Syria: Women's rights activists face resistance

When Sabah's husband left her in Syria and returned to his native Saudi Arabia, he didn't just leave his teenage daughter without a father. He also left her without a nationality.
"The problem in Syria is that a law that is more than 50 years old prevents a Syrian woman from passing her nationality on to her children, while the man can do so directly," said the 46-year-old mother, whose Saudi husband divorced her 12 years ago.
"It affects the children a lot. They are born here and they study here but once they graduate from the university they start to face difficulties," she said. "Only Syrians have the right to work in the government. Non-Syrians have to find a job in the private sector."

In a country where statistics show one in five young people struggling to find work, that loss of potential employment is significant.

Worse still, say activists, efforts to reform discriminatory Syrian laws are met with obstruction from a rising conservative clerical establishment.

Women's rights activists were recently verbally attacked by clerics during Friday prayers at several mosques across Damascus after they distributed questionnaires canvassing public opinion on changing laws that they say unnecessarily restrict the rights of Syria's Muslim women.

"They accused us of being atheists, betrayers, infiltrators and of violating religious rules," said Nada al-Ali, a women's rights activist.

Women in Syria, according to activists, are by no means the most restricted in the Arab world. They enjoy relatively high rates of employment, political involvement and access to higher education. Fifteen percent of Syria's employers are female, while 12 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women.

Yet they continue to face discrimination in the personal sphere, particularly in matters relating to marriage and divorce.

Foremost among these is the personal status law which governs not only nationality, but also child custody after divorce and polygamy, and which, conservative clerics claim, is founded on Islamic law, or shari'a. WLUML wishes to point out that nationality laws in Syria are quite separate to personal status/family laws.

Abdelaziz al-Khatib, a conservative cleric at the al-Darwisheya mosque in central Damascus who led the verbal attacks against the women's rights activists, said the activists were "imitating the West" in their demands for reform. As the personal status law came from Islamic law it could not be debated because "it came from the God who created all of us", he said.

"We called for the banning of the groups that were asking for changes to the law," added al-Khatib.

The public questioning of both the law and the status quo in a country that has been controlled by what human rights groups say is a security-orientated, authoritarian ruling party for over four decades is a rare occurrence.

Syria is officially a secular state but has witnessed an Islamic revival over the past few years, with an increasing number of women wearing Islamic headscarves to cover their hair as a sign of religious piety.

"The clerics said we have no right to ask people questions that relate to the Quran," said Nada al-Ali, whose activist group collected 15,000 signatures over the past few years from both men and women seeking to lobby the government to introduce more equal custody rights for divorcees.

In response, the government reformed the personal status law in 2003 to allow divorced mothers four years' extra custody of their children, up to the age of 15 for girls and 13 for boys, before the right automatically passes to a father. "The extended custody was not enough and we were not very satisfied with it," noted al-Ali.

Under Syrian law a husband can divorce his wife simply by telling her, "you are divorced," three times, while women seeking separation must navigate a multitude of legal hurdles that usually take two years to complete.

Syria's personal status law, which is administered by Islamic courts, was first issued in 1953 and reformed by the People's Assembly – the country's legislature which is dominated by the ruling Ba'ath party - in 1975 and again in 2003.

In 2003, Syria ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, with a number of reservations. These preclude the state from being legally obliged to observe the equal rights of women in relation to provisions that are said to conflict with Islamic law, including: the granting of a woman's nationality to her children; freedom of movement and of residence; equal rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution with regard to guardianship; and the right to choose a family name.

Activists argue that comprehensive reforms of both the personal status law and the criminal justice system law are essential to safeguard women's rights.

Though such cases are greatly underreported, Da'ad Mousa, a prominent Damascus lawyer and women's rights advocate, said that more than 100 cases of so-called "honour killings" were reported in Syrian newspapers between 2000 and 2003. The majority of the men involved, who killed a female relative suspected of an illicit sexual affair in the belief that the liaison tarnished the family's "honour", went unpunished.

In September 2005, a young Druze bride was killed by her brother because she had married a man from another religion. Her death triggered a public outcry, including a campaign entitled "Stop Honour Killings," which lobbied Syria's parliament and justice ministry to change the criminal law code.

"Honour crimes contradict Islam," noted Mohammad Habash, a leading liberal MP and head of the Islamic Studies Centre in Damascus. Yet efforts to see reform of Islamic laws meet with stern resistance, he added.

"We did not expect the government's attitude to be so negative. There must be a clear decision about whether we are with extremism or with enlightenment," he noted.

Badr Eddine Hassoun, Syria's Grand Mufti, who is appointed by the Syrian president, added: "There are some Islamic leaders in Syria who refuse dialogue. But they are the ones swimming against the tide."

Despite the sporadic campaigns and talk of legal reforms, Sabah, whose daughter is now 22-years-old, says little is changing. "In 2004, we sent a petition to the parliament asking them to change the law, so that a mother could pass on her nationality to her child," she said. "But…the government delayed it for what they said were 'political reasons'."

"It is really sad. I raised my daughter alone and did everything to try and make her happy," she added.

21 Mar 2006 11:01:43 GMT