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When Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire – before it was even a country – its religious groups were allowed to oversee the equivalent of family law. French colonizers upheld this system, and today Lebanon has 15 different codes – for Sunni, Shia, Druze, Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical groups and others – governing divorce, child custody, and the financial rights of spouses during and after marriage. Each group is treated differently, but members of one group in particular – women – suffer discrimination across all religious groups. A team of researchers including the Human Rights Watch Lebanon and Syria researcher Lama Fakih spent three years poring over 450 legal cases and interviewing 70 people to examine the discriminatory nature of these personal status laws, and the courts that implement them, for a new report, Unequal and Unprotected. Fakih speaks with Amy Braunschweiger about what, in practice, this system means for Lebanon’s women.

Lebanese women seem to enjoy a certain degree of freedom, but this report shows that when it comes to personal status laws, that’s not the case. Do you think the information you’ve gathered will surprise people in Lebanon?

Many of the women we interviewed hadn’t realized the system was stacked against them until they sought a divorce.

In Lebanon, there are many ways for men to get a divorce, but few ways for women.  Children can be removed from their mothers, even if the change isn’t in the children’s best interest. And when it comes to finances, there is no such thing as “marital property.” If a house is in a husband’s name – which is typical – it belongs to the man, even if a woman contributes financially or supports her husband at home and raises their kids while he works. These laws often force women into unfair compromises. Women often have to give up custody of their children and any financial rights to obtain a divorce.

Researching this report was a challenge, as religious personal status court documents aren’t part of the public record. For the Sunni and Shia courts, judges agreed to give us documents. However, the Christian court judges wouldn’t help us, so we relied on lawyers practicing before Christian courts for their case files. Sifting through this mound of information was time intensive, but it’s important. This pressing issue affects everyone in Lebanon and hurts women who are rich, poor, Muslim, Druze, or Christian.

What religious groups are covered under the personal status laws?

There are laws for Muslim rites including Sunni and Shia Islam – the two largest groups – one for Druze, another for Jewish people, and the rest apply to various Christian confessions. There is no domestic code for people who want a marriage not governed by religious law – Lebanon has no civil personal status law under which men and women are treated equally.

I’m Lebanese and my civil registry identifies me as Shia. If I wanted to get married, there is no Lebanese law that would allow me to do so and protect my basic rights.

How hard is it to get a divorce in Lebanon?

That depends. Sunni, Shia, and Druze men can divorce their wives at will. Sunni and Shia men can even do this outside of a courtroom, sometimes in the absence and without the knowledge of their wife. They only need to pronounce the divorce – so literally just say “I divorce you” out loud – and it’s done, as far as the religious laws are concerned. It doesn’t need to be in front of an official. In one case we reviewed, a woman went to court to divorce her husband only to discover that he had already divorced her!

But if Muslim or Druze women want to divorce, that’s another story. There are limited ways they can go about it. Sunni and Druze women can petition a court for a severance, which will terminate the marriage, but the grounds are limited --  a prolonged absence – say he’s in prison or traveling for years, sexual impotence, or if the husband isn’t financially supporting his family. Women can also obtain a severance if they prove “hardship and discord,” but this can take a great deal of time. For Shia women, it’s even more difficult to divorce because they have to rely on a process called sovereign divorce, which can take years.

Sunni, Shia, and Druze women can also get divorced if they agree to give up all rights to any finances and if their husbands agree to a divorce, a process called khul'. Also, the right to divorce can be written into a marriage contact, called the Isma, but few women do this.

One lawyer described a case in which a woman was trying to divorce her husband through a severance petition because he was sexually abusing their child. It was a problem for the judge, as sexual abuse of a child wasn’t considered grounds for severance. In the end, the woman had to establish marital hardship and discord for a specific period. It was more than a year before she could obtain the severance and protect herself and her child.

Roughly 40 percent of Lebanon’s citizens are Christian. Is it easier for them to divorce than Muslims?

No, it’s harder, for both men and women, although women are still particularly disadvantaged. In Lebanon, polygamy is legal for Muslim men. Christian men who can’t divorce will sometimes convert to Islam and then remarry and have two wives. But the first wife can’t remarry. Additionally, her rights and the rights of their children, such as to inheritance, are diminished by the rights of the second wife.

Also for Christian confessions, domestic violence is not sufficient grounds for a speedy divorce, unless it’s life-threatening.

In April, Lebanon passed a domestic violence law, a key advancement. But the new law states that religious law trumps it when the two conflict. So it’s not clear if the inherent issues have changed.

How do these divorce laws affect women’s lives?

Mireille is a Maronite Catholic. She worked throughout her marriage. Her husband was abusive, but when she sought the advice of her religious adviser, a local bishop, he told her to stay in the marital home, as otherwise she would risk being found recalcitrant —a concept that religious courts apply to women who refuse to live with their husbands—and could lose custody of her two girls. It wasn’t until her daughters were older – both are now professionals – that she left her husband. But even then, she had to give up everything. After 25 years of marriage and work, she told us, she and her daughters left with the clothes on their backs. She “sold her life,” she told us.

Her story isn’t unique.

What do the laws concerning children after divorce look like?

In Lebanon’s system, the best interest of the child is not the primary consideration in identifying who a child should live with after a marriage ends. The laws distinguish between “guardianship” and “custody.” Custody is usually based on children’s age, with a preference across all religions for keeping young children with their mother. Custody then reverts to their father once children reach a certain age.

If you’re Shia, custody reverts to the father at age 2 for boys and 7 for girls. Sunnis just raised the age to 12 for both. For Druze, Syriac, and Armenian Orthodox it is 7 for boys and 9 for girls. For Coptic Orthodox it’s 11 and 13, and for Greek Orthodox, it’s 14 and 15. For Catholics, it’s age 2 for both, and for Evangelicals its 12 for both.

Women can easily have custody of their children removed if they remarry. Also, mothers can be deemed “unfit,” which really means they’re not acting “appropriately” for women. These actions can include having a tattoo, posting pictures of herself with friends on Facebook, or working outside the home.

In one case we reviewed, a divorced woman who had custody remarried, only to learn that her new marriage was grounds for her first husband to take their children. So she divorced her second husband to keep her children, but the judge still took her kids away.

But in all groups except the Armenian-Orthodox, the right of guardianship remains with the father – even when children are in the custody of their mother. If the father dies, guardianship may revert to his male relatives, and not the mother.

How do judges allot finances to women?

When it comes to financial rights, women often lose everything in a divorce. Lebanon does not recognize marital property.  Even if a woman worked and contributed money to her family, she has no right to that money if it went into property registered in her husband’s name. If a woman stays home and cares for children and supports her husband while he works, the law doesn’t compensate her for her contributions.

For Christians and Druze, the party at fault in the marriage is supposed to compensate the other spouse. But this rarely plays out cleanly. We saw a case in which, after a wife and her very wealthy husband divorced, she was so poor she had to live in a convent.

When considering financial settlements, religious judges don’t use clear standards in assessing adequate levels for support. They don’t regularly rely on factors like the cost of living, minimum wage, the ability of a woman to support herself. They also don’t consider the value of the husband’s assets or his annual salary.

Men are often the primary breadwinners, and the high costs of going to court keeps women from divorcing. Many, without an official employment record, would have difficulty supporting themselves without alimony.

Amina, who was married before the Sunni courts, had a physically abusive husband and worked two jobs to help support her four children. When she went to court, her husband agreed to grant her a divorce only if she gave up all her financial rights. This included the car she bought, her home, and her jewelry. Also, he did not want responsibility for financing the children’s education. The judge recommended that she take his offer, as the alternative was a lengthy, costly court proceeding. She said she felt she had no other choice.

You live in Lebanon and are clearly are very aware of the reality of women’s rights there. Still, did anything you uncovered during your research surprise you?

Yes, the lengths people go through to get around the personal status laws. Some couples are flying to neighboring Cyprus for a day to marry under their civil law.

Also, in Lebanon, at birth your father’s religious affiliation is added to your civil record. But recently, some people have been removing their religious affiliations before they marry, and then marrying in Lebanon under another country’s civil law. There are some cases like this coming to courts now, but we don’t know how Lebanon’s judges will treat them. Also, it’s not clear how removing your religious affiliation will affect other rights. Will it affect your right to vote? If children are born without a religious designation, will they be able to inherit? Also, how will courts cope? It’s a lot to ask Lebanese judges to rule in terms of French, Turkish, or Cypriot law.

What do you want to see happen?

A draft civil marriage law has been sitting in Lebanon’s parliament for years. We want the relevant subcommittee to consider it, debate it, and put it forward for a vote. The law should ensure that women and men are treated equally, and that decisions are made in the best interest of their children. People should be able to have a religious marriage if they want, but we want the state authorities to oversee them and to ensure that men and women are treated equally and that basic rights are protected.

With the war in Syria and so much conflict in the region, let alone Lebanon’s own governmental instability, will this issue be a priority?

There’s growing insecurity in Lebanon, and a lack of leadership as presidential and parliamentary elections have been postponed yet again. Over a million Syrian refugees have sought shelter in the country. But we also have these perennial human rights problem. If we don’t push for progress on these issues, they’re never going to get on the agenda. And let’s not forget, this is not a fringe issue. It quite literally affects everyone in the country.


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