Activists Warn of Blow for Women's Rights

Campaigners say that proposed personal status legislation is setback for women.

Activists Warn of Blow for Women's Rights

Campaigners say that proposed personal status legislation is setback for women.

Friday, 12 June, 2009
Local civil rights advocates have called on the government to reject controversial draft personal status legislation, arguing that it infringes the rights of women and children.

If passed, the proposed law – a copy of which was leaked to the media last month – would consolidate the role of Islamic courts in ruling over matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance for Syria’s Muslim majority.

Civil rights organisations say that it retains those aspects of existing legislation most restrictive for women while introducing further constraints.

“Amending laws should move us forwards and not pull us backwards,” said Amal Younes, a member of the Council of Syrian Women, a non-governmental organisation which has advocated for women’s rights since 1948.

In Syria, there are currently no civil laws relating to marriage, inheritance and divorce.

Matters of personal status are dealt with by Sharia courts for Sunni and Shia Muslims, who comprise some 75 per cent of the population, and other religious courts for Christian, Jewish and Druze communities.

For the past few years, local civil groups have lobbied for personal status issues to be brought under the jurisdiction of civil courts.

These groups have also circulated many petitions and launched awareness campaigns in the media and on the ground to mobilise Syrians against legislation seen as repressing women.

According to legal experts, the new personal status bill – a copy of which has been published on some local websites – breaches international law as it contravenes a number of women’s and children’s rights treaties which Syria has ratified.

They note that the draft maintains the most restrictive articles contained in current personal status legislation from 1953, which is based on Islamic law.

The proposals, for instance, retain an existing clause which makes it possible for divorced women to have their children taken away from them if they work without the permission of their former spouses, as well as one which states that rapists who agree to marry their victims will be absolved.

The draft also retains an amnesty for men accused of honour crimes. In some rural communities in Syria, it is regarded lawful for male members of a family to kill their female relatives who have engaged in adultery or pre-marital sex.

In addition, the proposed law also forbids married women from traveling without prior approval from their husbands – a clause absent from the existing law.

According to Younes, the proposals represent a radical interpretation of Islamic legislation.

Meanwhile, the draft has also caused uproar among Christian clerics, who see it as outrageous interference in the affairs of the religious minority.

The proposals would prevent Christian clerics from conducting marriage ceremonies and authorising divorces as they do now – with justice ministry officials performing these tasks instead.

They would also allow Christian men to have more than one wife, which the faith regards as sinful.

The draft does not take into consideration modern interpretations of Islam, said Mohamad Habbash, a member of parliament and head of the Centre of Islamic Studies in Damascus.

Bassam al-Qadi, who supervises rights group the Syrian Women’s Observatory, said, “It is absurd to issue a new law if all the [negative] articles remain the same [as current legislation]. The aim [of the draft] is to suppress [those parts of] Syrian society which want to see a real advancement in women’s rights.”

He noted that the draft did not give any value to notions of citizenship.

“It divides Syrian society along sectarian lines instead of pushing forward [a sense of] citizens’ belonging to their nation,” said Qadi.

The government has not taken into consideration the views of secular legal experts and civil rights groups when drafting the personal status laws, said Sawsan Zakzak, another Council of Syrian Women member.

She said she was surprised to see that those responsible for the recent draft had also ignored proposals put forward by the official body the General Committee for Family Affairs.

According to her, this committee had suggested a series of provisions that protect the rights of women in marriage and divorce contracts.

Zakzak said her organisation was in the process of drafting an alternative civil law on personal status matters.

Meanwhile, rights groups recently sent a petition to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad urging him not to ratify the draft law.

So far, however, there has been no official comment on the subject.

Some media reports said there were fears that the government might be planning to pass the law without submitting it to a parliament vote.

In Syria, a draft law can be approved directly by the president if it is delivered outside the timeframe of regular parliamentary sessions.

Some advocates, however, are determined that this will not happen.

“We will not allow this law to pass because Syrian society deserves modern legislation that guarantees equality among men and women,” said Zakzak.

Spokesman for the Syrian embassy in London Jihad Makdissi was unable to comment on the matter.
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