Syria: Women Reflect on Rare Political Victory
Jailed activist writer Sarah Shourd filed this story in July, shortly before she was seized by Iranian border forces during a hiking trip in Iraqi Kurdistan. With the assistance of her mother, who reached out to Women’s eNews, we are able to post the piece with staff updates: A year ago, this country was on the brink of passing a revision of the personal status law that some feared would be the most devastating blow to women’s rights in Syrian modern history.
The only rights a woman (would have had) under this law is to food and shelter from her husband,” Rodaina Haidar, a member of Syria Women’s Observatory, a women’s rights watchdog group based in Damascus, said in an interview in 2009, shortly after the bill stalled. “Like an animal, she needs her husband’s permission to leave the house. If she wants to work, he can divorce her. He must even give her permission to visit her family under the proposed law. But in an unusual show of organizational strength, women’s rights groups here managed to turn it back. A 99-page draft version of the law–marked urgent–began popping up in the e-mails of nongovernmental advocacy groups and women’s rights activists all over Damascus.
Some of the opposition gathered strength online. A petition on Facebook, which is officially banned in Syria, garnered over 3,000 signatures. News of the opposition made it into dozens of newspapers, Web sites and radio stations throughout the Arab world.
By mid-July of 2009, the Ministry of Information announced that the law would be handed over to the Ministry of Justice, which put the revision on the shelf. No further efforts to revise the laws have been made since then.
Sense of Amazement
Syrian blogger Yasser Sadeq expressed amazement at the success of the political opposition. “This kind of participation in politics is rare in Syria,” Sadeq said in 2009. “But this time they were stepping on everyone’s toes.”
The law would have made it easier for a man to divorce his wife and nearly impossible for her to do the same. It would have allowed Christian men to marry more than one woman. The law technically raised the marriage age for young women to 17 from 16, but it also allowed for some to marry at 13 if the young woman had reached puberty and had parental consent.
It would have denied a married woman the right to work or even travel without her husband’s approval.
But none of that came to pass.
Instead, in a country where political opposition is virtually non-existent, public protest and an effective media campaign persuaded Parliament to reconsider.
Bassam Al Khadi, director of the Women’s Observatory, is encouraged by this legal victory.
“Our dreams will continue of a modern Syria, not a Taliban Syria. Our country is ours and not theirs,” she said last year.
Personal status or family laws are a source of contention in many Arab countries. They are a group of laws governing family, marriage, divorce and child custody, and often delineate the special rights of women and children.
Robust Set of Rights
Syrian women enjoy relatively robust rights in the context of other Arab countries. Women here make up 23 percent of Parliament, versus 2 percent in Lebanon. But provisions in the nationality code, personal status code and penal code all make women dependent on their husbands in various ways.
In one recent change to the penal code, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad on July 1 abolished Article 548 of the penal code, according to Human Rights Watch. That part of the law “waived punishment for a man found to have killed a female family member in a case ‘provoked’ by ‘illegitimate sex acts,’ as well as for a husband who killed his wife because of an extramarital affair.”
Human rights groups and other activists portrayed the step as too small since it still doesn’t punish honor crimes as harshly as other murders.
Syrians in the past year have continued to use Facebook as a way to battle for women’s rights. One group, with more than 2,000 members, calls for the introduction of civil marriage in a country where religious courts rule wedlock and divorce.
“Every couple should have the right to get married in Syria, regardless of their race, religion or beliefs,” the group’s mission statement says.
Syria is a secular country according to its constitution, but it uses Islam as one of its main sources of legislation. That means that a Muslim man here can marry a Christian woman but a Christian man cannot marry a Muslim woman.
Some online users say the time for such laws is long gone.
“When as a people we reach a certain level of maturity, we are entitled to choose for ourselves, our partner, and our path in life,” posted one user. “The law should have nothing to say regarding who you might want to give it a try with.”
–Women’s eNews staff members provided 2010 updates to this story.
Sarah Shourd was teaching English and living in Syria when she filed this article in July 2009. She has a 10-year activist history, advocating for women’s rights and writing about her activism, from peace work in Chiapas to spreading awareness around the femicides in Juarez, Mexico. Her writing can be found on her blog, Thru Unfettered Eyes: Dispatches from Addis Ababa to Damascus:http://unfetteredeyes.wordpress.com/. To learn more about Shourd and two men seized with her and held in Iran, go to Freethehikers.org: http://freethehikers.org/
Egypt: Personal freedom? An alien concept in Egyptian society
Alexandria’s beautiful Corniche by the Mediterranean is one of the most romantic places for a young couple in love to take a stroll. However, there is a sinister side to this picturesque scene that few talk about. At any given time, the coast is crawling with the policemen and plainclothes thugs of the morality police, searching for (unmarried) couples cuddling in a secluded area to terrify and blackmail.
Their dirty tactics are well known, yet few see anything wrong with them. No one sees this as a violation of these couples’ individual liberties, since they deserve what happens to them, and more, for behaving in such an immoral fashion. Even more distressing is that the couples themselves believe they are doing something wrong and accept being judged by society as a natural consequence. They don’t feel that their personal freedom has been trampled upon by the police. It would be more accurate to say that the concept of personal freedom is unknown to them.
Sadly, much of Egyptian society operates this way. The entire concept of having the “personal freedom” to do what you wish, provided you don’t harm others, is nonexistent. Even those who claim to be proponents of individual liberty misunderstand the concept. It’s about time that a debate on individual liberties started, for we live in a society where social repression and hypocrisy have risen to sickening levels.
It has never occurred to many people in Egypt that they should actually have the right to live and do as they please. For too long now, people have been living by the dictates set by society, rather than their own free will. The question “what will people and society say about me?” has become practically sacred.
It has become completely normal for total strangers to tell you what to do. On several occasions, I’ve been told by friends and strangers that I shouldn’t wear shorts or listen to western music, or that it’s not right to stand with a girl, especially when alone.
Opponents of the concept of individual liberty usually put up the following two arguments to explain how wrong it is. They first explain that individuals must be forcibly restrained from doing certain things for their own good; otherwise we would become a chaotic society where debauchery, illicit relationships and alcohol were commonplace. The result would be anarchy.
The second argument is this: “If personal freedom had no limits, people would be free to kill and steal.” Obviously, such logic should not even be used in an intelligent conversation. We all agree that certain rules and laws are needed to protect us from crime, and the fact that such an argument is used shows how misunderstood the concept is.
There is a prevailing belief that the individual factor must be totally cancelled in favour of society’s common good. We are expected to be faceless members of a monolithic block that thinks and acts in only one way.
Thinking outside the box is strictly forbidden. A notable example is Kareem Amer, a former student at al-Azhar University in Cairo who declared his atheism and criticised Islam on his blog, and is serving a four-year jail sentence as punishment. His actions were harmless, but he received nothing but condemnation from society. Even his parents publicly disowned him. A friend of mine, upon hearing about Kareem’s case, said: “He totally deserves it. If he wants to be an unbeliever, fine, but he should keep it to himself.”
Anyone with divergent opinions should keep them to himself, lest he hurt the common good. The most detrimental consequence of this suppression of freedom of thought is an inevitable loss of creativity and diversity. If all people are expected to follow the same actions and thoughts and condemnation awaits any deviant, there’s no point in saying or doing something different.
In fact, the prevailing notion is that everyone should restrict their individual liberties to avoid harming others, even in strictly personal decisions such as what to wear. A woman is not free to wear immodest clothing, lest she aggravate the frustrations of unmarried men. If someone happens to drink alcohol, he shouldn’t even tell others about it, or they will be encouraged to copy him. The result is a rampant culture of hypocrisy and double standards, as everyone adopts the same public position while allow themselves to do the opposite when nobody is looking.
Interestingly, Egyptians are quick to flash the “personal freedom” card when it comes to the right of women in France and Belgium to wear the niqab. The west is accused of having two sets of rules, as they allow scantily clad women to roam freely while targeting those who want to guard their modesty. But when it comes to the right of women to take off their hijab or young people to love each other as they please, it’s no longer personal freedom, but a violation of our customs and traditions. Those who claim that personal freedom exists actually mean that it only exists within the limits set by society.
Why do Egyptians forcibly restrain themselves and their fellow citizens from exercising their personal freedoms, in the process forcing everyone to become a hypocrite, including themselves? Is it the Islamic concept of “promotion of virtue and prevention of vice” that convinces people that they are everyone else’s guardian and have the right to tell people how to live? If so, that is only part of the explanation, since even the most irreligious Egyptian Muslims and Christians rarely cross society’s boundaries in public.
Is it the pervasive honour/shame culture that grips the Arab world? Or simply a psychological defence mechanism directed at those who have the courage to swim against the tide?
There is probably no simple explanation. Whatever the reason, Egyptians need to realise that there’s a better way to live their lives than following others’ dictates.
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 17 June 2010