25, lit a can­dle. “Your cause is safe with us. We will con­tinue till the end,” she said she wanted to tell Jouny.

She then clutched a sign: “Your voice has been and will con­tinue to be a revo­lu­tion, Na­dyn.”

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