In Mideast, women win small battles on rights

Amal Sayam plies the slums of Gaza with a revolutionary message: Don't marry early.

One 15-year-old, already engaged, was swayed. But when the high school student tried to discuss this change of mind with her parents, she found that it was too late. In Islamic courts, an engagement contract is as binding as marriage. To get out of it, she would need to be granted a divorce. That unlikely feat would probably limit her remarriage prospects.

Ms. Sayam and a consortium of Palestinian women's groups are drafting a "personal status law" which would raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 and give women equal rights in divorce and inheritance.

Advocates like Sayam don't want to leave the futures of young girls up to parents who, driven by tradition or economic

Muslim women in Gaza march for marital reforms on International Women's Day. pressures, offer their daughters in marriage - sometimes unbeknownst to the bride-to-be - at such young ages.

The proposed status law is seen by proponents as key in ensuring that women's rights are an integral part of the nation-building process taking place in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Today, women are planning to demand the law's passage in a march at the Gaza City parliament building to mark International Women's Day. Palestinian women are encouraged by last week's ruling in neighboring Egypt that allows women to initiate divorce. The law is the first of its kind in the region (with the exception of Tunisia, with liberal laws since the 1950s).

The women hope they can shape their legal status while new laws are under consideration to replace the hodge-podge of old ones left over from British, Egyptian, Israeli, and Jordanian rule.

Religious conservatives, however, stand fundamentally opposed to anything seen as tinkering with sharia, or Islamic law, which applies to the vast majority of Palestinians. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President, has appointed a committee of political and religious officials to come up with their own draft law to be presented to the parliament. But the committee includes no women or known progressives. It is headed by the Jerusalem mufti, or preeminent Islamic official - leading rights' groups to fear their demands could be ignored.

Ayam, one of nine children, married late by Gaza standards, waiting until the age of 25. A study by the Women's Affairs Center here found that in 42 percent of recent Gaza marriages, the bride was under the age of 17. While the minimum age for marriage here is 15 for girls and 16 for boys, local leaders who preside over marriages are authorized to make exceptions. They often approve unions with brides as young as nine and grooms as young as 12.

In this part of the world, teen pregnancy isn't a stigma - it's part of the norm. While some parents want daughters to marry early to preserve family honor - which rules out dating - girls are often attracted by the promise of a big party and the jewelry and clothing included in their dowries.

"It's fun to have all this gold and presents, so it's attractive," says Sayam, who lectures both young girls and male village elders - separately, of course - on what she says are the detriments of early marriage. These include low educational levels, health problems, early divorce, and large family size, which contributes to Gaza's soaring birthrate.

"Once we talk to the students at the schools, they're against marrying early, but they find it's not their decision to make," adds Sayam. Her hair is snugly wrapped in a scarf of shiny white satin, a nod to the belief that there is room in Islamic observance to expand women's rights.

Indeed, much as in Egypt, the women's movement is trying to work within Islam, but provide an alternative interpretation of it. Marwa Qassem, the director of Mashriqiyat, the women's organization spearheading the campaign for the new law, says letting marriage and divorce be governed by civil laws would be a failure.

"Almost everything we argue comes from traditional and customary law," says Ms. Qassem. "We say, yes, Islamic sharia, but which Islamic sharia? It's our argument that there isn't one Islam."

For example, the local interpretation of Islam stipulates certain reasons a woman can ask for a divorce. Proving that her husband physically abused her, was absent for a year, or could not support her are all grounds for divorce.

"The problem is that no woman can provide enough proof for any of that," says Afaf Adwan,of the Women's Affairs Center.

In most cases, the husband can ask a judge to impose "house obedience," requiring the wife to come home and try to work out their differences. If she refuses, she forfeits all rights to custody of her children or a request for alimony.

Islamists, however, say that any wrong done to women can be righted on the basis of what is to be found in the Koran.

"We Muslims believe that Islamic law contains all the rights women need," says Ismail Abu Shenab, a senior official in the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas. "If women are given the ability to divorce, it will be destructive for the family," opening the door to sexual promiscuity.

That argument wins many women as well. Canvassing Gaza to collect signatures in support of the personal status law -25,000 so far - Ms. Qassem found that many women were too "worried" to rock the boat and agreed with the status quo

Halla Mustafa of the Al-Ahram Center in Cairo, says that this is evolutionary rather than radical change. She doesn't expect a major overhaul of women's rights following the change in Egyptian divorce law.

"It's still using sharia ... not secular or civil law," she says. "You can take it as a sign of reform within the system."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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