“We need a civil personal law to ensure women’s rights”
The Institute for Women’s Studies’ Myriam Sfeir talks passionately about the need for Lebanon to break away from the religious laws that govern personal affairs.
“Unfortunately the minute you marry religiously, you’re at the mercy of religious courts that are very patriarchal in nature and that uphold everything related to men and prioritize their interests as opposed to ours,” says Myriam Sfeir, assistant director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World’s (IWSAW). “We need a unified civil code to protect women’s rights. We shouldn’t all follow the husband, we should be civil citizens, civil people.”
A draft civil code for family affairs has been presented and discussed repeatedly since 1973, she says, adding: “People protested for one last year, to no avail. Three quarters of the government don’t want it; they want to hold on to their religion. An optional civil personal status law was even proposed, and still it was rejected.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) addressed the issue at length in a recent report titled “Unequal and Unprotected: Women’s Rights Under Lebanon’s Religious Personal Status Laws.” It includes testimonies from women whose marriage, divorce, custody of children and other family-related affairs are governed by one of Lebanon’s 15 religious personal status laws.
“It’s well founded, and important for consciousness raising,” says Sfeir of the 114-page report. “It’s an accurate and reliable source of information for organizations and activists, and for universities like ours.”
In addition to presenting sometimes graphic and horrific testimonies by women from different religious sects who suffered under the highly patriarchal personal status laws, the HRW includes analyses of hundreds of recent legal judgments by religious courts. According to Sfeir, “there has been a dearth of information in this area, so this report is very timely and important.”
Women’s rights activism in Lebanon has visibly increased in recent years. “The media is shining much more light on abuses against women, and there are talk shows and lectures and social media. People are becoming more aware and they’re watching it on TV, they’re watching it live and seeing the repercussions on the family and the children,” says Sfeir, referring to a string of very violent and public murders of women at the hands of their husband in recent years.
Despite the introduction of a new law against domestic violence last year, men can still get away with murdering their spouses by taking refuge in personal status laws. An ongoing case in a religious court takes precedence over the domestic violence law. Sfeir is adamant that this needs to change: “When you see those things spelled out in front of you, the agony of people recorded, when you see a mother crying for her daughter and the children crying for their mother and the father is the sicko who killed her, you think this is something to fight against.”
On March 6, marking International Women’s Day, IWSAW will be co-hosting the launch of a national campaign that aims to amend all discriminatory laws against women in the economic and social domains. Personal status laws will not figure in the event because little has changed in decades. “Women are very disadvantaged,” emphasizes Sfeir. “They always suffer the most.”