Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, women are constantly faced with structural barriers that hinder them from being equal members of their families and equal citizens of their societies. Family laws, or personal status laws, are one such barrier, and have repercussions on many aspects of women’s lives.
Most countries in the region derive their family laws from religious laws on family matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody and maintenance. Although these laws vary from one country to the next, with some more secular than others, they are all entrenched in patriarchal thinking that perpetuates discrimination against women, violates their human rights and continuously reinforces the imbalance of power between women and men.
These laws can lead to cases of violence in the family going unaddressed as different forms of violence, such as early marriage, marital rape or polygamy are yet to be criminalized in certain countries. Moreover, mothers can be stripped of their right to custody and guardianship of their children with restrictions on their ability to make decisions related to their children’s education, health and mobility. The laws that enable such scenarios not only shamelessly undermine a woman’s role as an equal parent, they also assess children’s best interests only loosely or not at all. The economic emancipation of women is also threatened under these laws, which sustain rigid gender roles within the family ensuring that women have financial sustenance rather than financial freedom. This applies to legal articles related to inheritance, the division of marital assets, freedom to work and alimony, to name but a few.
Reforms called for by feminists often face backlash, but over the years, slowly but steadily, feminists across the region have successfully advocated for amendments to some of the most discriminatory articles. However, even when these are reformed, the unrestricted authority of judges in religious courts often results in the reproduction of the same old discriminatory patterns. Dismantling the dominant guardianship regime in family laws will be central in the pursuit of equality within the family. A shift towards civil family laws that solidify the right to self-determination and ensure the full citizenship of women is necessary. Where this is not possible, amendments on articles that legalize violence against women remains a high priority.
Farah Daibes is the Programme Manager of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Political Feminism project in the Middle East and North Africa. Farah has a Master of Arts in Project Management and has a background in communications, specifically in campaigning on gender issues. Previously, Farah worked in Jordan and was involved in the design and implementation of various initiatives that tackled gender equality issues.
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