Damascus infuriates Islamist conservatives with amendments to civil law

Much inspiration for the new Syrian law came from Tunisia 1956 Code of Personal Status.
Sunday 17/02/2019
A general view of the courthouse in Damascus. (Reuters)
New priorities. A general view of the courthouse in Damascus. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Syrian President Bashar Assad signed off on amendments to the country’s civil law that place strict restrictions on polygamy and authorising DNA tests to determine bloodlines.

Both reforms had long been vetoed by Islamic jurists who described them as “un-Islamic.” They have become a necessity, however, due to crippling social and economic hardships and the increased number of children born out of wedlock.

The legislation, passed earlier this month by parliament and the Higher Islamic Jurisprudence Council, aims at remodelling Syria as a “progressive nation” committed to modernity and women empowerment.

The legislation gives women the right to include a clause in marriage documents conditioning that their husbands don’t take a second, third or fourth wife, as allowed by sharia.

The Prophet Mohammad had multiple wives and Muslim societies have encouraged polygamy in times of war — the condition in Syria at present — especially for widows of men killed on the battlefield. Polygamy has been marketed as a “social and religious duty” towards society at large, with supporters claiming that it limits adultery and blasphemy.

By law, women previously were entitled to file for divorce if they objected to their husband’s remarriage but only after relinquishing all rights to financial compensation under Islamic law.

Now, they can file for divorce and be automatically and fully compensated. Additionally, men wanting to take on multiple wives must prove their financial ability, through a monthly salary of no less than $1,000, and to find separate homes for their different wives.

Both conditions are technically difficult in a society where average monthly wages do not exceed $100-$200. The Syrian Ministry of Justice said 40% of marriages in 2018 were for second wives, a number that is expected to drop significantly.

The legal marriage age has been fixed at 18 for both men and women, although in the past both sexes could register a marriage at the age of 12-15, if they were able to prove “physical and emotional” readiness for married life.

Fathers were entitled to marry off their daughters through legal proxy, without the bride showing up for the marriage ceremony. That has been scrapped and women are required to appear in person for marriage and to offer verbal consent without family intimidation.

Women activists said they are thrilled with the legislation but Islamist conservatives are furious. Abu Suleiman Khamis, a mosque preacher in the Damascus countryside village of Saqba, said: “Humans are not entitled to interfere where God’s command is clear and not up for interpretation. Muslim men are entitled to remarry. Period.”

His views were echoed by Riad al-Khatib, a fourth-year student at the Faculty of Sharia at Damascus University. “In the name of modernity, we are plunging this country into the unknown,” he said. “This law is dangerous. It will encourage men to take on secret mistresses or to visit brothels to meet their (sexual) needs.”

“According to Islam, men could only remarry if they can spend equally on two or more households,” said Sheikh Said Selu, a mosque preacher in Damascus.

“A disclaimer in the Quran notes the ‘if’ and adds that this justice cannot be achieved, making it close to impossible. In today’s world, however, a man can barely provide for himself. Despite that, they continue to remarry, sinking their families, and societies at large, into greater poverty.”

The battle for women’s rights in Syria is exactly 100 years old. In 1919, Syrian women petitioned the country’s first post-Ottoman parliament, demanding the right to vote in elections and run for public office. Both were drowned by conservatives in the chamber and suffrage rights were not granted until 1949.

The only Arab country that preceded Syria was Iraq, which gave women voting rights in 1948. Lebanon and Egypt followed in the 1950s but Jordan didn’t pass such legislation until the early 1970s. A schoolteacher nominated herself for parliament in 1953 but she was defeated at the poll. Women only entered the legislative branch in 1973.

Much inspiration for the new Syrian law came from Tunisia 1956 Code of Personal Status. That document, initiated by Habib Bourguiba, abolished polygamy, gave women the right to file for divorce and enacted a minimum age for marriage.

In 1981, he banned the hijab from government offices, a step that Syria tried to copy in 2010 by banning the niqab at schools and universities. That measure was revoked a few months later when the niqab was legalised and the country’s only casino was shut down shortly after anti-government demonstrations started.

By taking a step back, Damascus was trying to please and appease the Islamic street — an objective that is no longer a priority, it seems, after the new civil code was passed in February.