When it comes to Lebanese women, the problem is clear. They are unequal and unprotected under Lebanon’s religious personal status laws.
Regardless of the differences among the various religious legislations and courts, KAFA (the word for “enough” in Arabic), an organisation that seeks to eliminate all forms of exploitation and violence against women, unequivocally states that they all agree on:
insist[ing] on discriminating against women, in text and in practice, and on subjecting women to the authority of men, be they husbands, fathers or even uncles and grandfathers.
The solution is also clear. Echoing a consensus view among human rights activists in Lebanon, a Human Rights Watch report in 2015 recommended that “the Lebanese parliament should adopt an optional civil code that would ensure equal rights for all Lebanese who wish to marry under it”. As a KAFA report also put it, “It is unthinkable not to have a unified personal status law, one that is single, fair and that equates between partners”.
Fatima decided not to succumb to the laws governing her marriage and ended up in jail.* She would not hand over her three-year-old son, even though her husband won a court order granting him custody over the child.
It is worth noting that there is a difference between “guardianship” and “custody”, as KAFA’s report on personal status laws in Christian and Muslim courts explains:
For Muslims, custody means that the child is raised and cared for by the relevant custodian. As for guardianship, it means guardianship over life (the right to education, upbringing, learning, marriage or protection). It means as well guardianship over assets (taking care of a minor’s assets/preserving and keeping the same, it includes care and guardianship “Wisaya and Qaymouma”).
In this regard, a mother is never given guardianship. The child’s guardian is “the father, the grandfather from the father’s side or else the legal governor”.
As for custody, according to the laws governing their marriage (in a Shiite court), the mother is granted custody for up to “two years for males and 7 years for females”. Thus, in Fatima’s case, the father was granted custody of their three-year-old son. Custody proceedings can be filed “by either the father or the mother to claim the right of a child’s custody when the disagreement among the two reaches the point of separation.”
Further information emerged about the case, including the fact that her husband has allegedly not applied for a divorce, and has a second wife and a son from his second marriage.
The full details about Fatima’s case and the various legal questions that are raised are beyond the scope of this article. The important issue here is to draw attention, once again, to the fact that Fatima’s case is symptomatic of fundamental structural problems relating to the status of women in Lebanon; and in this case, especially as it relates to marriage laws and custody rights in the event of separation or divorce.
Maya El Ammar, Spokesperson for KAFA, said that "we should not forget to put a big part of the responsibility in Fatima's case on the judge who took the decision to arrest her. He is a civil, and not a religious judge, which shows that both a civil and religious judge can perpetuate injustice against women, and be accomplices when it comes to protecting male power".
El Ammar further added that "Fatima's case not only highlights the injustice in custody codes, but also relates to men's right to polygamy as stipulated by Muslim laws. Fatima did not accept her fate, and was punished because of that."
As Lebanon enters a new era with hopes of bringing about political and economic stability after the election of Michel Aoun as President and the nomination of Saad Hariri as Prime Minister, Fatima’s case is a reminder that a strong state goes hand in hand with the amelioration of women’s rights and an end to discriminatory laws and practices.
A strong state should respect its constitution that guarantees, in its preamble, the “equality of rights and duties among all citizens without discrimination”. A strong state must also take heed of the constitution’s provision for equality in Article 7 where “all Lebanese shall be equal before the law. They shall equally enjoy civil and political rights and shall equally be bound by public obligations and duties without any distinction.”
While the Constitution (Article 9) allows “each religious community... the right to determine their own familial matters”, Lebanon must also abide by United Nations covenants including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as mentioned in the preamble to the Constitution. The preamble further stipulates that governments “shall embody these principles in all fields and areas without exception”. In other words, Lebanon is bound to put the provisions of ratified conventions into practice - the applicable one in this case being the The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Much more needs to be done in the area of personal status laws, on account of which many women are victims of abuse, discrimination, and exploitation. Some cases make it to the news while many other stories remain untold. As her brother said, “today it is Fatima, but what happened with her can happen to anyone else as long as the laws are unjust.”
- Click here for the link to the facebook page of the campaign in support of Fatima organised by “Protecting Lebanese Women (PLW)”. A sit-in is scheduled at 16:00 Beirut time on Saturday November 5, 2016 calling for her release and the raising of the age of child custody.
- UPDATE: Fatima was released from prison on Monday November 7, 2016) - see video below.
* Fatima expressed her thanks to all those who supported her case. Her brother relayed her passionate message in which “she says that she will not surrender and she will continue her struggle until every mother gets her legitimate rights, until no child sleeps far from his/her mother’s lap. Today it is Fatima, but what happened with her can happen to anyone else as long as the laws are unjust... and I hope that you participate in tomorrow’s sit-in [i.e. today, November 5, 2016] so that our voice will be heard and so that every mother’s voice will be heard until we gain our rights.”