Personal Status Matters

A campaign to halt proposed changes to Syria’s personal status code is being hailed as a milestone for the country’s civil society movement.

Syria’s civil rights movement is celebrating a successful campaign to freeze proposed changes to the country’s personal status code which they say would have reversed years of hard fought advances for women’s rights and secular personal liberties.

The campaign, heavily utilising social media forums such as Facebook, was launched three months ago after a new draft law written to replace the entire Personal Status Law of 1953 was leaked to the public. Shocked civil rights groups, MPs and religious figures argued the draft law reinforced old laws in desperate need of amendment and added new clauses which took Syria backwards. Activists described the proposed law as “frightening” and accused the committee responsible for writing it of trying to impose extremist Islamic views “similar to those of the Taliban” on Syria.

Meanwhile, shades of grey in the draft about whether or not the laws would apply to all of the country’s different religious communities added more fuel to the flames.

Arguing that the draft law contradicted the Syrian constitution, interfered with the rulings of Syria’s religious courts and reversed forward thinking on women’s and children’s rights, civil society groups compelled the government to recently declare the draft, officially at least, cancelled. The relentless campaign launched on the web in opposition to the draft stands as a milestone for the country’s civil society movement.

“The campaign that activists launched against this draft law signified progress for civil society,” Antoine Mousleh, head of St. John’s Church in Damascus, said. “The boundaries were lifted when it came to criticism of the law, people were more open. A few years ago this may not have happened.”

A fiery debate

For supporters of the draft – publicly few and far between – the controversy is without merit. They deny the draft is extremist, arguing it complies with sharia law as all personal status matters should.

“I wasn’t surprised by the draft law, it’s very similar to the current one,” Khalid Rashwani, a lawyer specialising in criminal and sharia law, said. “Certain people interested in women’s rights issues made a big fuss about the matter, but there was no need. Personal status laws should follow sharia law and in sharia law the rights of women are specified, so we should accept this. Why is it being likened to the Taliban? Most people in Syria agree that sharia should be applied in personal and family law.”

Rashwani’s position is rejected by activists such as Bassam Kadi, director of the Syrian Women’s Observatory. Kadi said the draft does not represent the views of the majority of Syrians, but those of a minority who are abusing the term sharia to impose their extremist views.

“This draft law doesn’t represent the views of society or the government,” he said. “Sharia is too broad a term to apply here. Sharia is everything that has been laid down as laws by Muslims, so if you say this draft complies with sharia laws then you must specify which ones. Sharia can be what Osama Bin Laden or anyone says it is. In this case, sharia is being used as an excuse to apply extremist Islamic laws.”

One of the most controversial articles in the draft law was Article 21. It prescribed the creation of a legal body with, among other powers, the authority to divorce a couple without their consent if one of them is deemed to be a murtad, a Muslim who has renounced his or her faith.

According to Rashwani, the authority of such a body is both necessary and legitimate. “If a man is considered a murtad, of course he should be divorced from his wife,” he said. “A Muslim woman can’t be married to a non-Muslim man, so an independent body should be able to divorce them.”

Contrary to this view, critics such as Kadi argue that nobody has the right to speculate about another person’s beliefs or to interfere in a marriage without at least one of the partner’s consent.

Pressure on moderates

Mohammed al-Habash, a member of parliament and director of the Islamic Studies Centre in Damascus, said the proposed law was an attempt to pressure moderate Muslims to conform to more conservative teachings. “This legal body could be used as a weapon to put pressure on moderate Muslims,” Habash said. “Either they follow the same beliefs and actions as the legal body does or they will be considered a murtad and consequently divorced from their partner.”

Other parts of the proposed law lambasted by critics include Articles 63 and 92 which prohibit secular people from marrying. “Every person has the right to marry regardless of his or her beliefs,” Habash said. “Therefore, I disagree with the attempt to prevent secular people from being allowed to marry.”

Restrictions were also proposed for interfaith wedlock outside the Islamic courts. Article 38 in the draft law states that a non-Muslim woman married to a Muslim man outside the Islamic courts cannot legally register the marriage unless her husband agrees. A Muslim man, on the other hard, can register a marriage even if his alleged wife denies it exists. “This law is completely unacceptable,” Mousleh said. “If a Muslim man says a woman is his wife, that’s it, she’s his wife no matter what she says. Her word counts for nothing. This law treats Christian women like women in the old days of war, when they were captured as trophies.”

Another cause for alarm was Article 140, which states: “A husband is obliged to pay expenses for his wife’s education according to his financial ability and as long as the wife’s study does not contradict with her family obligations”. Critics argue this article would mean young girls could lose their right to education, adding that it runs contrary to reforms that have raised the age of compulsory education to 15. “This law means that a husband can prevent his 13-year-old wife from studying, using the excuse that it affects her household duties,” Kadi said. “It tries to undermine progress made via reform of Syria’s education laws.

Activists were also angry the draft law still contained several clauses which they have long campaigned to change. Just like the current law, Article 45 in the draft law permits boys to marry at the age of 15 and girls at the age of 13. The reinforcement of this law dealt activists, who have worked hard to raise the age of marriage to 18, a huge blow. “Children at such an early age don’t even know what marriage means, let alone what it is to create a family of their own,” Kadi said. “The law should have been changed.”

Rashwani, however, said allowing marriage to take place at the ages of 13 for a girl and 15 for a boy was not only suitable in certain cases, but sometimes a necessity. “Boys and girls living in Deir ez-Zor, for example, become mature earlier due to the tough circumstances in the Jazeera region, therefore they should be allowed to marry younger,” he said. “Sometimes it’s even necessary for a young girl to marry earlier because when both parents die, she has nobody to look after her.”

Drafted in secret

Critics of the proposed law are also deeply concerned about the manner in which it was drafted – it was drawn up in secret by a committee of anonymous sharia scholars, without the knowledge or input of other interested social and religious parties, and sent directly to the prime minister’s cabinet instead of parliament for public discussion.

“I call it a conspiracy because the draft wasn’t sent to parliament,” Kadi said, “The committee knew the reaction the draft would get which is why they didn’t put it to the press. They sent the draft to a few interested ministries and bodies with a note which gave a deadline for comments within a week. A week is not enough time to read such a large law, let alone comment.”

Habash echoed similar concerns. “The prime minister gave permission to the [former] minister of justice to choose the committee, but unfortunately he only chose from one corner of Syrian society,” he said. “Most Syrians believe we should follow our religion when it comes to personal status matters. But that doesn’t mean we should only ask one sect. All groups need to be consulted when it comes to such a significant law.”

There has been much speculation about why such a select committee was given the authority to write the draft law. According to Kadi, the government was just as surprised by the content of the draft law as civil rights groups. “The government followed procedures and asked the justice minister at the time to set up the committee,” he said. “However, they didn’t keep checks on the committee and what it was writing. Before they knew it, this crazy draft law had been written and was causing controversy.”

While the proposed law has been shelved by the government – Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu’allem told the regional English-language newspaper The National last month it would never be passed – civil rights campaigners like Kadi say his fellow activists cannot rest on their laurels. Ultimately, Kadi said the blame for why such a draft law was able to reach such an advanced stage lies with civil society.

“The problem is that civil society organisations in Syria have a phobia of Islam – many dare not criticise wild interpretations of it because they’re scared of being labelled non-believers,” he said. “The content of this draft is civil society’s fault, because it hasn’t kept checks on extremist figures trying to infiltrate the system.”

I published this article with British journalist Fay Ferguson in Syria Today magazine

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