Palestinian lawyer fights for women, one divorce at a time

Proudly independent: Palestinian divorce lawyer Reema Shamasneh argues a case in the Islamic family court in Ramallah, West Bank.

Proudly independent: Palestinian divorce lawyer Reema Shamasneh argues a case in the Islamic family court in Ramallah, West Bank.  

Dressed in the headscarf and long robe of a devout Muslim, Reema Shamasneh fights for Arab women in the most intimate arena of their lives: Marriage and divorce.

One case and one client at a time, from a West Bank courtroom, she challenges the gender roles at the foundation of Arab families.

Inequality entrenched

Women across the Arab world have gained ground in education and health, but inequality remains entrenched in most family courts where Islamic law, or Sharia, is applied. Men can divorce on a whim, while women must prove cause. And polygamy is legal only for men.

Such notions enjoy strong support, even among women. In a 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, large majorities in seven Arab countries said a woman should obey her husband, from 74 per cent in Lebanon to 87 per cent in the Palestinian territories and 93 per cent in Tunisia.

Ms. Shamasneh believes the laws are the way they are because they were passed by men.

“The ones who fill the major posts are men,” Ms. Shamashneh says. “They were raised in a certain culture that says men are better than women, and this is reflected in the laws.”

Ms. Shamasneh’s views grew out of her upbringing in the farming village of Qatana, on the edge of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Entry into legal profession

As a girl, Ms. Shamasneh says, she would see women get the leftovers of the traditional meat-and-rice dishes served at wedding feasts, after the men were done. And while her four brothers could come and go, she and her five sisters had to account for their limited movements.

“Until now, there is discrimination, even with simple things,” she says over coffee and cookies in her family home, with a view of the Israeli coastal plain. “This makes me angry.”

“My mother said, this is a job for men, not women,” she recounts.

“At the time, it was shameful for a woman to study and have a job,” she says apologetically.

Four of Ms. Shamasneh’s sisters married in their 20s. A fifth was forced to accept an arranged match at age 16 and endured a prolonged divorce two years later.

Ms. Shamasneh was a child at the time. She says the bitter experience, including the lack of empathy displayed by her sister’s male divorce lawyer, helped get her interested in law.

“All eyes are on her,” Shamasneh says of a divorced woman. “Her opportunities to get married again, to start over, are very limited.”

Not for arranged marriage

Ms. Shamasneh, a single woman, is fiercely protective of her relative independence. She is leery of arranged marriage, which is still common in her conservative community.

She believes such a union would unravel more easily than a love match. “I can take care of myself,”she says. “I am a strong woman. I hate traditional marriage.”

On a typical day, Ms. Shamasneh arrives before 9 a.m. at the Islamic courthouse in Ramallah, a 20-minute drive from her village of Qatana. Ramallah is the West Bank’s most vibrant and liberal city, where young women in short sleeves mingle with others in conservative dress in markets and cafes.

The court takes up the ground floor of a five-story building, and hearings are held in two small rooms crammed with tables and chairs. Doors stay open, and people wander in and out. women lawyers and clients wear headscarves when appearing before the judges.

On a recent morning, Ms. Shamasneh signs in with the court clerk to ensure her cases are heard early, then meets a client, Sabreen (25). The thin, pale woman in a frayed green robe and headscarf seeks a divorce from her abusive husband. Sabreen (27), who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, is accompanied by her father, who is to testify on his daughter’s behalf.

Ms. Shamasneh had also expected Sabreen’s brother to attend the hearing; the court requires two male witnesses or a man and two women. Sabreen says her brother is sick. Ms. Shamasneh sternly cautions her client that this may hurt her case, because while some judges feel empathy with women and accept one witness, others do not.

Sabreen asks if she can expect a divorce decree in that day’s session.

“He is unbearable,” she later says of her husband. “He hits me, he doesn’t bring food. He sold my clothes. He is a drug user. I tried all ways. I gave him all the chances, but he doesn’t want to change.”

Ms. Shamasneh tells her client that the case will take at least four more months, including required periods for attempts at reconciliation, counselling and arbitration. Sabreen filed for divorce two months ago, but the clock hasn’t started ticking yet because the husband has failed to appear in court.

In a small victory, the judge rules later that day that the case can move forward.

Slight increase in divorce rates

Under Sharia law, a husband can end a marriage by declaring his wife divorced, but a wife must prove abuse or neglect in court. In some countries, she can pay the husband compensation to get out of a marriage, in a so-called khula divorce. Legal action can take months or years.

There is no civil marriage in the West Bank, so those seeking divorce must appear before religious courts. The divorce rate has risen slightly over the past five years or so in the West Bank and Gaza from 1.5 to 1.7 divorces for every 1,000 people.

The growing presence of women lawyers like Shamasneh has helped create more empathy for women going through divorce, custody or alimony hearings. When Ms. Shamasneh began practising 15 years ago, women lawyers were rare. Now women occasionally outnumber men in the courthouse. A 50-year-old schoolteacher represented by Ms. Shamasneh says her lawyer “felt my pain and the injustice I was subjected to”.

There’s even a woman judge. Kholoud al-Faqeeh is from Ms. Shamasneh’s home village, was a year behind her in law school and received her groundbreaking appointment as Sharia judge in 2009.

Ms. Al-Faqeeh defends the law in principle, saying that it reflects different gender roles, and that women sometimes fail to exhaust their legal rights. Occasionally, Ms. Al-Faqeeh reins in men appearing before her. When a witness in a custody hearing portrays a sister-in-law as an unfit mother because she holds down two jobs, the judge, a mother of four, snaps- “Palestinian women work. Do you want us all to give up our children?”

Ms. Shamasneh says the rules often leave her clients without leverage. She’s seen women lose children, home and money in a divorce.

“I feel bad, so bad, when a woman expects to get justice and she doesn’t receive it,” Ms. Shamasneh says.

Less support for divorce

Only one-third of Palestinians support a wife’s right to divorce at all, according to the Pew survey. Views and laws vary across the region — Support for divorce rights for women is even lower in Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, but is backed by a majority in Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.

With so much opposition, Ms. Shamasneh knows that a long road lies ahead.

At home, her village remains deeply conservative though more women than in the past work in non-traditional jobs, including a few doctors and engineers.

Ms. Shamasneh has the option of emigrating and joining two brothers who have settled in Douglasville, Georgia. She knows the area well after having visited seven times, pushing yet another boundary by travelling without a male chaperone. “People talk, but I don’t care,” she says of her solo trips to the U.S.

Yet life in the West holds no allure. Everything is too easy, she says. The struggle for women in her community gives her life meaning.

Despite the frequent setbacks on the job, Ms. Shamasneh says she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

“People in the village are resisting change,” she says. “Therefore, I invest my energies in the court.” — AP

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 10:32:18 AM |

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