BEIRUT: Nadine, 23, is allowed to see her young son for 24 hours once a week. It’s an injustice, she said, one she’s faced since a Shiite sheikh granted her and her ex-husband a divorce one year ago.
“This is minus the 10 hours that he sleeps, so I actually see my son 14 hours a week,” said Nadine, whose toddler wandered among the protesters.
She joined a dozen other women and a few men Saturday afternoon picketing in front of the Higher Shiite Council to demand that it revise its custody laws to be fairer to women.
Family law in Lebanon falls exclusively under the jurisdiction of religious courts, meaning each sect dictates rules regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody. For Shiites, fathers automatically gain full custody of boys aged 2 years old. Mothers can keep their daughters until they reach 7 years old.
Nadine was one of several women at Saturday’s demonstration who are severely limited in the amount of time they can spend with their children. The women said there were many more like them, but that most divorced Shiite women were afraid to speak up.
Zeina Ibrahim, from Protecting Lebanese Women, an NGO that calls for more equitable religious and public policy, led the protest. She and her peers held up signs reading: “This law in our religion cuts me inside,” “You can’t take my children in the name of religion,” and “Shame on patriarchy and injustice.”
“The injustice inflicted on women regarding the issue of the age of custody is no longer bearable,” Ibrahim said, reading a prepared statement to a handful of reporters. “We came today to stage a sit-in in front of the Higher Shiite Council to say aloud ‘Stop taking women’s and children’s rights lightly, and enough with patriarchy under the cover of religion.”
Ibrahim also accused the Shiite religious establishment of corruption, bribery and favoritism.
In Nadine’s case, it was not the father, but his family who tried to keep her at arm’s length.
After the divorce, her in-laws limited time with her son to 14 hours every 10 days. She took the case back to court, where a sheikh told her if he could give her son to her permanently, he would, but he had to follow the law.
“He said, ‘If it were up to me, the baby should stay with the mother,” Nadine said.
Lebanon’s Sunni sheikhs allow the father to gain full custody of the children once they’re 12 years old, Ibrahim told The Daily Star. PLW was calling for the same from their Shiite counterparts.
Even the country’s main Shiite schools of thought disagree on which age a father should gain custody of the children. For example, the late Sayyed Mohammad Hasan Fadlallah was sympathetic toward raising the age limit.
Disagreement among sheikhs leaves some room for hope among divorcees, and Ibrahim said she received a call from the office of Sheikh Abdel-Amir Qabalan, deputy head of the Higher Shiite Council, saying the council was open to dialogue.
“It seems that something positive is looming,” she said. “Qabalan is open for dialogue with us next week regarding this issue.”
And if he isn’t, she said: “We will take to the streets again ... the Lebanese woman will no longer keep silent regarding her rights and the rights of her children.”