Woman forbidden from seeing daughter sparks debate over religious law in Lebanon

A video of a bereaved mother separated from her daughter’s grave by a fence has reignited the debate over Lebanon’s religion-based personal status law system.

In Lebanon, religious courts govern matters of marriage, divorce, and child custody. Each sect has its own set of rules, most of which give preference to men over women.

In the past week, a widely circulated video showed a woman named Lina Jaber from the Tyre area in southern Lebanon sobbing outside of the fenced private plot where her 14-year old daughter, Maya, is buried, wailing, “Sleep, my little one. You’re a martyr to injustice and wrath … My soul is with you, my darling. I want to die.”

As Jaber previously told Al Arabiya she had been forbidden to see her daughter for more than two years after divorcing the girl’s father and had not been allowed to visit her grave after Maya died two months ago – allegedly from an accidental gunshot wound.

The Jaafari court, which enforces civil status issues for the Shia community, to which Jaber belongs, automatically gives custody to fathers at the age of two for boys and at the age of seven for girls when their parents get a divorce.

Activists protest against Lebanon’s personal status law

In the wake of the video’s publication, activists staged protests Friday in front of the Jaafari court in Tyre and Saturday in front of the Supreme Islamic Shia Council in south Beirut, calling for Shia religious authorities to change the custody rules.

Meanwhile, advocates have renewed pressure for the introduction of legislation to create a unified, civil personal status law for all sects.

The protest in Tyre – where a tearful Jaber was present, holding her daughter’s picture – was sparsely attended. But Riham Roumieh, an activist with the group Cry of the Women of the South, said the fact that it was held at all was significant.

“This is the first time there has been a protest in Tyre over this issue, the issue of custody,” she told Al Arabiya. “It was a cry to ask for our right to custody -- specifically in front of the Jaafari court because the Jaafari Court is the one making the most unjust decisions regarding the rights of the woman and the child – and to encourage every mother who has a problem with the custody system to speak out and raise her voice because once they see we are not afraid and are speaking out, maybe something will change.”

At the protest in Beirut, protesters chanted, “In the name of the Imam Hussein, where is your justice?” referencing the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, one of the holiest figures in the Shia sect.

Lina Zahr Eddine, who said she had been separated from her children for six years – eventually winning custody after “a very big fight,” told Al Arabiya, “It’s shameful that this thing is happening in Lebanon. At the least we should raise the age of custody for girl and the boy, and that there should be shared custody for the mother and the father.”

At a time when the attention of political leaders has turned to Lebanon’s economic crisis, activists are hoping that the attention Jaber’s case has received can help to return the spotlight to women’s rights issues.

Layal Awada, an attorney for the women’s rights group KAFA, said the group had been set to launch a proposed draft personal status law on October 18, but the eruption of mass anti-government protests on October 17, 2019, had temporarily derailed the plans.

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Making women’s rights a priority in Lebanon

Claudine Aoun Roukoz, president of the National Commission for Lebanese Women, said she supports the draft legislation and is now searching for members of Parliament willing to put it forward.

Under the current system, she said, “Not only there is discrimination between women and men, there is discrimination between women and women” because women of different sects are treated differently. “The solution would be one law for everyone.”

In the meantime, Aoun Roukoz said she is advocating for the religious authorities to amend their own laws.

As to whether lawmakers will be willing to make women’s rights issues a priority at a time when most are focused on the country’s economic crisis, she said, “Women’s issues are never priorities in Lebanon, from 100 years to now. It’s never a priority because there’s always something on the political or economic level.”

This is despite women’s rights being important for economic growth, according to Aoun Roukoz.

“If you want to have economic growth in a country, you need to have equal rights,” she said. “We have to make it a priority -- even if it’s not a priority in the minds of the politicians.”

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