Challenges in Reforming the Personal Status Code: Perspectives from MENA

Posted on 28 January 2013 by

By Olivia Alabaster for CRTD.A

On the second day of the conference, participants discussed the Personal Status laws, from the achievements gained so far, to the key challenges which lie ahead and how best to move forward.

3651463162_7c882e7ea3_oAsha al-Karib provided an insightful history of the Sudanese women’s movement, and explained how many of the freedoms and advances that women gained by the 1960s – equal pay, the first woman in parliament, the right to become a judge in the Supreme Court – began to disappear with the arrival of civil war in the early 1980s.

After Omar al-Bashir assumed dictatorship over the country, a Personal Status code was developed by a small group of men and women, but not passed through any legislative bodies.

Based on Sharia law and composed of  over 400 articles, the code came with no explanatory memo.

“Its language is extremely complex and not contemporary so you need to refer to an ancient thesaurus and different articles contradict each other,” Karib said. Given the archaic language and conflicting articles, the code  is open to wide interpretation by judges.

The Code legalizes the marriage of children, defining adulthood at 10 years of age, and allows the husband to break the contract of marriage whenever he desires, unless there is a pregnancy. In terms of rights, a man must be taken care of by his wife, while a woman has the right to alimony, to see her parents, and to be fair to her husband.

The Sudanese women’s movement has developed alternative Personal Status laws, Karib said, often face criticism for doing so, as when they suggested that women be allowed to specify that polygamy is not part of the marriage contract as a precondition for marriage.

Now the big challenge is fighting for the implementation of a civil family law. “Islamist regimes do not believe in a democracy, it is a lie,” Karib said.

With a similar but more recent experience, Hafidha Chekir spoke of the situation in post-revolutionary Tunisia. Always a country known for being at the forefront of women’s rights in the region, Chekir warned of a dangerous tide of conservative opinion, with women members of the ruling Ennahda party calling for the criminalization of abortion, adoption and withdrawing from CEDAW.

The Women’s movements drafted their own constitution directly after the revolution, but the one now introduced –  while recognizing equality between men and women – makes no reference to discrimination, efforts to end discrimination, or to violence against women as a form of violence.

From Morocco, Fawizah Yassine spoke of the successes of the movement in campaigning for a Personal Status Code which respects the rights of women; a movement that was boosted after the King tasked a committee with studying their demands.

Mobilizing those who have been victims to flaws in the existing Sharia- based system, the movement asked women to come forward who had suffered violence, unfair divorce and polygamy and used the media to promote their cause.

While important changes have since been introduced to the Personal Code, sections of the law are still open to interpretation, Yassine said, and around 13 percent of girls still get married underage, as the age of consent is left to the discretion of the judge.

For more information and media coverage on the conference, visit this link.

 

 

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