Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Arab Women: "Delicate Souls, Not Chatelaines"

I can’t be sure, but I think it was Cinema Bassman in downtown Amman, or maybe The Rainbow by the First Circle that racked up all those dinars. Because if there was a blockbuster Arab style, it was I Want a Solution.

Faten Hamama and Rushdy Abaza (I never forgave this gorgeous man for playing such a repellent character) are at war in Cairo’s courts. She, a translator--urbane, educated, bourgeois--wanted a divorce. He, a diplomat---urbane, educated, bourgeois--would not grant it to her. And so, the law, the courts and their men lock hands and dance to the tune of Abaza’s wrath. For Hamama’s Durriyah, in the end, there was no solution.

It was 1975. I was too young to register the resonance in Durriyah’s plight. And, anyway, who in the lull of those leafy Amman days would have thought that the victims languishing in those corridors of prejudice spoke for the predicament of an entire gender? That’s why, for many an Arab woman, the movie’s message was just as disturbing as it was simple: pick a nasty husband and, in the flutter of an eyelash, all those buffers--education, money, career, a good family name…—that separate privilege from want could dissolve like so much froth. It’s not that women from all walks of life suddenly, in their aggrievement, become one, but that they, in that courthouse, become a sisterhood of a sort in the trenches.

It’s not surprising then that Arab feminists, in the shadow of a towering Arab state, would aim for the laws whose very effect (if not intent) is to strip them from those buffers. Back in those days it seemed like all the system and its courts needed to do is catch up with life. In spite of considerable societal resistance, by the early 1970s, Durriyah was a growing presence everywhere in the urban jungle. The reasonable bet was that if the statutes changed, so would society’s reluctance to make more way for her. 

Decades on, the bet is all but lost. Instead of successfully pushing for more space and breaking new ground, Arab women have spent the past half-century doing their bit for man, God and country on the battlefields of culture and identity, painstakingly negotiating their role in an increasingly hostile public arena.

To boot, you can scour the personal status laws of the entire region in near futile search of a real dent. All Arab countries have signed the UN’s CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women), attaching to it riders designed to exempt precisely those laws that pack such discrimination. Every other Arab constitution contains clauses that enshrine equality between women and men, except where personal status laws apply.

Legal codes, from Morocco to Jordan, boast rape laws that offer an out-of-jail ticket for a rapist should he marry his “stigmatized” victim. As for honor killings, haddith wala tassal (don’t even ask)! Next to these loud injustices are the profuse divorce and child custody cases where actually fair Sharia laws (yes, they do exist) are regularly thwarted by courts that have abandoned all pretense of juridical independence and rigor. They don’t grab headlines but, around here, they don’t need to. Every other week, I am privy to the wretched tale of a woman I can easily call a friend struggling against a system whose contempt for womanhood seems to get progressively more visceral.

For samples of this truth, 2014 has been quite kind to us. In the span of two months, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon—each of which is home to a different type of governance—have revealed the drastic degree to which corruption, factional politics and parochialisms have eaten into the authority and integrity of the Arab civil state, mostly vitally the judicial institution.

From Jordan’s Higher Appeals Sharia Court: ruling number 348/4102-91837, dated March 2, 2014, which overturned a lower court’s verdict for the wife in a marital dispute. Reason? The testimony of the female witness is inadmissible because “she is not veiled.” In protest, The Jordanian Woman’s Association wrote:

The ruling…rejects the testimony of unveiled women because it deems them “lewd,” according to the fatwa on which the decision rests. But in spite of the ruling’s claim that it relies on the precepts of Islamic jurisprudence [Jordan subscribes to the Maliki school], the only evidentiary support it could cite was the preface of a book by Sheikh Youssef al Qaradawi.

(For the uninitiated, the ever so whimsical Qaradawi is the religious scholar most dear to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood’s hearts.)

Thus, in one swoop, the good judge violates the constitutional rights of unveiled Jordanian women and opens the rule of law to the very colorful world of our dime a dozen Qaradawis and their fatwas.

From Iraq’s cabinet: the draft Personal Status Jaafari Law, dated February 25, 2014. Should it pass the soon to be elected parliament, here’s what Iraqi women can look forward to: a new legal female age for marriage of nine (article 16), down from 18 as set in the 1959 family law that still governs Iraq; the husband’s permission should they want to leave home (article 101); sex whenever the husband wishes to have it (article 101); no financial support if they are under age, as in sexually unready, or seniors, as in old hags (article 126); unconditional polygamy (article 104).

From Lebanon’ parliament: the Law Against Domestic Violence, dated April 1, 2014, after a six-year campaign and intensive lobbying by rights groups like KAFA, as in enough. No need to pick apart the key loopholes and amendments (among them the elimination of the marital rape clause) whose very purpose is to defang the law. A better way to appreciate the seriousness of our legislatures about the violence that threatens Lebanese women of all strata is to watch the parliamentary debate itself, starting with the words of Hezbollah member Ali Ammar: “Your excellency, Mr. Speaker, no human being in this chamber disagrees that a woman is a delicate soul, not a chatelaine.” The mulish sarcasm of a famously mulish man, to the echoes of his colleagues’ laughter! All in all, 71 parliamentarians, Christians and Muslims alike, who had publically committed to vote for KAFA’s proposed corrections to the statute, reneged on their vow out of deference to Lebanon’s traditions and the sensibilities of the church and mosque.

But what is so special or surprising about patriarchal interests coalescing to ensure prerogative and control in locales where they still act as ultimate arbiters of the forbidden and the permitted? After all, the world over, tensions remain between the demands for women’s rights and patriarchy’s willingness to cede them.

On the face of it, the sum of this gendered inequity may appear to be about the dissonance between feminist effort and achievement, between paper rights and real life protections. But in the case of Arab women, context tells much more. There is nothing fringe or sectional about our situation. And there is nothing uncommon about the threadbare defenses on which we can depend when seeking redress or fending against all manner of abuse. In an environment that is pervasively rigged against us, we may feel more acutely our quandary, but ours is, indeed, the quandary of all vulnerable segments of Arab society. In full sight of widespread economic malaise, bourgeoning unemployment and poverty, failing educational policies, a sprawling security apparatus and a crumbling rule of law, you can imagine the number of those who count among the vulnerable. Surely, three years into the 2011 revolts, you can just as easily imagine the newfound assertiveness of those, among them women, in pushing for their citizenship rights.   

Understandably, because many Arab regimes are in uprising mode, most analysts have quickly developed the habit of neatly splitting the fallen from the humpty dumpties still stubbornly sitting on the wall. Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon invite us to rethink such misguided divides.

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