Arab women try to improve status Reforms: The group has encountered opposition to limiting the number of wives a man is allowed and raising the legal age to wed to 18.

Sun Journal

July 06, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Maha Abu Dayeh-Shamas set out with dozens of other women more than a year ago to improve the legal status of women in Palestinian society. They wanted to reform laws that permit men to have more than one wife and require a woman to get her father's permission to wed.

But the group ran into stiff opposition from Palestinian women, devout Muslims who believed that the proposed reforms defiled Islam and would lead to the breakup of the family.

"We were raising issues that deal with power centers in this society," says Abu Dayeh-Shamas, director of the Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling. "We opened up a Pandora's box."

Throughout the Arab world, efforts to improve the status of women have encountered similar opposition. The reformers are bucking customs, traditions and religious beliefs in societies where men usually rule and the Islamic faith dominates.

Modest improvements in women's lives have been made in Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia, but the region's trend is against secularism, according to Lisa Taraki, a political sociologist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. And although the Palestinian effort ran into opposition, she says, "The door has been opened."

The family-status laws that govern on the West Bank and Gaza Strip are those of Jordan and Egypt, which ruled those Palestinian areas before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Marriage, divorce and inheritance are regulated by Islamic law. (Islam is the faith of 97 percent of Palestinians. When Christians or other religious minorities marry, they do so in their own churches.) As in Israel, there is no civil-law marriage in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

At the start of its work, the Palestinian women's group targeted laws that permit men to marry more than one wife and to divorce at will; that allow marriage at age 14 and require women of any age to get their father's permission to marry. They wanted to decriminalize adultery, but keep it as grounds for divorce. They also proposed equal inheritance rights for men and women; men receive a greater share.

The reformers unveiled their recommendations at a mock parliament in March. About 44 women, and as many men, had met in smaller groups for a year. They included mothers and lawyers, human rights activists and academics, religious and secular participants.

In Nablus, the reformers were confronted by a Muslim cleric whose efforts to join the discussion were rebuffed. It was a mistake, the women realized later. The cleric, Sheik Hamed Bitawi, started working against them.

"And that was exploited by other Islamists who have a political agenda," says Abu Dayeh-Shamas. "We ruffled the feathers of the sheiks. They thought we were suggesting secular laws."

A sheik from Ramallah, Basam Jarar, characterized the reformers' ideas as "devilish." Because they wanted to decriminalize adultery, he accused them of promoting it. Sheik Yaseer Rajacb Tamimi opposed raising the legal age for women to marry.

Others accused the women of being Israeli spies -- in the past, Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israeli occupiers have been murdered. A brochure appeared on the campus of Bir Zeit University describing the reformers as "female secularists."

The women tried to counter the charges. They explained that they did not recommend abolishing multiple marriages, but sought to limit them to cases in which a wife was seriously ill. By seeking to raise the legal age for marriage to 18, they said, they hoped to stem the school dropout rate among village women.

But Mayswon Ramahi, the director of the Hansah Society, an Islamic women's group, insists that the women's parliament did not represent her or most other Palestinian women. Any problems, she says, lie not with the Islamic-based laws, but with how they are interpreted.

"People think Muslim women are just in the kitchen, bringing up babies and nothing more," Ramahi says, cradling her son in her lap as she sits in her office. "Muslim women's lives are balanced between their homes, looking after their children and building their society. They are partners in most aspects of life."

From the time of the prophet Mohammed, she says, Islamic law has offered remedies when women's rights are breached. "I don't think any other regime can give women rights more than Islam."

Adds Tahane Dweik, 31: "One of our aims is to teach women the real rights of women in Islam. Many of the problems arise because women don't know about their rights. If they know their rights, they can challenge their fathers and husbands."

Sheik Jarar, a teacher of Islamic culture, considers himself among those working to change inappropriate attitudes toward women. But he believes the reformers are trying to impose on Palestinian society liberal Western concepts from which the West itself has suffered.

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