Lebanese women to press for equal personal status rights on International Women’s Day

Equal rights in a civil state are among the demands of anti-government demonstrators.
Sunday 08/03/2020
Women’s rights activists during an anti-government protest in Beirut. (AFP)
Unrelenting struggle. Women’s rights activists during an anti-government protest in Beirut. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Although a record of six female ministers sit in Lebanon’s cabinet, Lebanese women struggle to achieve equal gender rights in a country where discrimination against them is facilitated by 15 religion-based personal status laws.

Family law in Lebanon falls under the ruling of religious courts so each sect dictates its own rules concerning marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody, which are mostly unfair to women across all confessions.

A video of a divorced Shia woman grieving her daughter’s death after she was denied the right to see her for years and forbidden from attending her funeral sent crowds demonstrating outside the Supreme Islamic Shia Council, the community’s highest religious authority. Men and women chanted that corruption had infiltrated the turbans of religious leaders who refuse to listen to demands for more just rulings.

Unfortunately, another International Women’s Day is marked and women in Lebanon, who are educated and hardworking, are still fighting for basic rights, said Mona Fayyad, a sociologist and Lebanese University professor.

“One of the most flagrant forms of discrimination against Lebanese women is not having the right to give their nationality to their children if they are married to non-Lebanese, whereas men grant their non-Lebanese wives full citizenship in no time,” Fayyad said.

“Discrimination is also inherent in the personal status laws of all sects and religions. It is a matter that harms both genders because it consigns them to their sect and places them at the mercy of the clergy in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, et cetera.”

“Definitely women are doubly harmed because religious laws do not grant them the same rights as men when it comes to inheritance or children custody or even the right to divorce in the Shia community,” Fayyad added.

Zeina Ibrahim, a member of the Protecting Lebanese Women organisation, has been campaigning for seven years to raise maternal custody within the Shia community to 7 years for boys and 9 years for girls, as well as shared custody afterward.

“We have many clerics who back us and they are part of the campaign because they consider our demands are rightful and can be achieved since it does not go against religion,” Ibrahim said, noting that all other sects have amended the custody regulations except the Shia.

“Of course, we hope there is a common equitable civic law for personal status affairs that applies to all religions and sects. Besides personal status issues, many discriminate laws need to be amended to become fairer to women and fulfil their rights,” Ibrahim added.

Prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Ahmad Taleb called for reforms in religious courts. He said he supports raising the age of custody and that immediate reforms should be made within the courts, Ibrahim noted.

A report by Human Rights Watch, called “Unequal and Unprotected” listing forms of discrimination facing women in Lebanon, said, across all confessions, women faced legal and other obstacles when terminating unhappy or abusive marriages; limitations on their pecuniary rights; and the risk of losing their children if they remarry or when the so-called maternal custody period ends.

“Gender inequality in Lebanon is among the worst in the world,” Fayyad said. “There is no equality between people (the haves and have nots) in general and no equality between male and female citizens especially under the authority of the clergy. What we need is hands-off from the clergy over personal status laws.”

Equal rights in a civil state are among the demands of anti-government demonstrators who have been protesting since October against a ruling class accused of corruption and mismanagement that pushed Lebanon to the brink of economic collapse.

Meanwhile, events dedicated to women’s rights were set for International Women’s Day under the theme “I am Generation Equality: Realising Women’s Rights.”

Those included a female march on March 8, panel discussions of women’s role in the protest movement and a 2-day event — “Women in the spotlight” — that includes talks, discussions, stand-up comedy, yoga workshops, garage sales and live music. The activities were organised by women architects, artists and activists who started local initiatives that are environmentally sensitive.

One event was designed to honour pioneering Lebanese women athletes who defied social stigmas and thrived through determination and perseverance and a public talk on how to “build resilience in a time of crisis” will provide tips to deal with the socio-economic crisis gripping Lebanon; mentally, financially and physically.