Saturday 23rd of March 2019 |
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The Personal Status Law lays open a difficult conversation - By Nermeen Murad, The Jordan Times



An open secret among women activists in the Muslim world is that they will not be really free until the personal status laws in Muslim countries are drastically revised, reformed or even debunked.
These laws most starkly articulate all that is unfair about living under the dictates and authority of a patriarchal system that is hiding behind traditional and biased interpretations of religious text.
In Jordan, nothing would more indicate a real political will to elevate the status of women citizens to one that is equal to that of men than tackling this law once and for all. In fact, nothing would really showcase political will more clearly than if this law, and its constitutional justification in Articles 6, 105 and 106, were seriously revised to ensure synergy with the requirements of full citizenship and respect for the humanity of both men and women in a modern civic state.
This would mean that the ability (ahliya) of women is not questioned or debated, the rulings on family affairs are extracted from a solid and serious reading of the lived reality of families on the ground, and religious text is opened to new interpretations with reference to a modern state’s requirements and citizenship.
What Muslim women are looking for is a creative solution similar to that achieved in Morocco where, through the collaborative efforts of Islam’s experts and clerics, women activists and the judiciary, and under the guidance and political patronage of the King of Morocco, it was possible to arrive at a negotiated, creative and advanced version of the personal status law, referred to as the Mudawana, that safeguards the rights of women and men equally and which is also in harmony with the spirit and letter of Islam.
Women have been silent or “strategic” about expressing their true feelings towards the dictates of personal status laws because they find themselves trapped in the politically driven or patriarchy-sanctioned messages about what this law represents. 
The link that was created, by patriarchal traditionalists and political parties using Islam as their popular platform, between this law and the supremacy of Islam’s teachings, makes it difficult for activists to openly contest it without drawing wrath from critics.
Women and other human rights champions,  who have tried, have immediately found themselves labelled as liberals, seculars, atheists, not religious, disrespectful, agents of foreign agendas, seeking to weaken society, advocating for the dismantling of the Muslim family, and a host of other labels and accusations that are intended to intimidate and frighten any advocate challenging the status quo.
But the reality is that the law, by any fair reading of its impact on the ground, has been often found to have devastating effects on the lives and livelihoods of women and children, and is unable to deliver one of the most important dictates of Islam: justice for all Muslims equally.
The Supreme Justice of Jordan in a 2010 letter accompanying the proposed amendments to the draft personal status law said that the new law was revised to allow interpretations from the different schools of Islam, modern science and to be in harmony with the constitution.
That was a brave step taken by the foremost religious authority in Jordan and it gave a positive signal that Jordan is ready to enter into discussion over the reform of a law that touches every household in the country and sets in stone the biased power balance in relationships between the different family members based on their sex and relationship to the male guardian.
Yet, discussion never materialised into any real dialogue in the eight years since the introduction of the temporary law. Implementation of court rulings as per the personal status law during this stretch of time continued to follow a strict and patriarchal interpretation of text without taking into account facts on the ground and updates that render its ruling unfair and discriminatory.
Divorced women caring for children find themselves with unrealistically low alimony payments because the former husbands hide their assets under the names of other relatives or fake documentation to declare lower levels of income. The all-male assessment advisors appointed by the court to identify the amounts that need to be paid by the husband, do not have the power or the resources, or even the will, to thoroughly investigate the facts and, therefore, it has become common practice to determine unrealistically low payments to the wife, usually in the two-digit range.
Women, faced by an all male assessment committee, shy away from discussing their needs or requirements, therefore, losing financial compensation, which they feel they would have received if they had female assessors, with whom they could discuss their private affairs more openly.
Women who contribute to the finances of a home for decades, quite often taking loans against their meager and hard-earned incomes to fund the purchase of a family home or large asset, end up losing their investments upon divorce because all marital assets are considered to be those of the male, unless they were expressly registered under her name. 
Even if the women had not taken jobs or loans, the law does not adequately recognise the monetary value of their “services” during the years of marriage and, therefore, does not provide for the equitable division of marriage assets upon divorce. Compensation payments for decades of marriage have largely stayed under the JD 2,000 ceiling.
Widowed women also do not have the right to inherit their hard earned assets, again whether through work or “services” during the years of marriage, before divvying up the assets to other inheritors, inequitably divided between male and female offspring, who have had no role in accumulating the marital wealth.
In this day and age, grown women who are given the care of underage children when widowed, are not automatically given control of the finances to deliver that care and are instead hostage to an “asba” (hierarchal list) of male guardians, who can dictate how much they spend and under what conditions.
How can someone be trusted with the lives of young human beings but not be trusted to manage the funds to pay for that care only because she is a woman? It is clearly a ploy to deny her financial control and keep her hostage to the will of the male guardians who continue to hold the purse strings while assigning 
her care duties.
More affluent or empowered women are able to apply to the courts for access to the funds, and I understand that there are cases where they are given that responsibility, but what about the less affluent women or the ones who live under the dominance of their male guardians or fear being stigmatised by their communities for falling outside the traditional rulings. Who stands up for them and who protects them against abuse of power?
The state is required to look into the affairs of all its citizens, regardless of their sex. It is not acceptable for the state to hide behind the cloaks of tradition, patriarchy or even religious interpretation, to avoid controversy or upset when the basic rights of citizens are being challenged based on consideration of their sex. 
The 2010 temporary personal status law is under review now by the legal committees in the parliament and senate. Women activists have requested meetings and were given access to discuss their views with the members of the committees. In those meetings the conversations were charged and difficult.
It is clear that there is a serious effort to get the law through the parliamentary process in order to meet constitutional deadlines. Yet, it is also clear that decisions, which impact the lives of so many citizens, should not be taken in a hurry and without due consultation at all levels and with consideration of all facts on the ground.
I do not know what recourse the government has in its hand at this moment but it is very clear that the government needs to halt the process and reconsider at the highest level what message it is sending to its women and men by passing a law that so starkly treats women as subordinates to men within a modern Jordanian family structure.
How does this tally with the state that we claim to be building? Are we really not able to hold a national conversation and reach consensus on exactly how to elevate the Jordanian family to something that is recognisable in this 21st century? Do we really believe that women are subordinate and less valued human beings? Do we really believe that women are diminished in ability? Let us ask these questions and then determine our path based on our answers. 
Let us have the difficult conversation. It is long overdue. 

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