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Mat Nashed

Lebanon's religious courts and prospects of civil laws

Date of publication: 15 December, 2015

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Comment: In Lebanon, over 15 personal status laws exist for each of its recognised religions, but how many strive to honour the rights of women and children, questions Mat Nashed.

When the grand mufti of Lebanon, Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, issued a fatwa condemning civil marriage in 2013, it represented the monopoly religious courts hold over matters of private law.

In Lebanon, over 15 personal status laws exist for each of its recognised religions, a political framework that might be more accommodating to human rights if there was at least some type of government oversight.

Instead, religious courts operate with little interference.

To make matters worse, no civil framework is available to settle disputes such as divorce, private property, or child custody.

Women consequently suffer the most, as religious courts unanimously violate their fundamental rights, leaving them with little access to justice and protection.  

Women consequently suffer the most, as religious courts unanimously violate their fundamental rights, leaving them with little access to justice and protection

Dissuaded to leave - unless left behind

In Muslim courts, men can unilaterally pronounce a divorce at any time.

Women, however, can only file for one under very narrow circumstances.

According to a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Sunni and Shia laws are supposed to allow both partners to dissolve the marriage.

Yet this can only be done if the wife was given the authority of the isma — a clause that allows women to exit a marriage without her husband’s consent.

In practice, the isma is absent from the vast majority of marriage contracts that bind women to their husbands in the country. 

Sunni and Shia men in Lebanon also have the right to have intercourse with their wives without her consent. 

This law places women in significant danger of being raped by their husbands.

Christian laws aren’t much better as both spouses are typically dissuaded from being granted an annulment, though men are generally allotted much more freedom to seek reprieve.

Women suffering from domestic or intimate partner violence, for instance, aren’t allowed to terminate their marriage based on those grounds alone.

Unless, as is typically required by Christian judges, she can ‘prove’ that her husband poses a threat to kill her.  

Battered women are further reluctant to initiate a divorce since most fear losing custody of their children.

Women suffering from domestic or intimate partner violence, for instance, aren’t allowed to terminate their marriage based on those grounds alone

Children unprotected

While Lebanon has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), an international agreement that obligates state parties to ensure a minor’s best interests, it remains unapplied in most legal proceedings in Lebanon.

Child custody laws across the confessional spectrum stipulate that their age, and not their best interest, is the principal factor that determines which parent is granted custody.

Children are often teared away from their mothers under the grounds that they’re ‘unfit’ to provide them with a moral education.

In other words, women who engage in recreational social activity are at a severe risk of losing their children while men are only considered ‘unfit’ if they’re coping with mental illness or drug abuse.

Women have also lost custody of their children for the simple fact that they were the ones who first sought out a divorce.

Such reasons reflect the deeply entrenched gender discrimination within Lebanon’s religious institutions. 

The Syrian refugee crisis has also placed young girls at extreme risk, as many destitute families have sought to marry off their daughters in religious courts to acquire her Muquadam — a sum of money or a gift that’s typically given to a family in exchange for their daughter in marriage. 

The Syrian refugee crisis has also placed young girls at extreme risk, as many destitute families have sought to marry off their daughters in religious courts to acquire her Muquadam — a sum of money or a gift that’s typically given to a family in exchange for their daughter in marriage

The government and NGOs have tried to address this issue by drafting legislation that requires approval from civil and religious courts before a minor can be married. 

Though the law is expected to be presented to parliament, it will likely face strong condemnation and resistance.

This is because religious leaders view any state interference in their affairs as an attack on their community’s traditions and Lebanon’s confessional makeup.

The reality is that any civil oversight that is based on human rights is actually a threat to the power that religious clergies in Lebanon hold.

Civil society must continue to mobilise to pressure their government to act in the best interests of women and children as opposed to religious and political patriarchs: Both of whom benefit the most from Lebanon’s confessional legal structure. 

The struggle for change

On April 1 2014, Lebanon’s parliament passed a domestic violence law thanks largely to the pressure of women advocacy groups in the country.

But while the law is a marginal step forward, it remains incomplete.

The law, for instance, stipulates that intercourse is a marital right — which they actually mean to be the husband’s right — making rape a criminal offence only if authorities can detect ‘physical evidence of violence.’

KAFA, a Lebanese based NGO that advocates for an end to violence against women, further reports that nearly one woman dies from domestic violence each month.

Nearly one woman dies from domestic violence each month

In 2014, over 2,600 incidences of domestic violence were reported to their emergency hotline.

Clearly, the domestic violence law fails to fully protect women until it includes a clause that explicitly criminalizes marital rape.

In any case, this law alone is not enough to fully resolve the bigger issue.  

There must be wider government oversight on religious courts and a civil legal structure that women can access to settle private and family disputes.

Gender advocacy groups must also be directly consulted by the government when adopting further legislation.

Only then will Lebanon strive to honour the rights of women and children before the law.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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