Women in Personal Status Laws: IRAQ, JORDAN, LEBANON, PALESTINE, SYRIA

Recommending the following study by Gihane Tabet (SHS Papers in Women’s Studies/ Gender Research – Gender Equality and Development Section, Division of Human Rights, Social and Human Sciences Sector, UNESCO, 2005).


The objective of this paper is to explain the legal system as it pertains to women’s rights in the Middle East. We will limit our study to inequalities in marriage, inheritance, and nationality in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, which have in common a traditional and patriarchal system in which family law is based on interpretations of Sharia (Islamic religious) law. Sources of information are legal texts, government reports, reviews, and interviews.

A religious state, as opposed to a secular state, establishes religion as a pertinent differentiating factor. Family Law, which is of interest to us here, thus falls into categories: a Muslim and a non-Muslim will not depend on the same legal regimes. Obviously, beyond being different, these legal regimes are never egalitarian. This inequality, which is not only legal but also political and social, is also the case for women. In these countries with a majority Muslim population, the laws and norms that apply to men and women are distinct, and unequal. In light of this inequality, discrimination against women will be at the heart of our report.


Conclusions and Recommendations:

In an era of globalization in which isolation becomes more and more unthinkable, discourses on human rights and those emanating from women’s movements increasingly go beyond boundaries. At a time of ever increasing trade and global interaction, falling back on communitarian values that ignore the demands of International Law has become less and less tenable. Although gaining ground in terms of legitimacy, international organizations that are standard-setters or that advocate international norms continue to face hesitation or resistance on the part of many countries. Many Islamic laws and norms, be they concerning women or families, have been in place from the time of Islam’s creation up until the twentieth century. We have seen that others are more “modern” creations, or distortions (e.g., discriminatory nationality laws).

There are now voices in the Muslim world arguing that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, many of the laws and norms are not tenable. This is because of the profound social changes in technology; of political systems that are vastly different from those in early Islamic history; of contemporary economic realities; and of the emergence of internationally recognized fundamental guidelines for human rights. Family laws in the Muslim world therefore should adapt themselves to the new social realities and aspirations. In particular, reform is needed in those areas of law concerning guardianship of adult women, inheritance, marriage (mixed and civil), and nationality.
We have seen that in the countries surveyed, none is capable of guaranteeing an egalitarian status to women within the framework of their current laws. The family laws of the case-study countries, whatever form they may take, are at odds on some points with the international conventions guaranteeing women’s rights.

We have shed light on the intrinsic link between the disparities contained in the personal status codes and the texts of the Qu’ran in which they are rooted. However, we should be cautious of links that are too obvious or proclaimed too readily. While the laws in force are indeed influenced by the sacred text, one may well propose that they constitute an a posteriori justification for a patriarchal system trying to maintain itself through the oppression of women. It is easier to justify domination by divine will than by the will for power. In support of this caution we could note the inequalities in the personal status codes of the Lebanese Christian communities. These texts, though not inspired by the Qu’ran, are part of the same system of discrimination against women. Furthermore, each personal status code that draws its inspiration from the Qu’ran translates differently the religious precepts into law. This shows that interpretation is necessary and that behind divine will human will is always hiding. A contradiction must be noted; if the family is so important in Muslim culture, why is it so easy for a man to divorce (repudiation)? If justice is the objective, why are the rights of non-Muslims inferior? Reform is therefore required in this religion, which by supporting patriarchy, fosters discrimination against women’s rights as citizens.

However, peaceful coexistence between Islamic law and human rights is entirely possible and would greatly improve the situation. An enlightened interpretation by women and men of goodwill would allow the sharing of universal values while respecting the diversity of faiths.

It should be noted that the case-study countries, without exception, have already signed the international conventions on women’s rights. However each ratification was accompanied by reservations that aimed to guarantee the primacy of the Qu’ran over any recommendation would be contrary to it. These reservations are not, however, a sign of failure for international law. The ratification of the conventions denotes a positive will to go forward towards more egalitarian values even if a period of adjustment seems necessary.



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