Many Women Deprived of Inheritance

Custom and law dictate that when family members die, male relations inherit most of their estates.

Many Women Deprived of Inheritance

Custom and law dictate that when family members die, male relations inherit most of their estates.

Thursday, 26 March, 2009
Following the death of her father, Ahlam Salim had a growing sense of nostalgia for her childhood, and she longed for a share of her family’s house in the village where she was raised.

“All my childhood memories are hidden in that place. It’s where I feel truly comfortable,” said Salim, 40, a housewife who now lives with her husband and two children in the city of Homs, not far from her home village,

Although Salim felt she was entitled to inherit at least part of the house, her father’s entire estate was left to her brother.

Under the Syrian constitution, men and women are guaranteed the same inheritance rights. However, inheritance legislation dating from 1953 and derived from Sharia law grants women a lesser share.

According to this legislation, when a parent dies, a son receives twice the legacy given to his sister. A wife will inherit one-quarter of her dead husband’s estate if there are no children, and one-eighth if there are, while a husband will receive either half or a quarter of his late wife’s assets, depending whether there are children.

Inheritance law is dealt with separately from the criminal and civil systems, and is enforced by Sharia courts for the Sunni and Shia Muslims who make up some 75 per cent of Syria’s population, and analogous religious courts for the Christian, Jewish and Druze communities.

In 2006, Syrian Catholics adopted a rule under which inheritance rights are equal for men and women.

While women have varying rights under the different religious codes, the law is commonly displaced by custom and practice, which means that female family members can be left with nothing at all.

A study carried out last year by the Ministry of Social Affairs on a sample of 340 families living in the countryside around the northeastern city of Aleppo found that rural women were often awarded neither money nor property when an estate was divided up.

The study showed that even when women did receive a small legacy, their husbands often seized it using force or intimidation.

Um Ahmad, a widow residing in Aleppo’s countryside, said she can barely make ends meet even though her late father was a wealthy man. She received nothing after he died because the entire estate went to her brothers.

Her husband also died without leaving her anything, making her situation even worse.

“Depriving women of inheritance rights has become almost a sacred norm in the countryside,” said Fadia Nasra, a Homs-based advocate for women’s rights.

Nasra noted that in these communities it was seen by many as “shameful” for a woman to demand her share in a legacy. She added that in patriarchal societies, men perpetuate the family’s name and are therefore seen as entitled to its wealth.

In rural areas, women sometimes receive an item of jewellery as compensation for giving up their inheritance, but this is usually of a much lower value than the share they were legally entitled to.

Most women in these villages do not realise they have the right to manage their own money, although they work just as hard as men, said Nasra.

Rights groups have called for the current legislation to be replaced with modern family law under which men and women would receive equal inheritance rights. This law would be dealt with in civil courts.

Amal Younis, a lawyer and a member of the non-government Syrian Women’s League, said current laws governing “personal status” matters such as inheritance contradicted the constitution, in which equal rights and responsibilities for all citizens are enshrined.

She argued that the existing laws were outdated, and did not reflect the growing aspirations of Syrian women, who are becoming increasingly empowered through greater access to education and better jobs.

But inheritance remains a taboo subject because it impinges on the authority of Islamic courts and judges.

Advocacy groups say that before proposals to introduce a new body of civil law are submitted to parliament, campaigns should be run to raise public awareness of the injustice of the current system.

Some small-scale initiatives are gradually emerging.

In Sadad, a mainly Orthodox Christian town near Homs, a new website has been launched draw people’s attention to the unfairness of inheritance traditions. Engineer Raja Barakat, who created the site, said most members of the Orthodox community responded positively, agreeing that women and men should be entitled to equal shares.

“We are under no illusion that we will get immediate results because changing traditions takes a long time,” said Barakat. “But a 1,000-mile journey starts with one step.”

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