Palestinian lawyer fights for women, one divorce at a time

In this April 25, 2016 photo Palestinian divorce lawyer Reema Shamashneh, right, argues a case in the Islamic family court in Ramallah, West Bank. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
Updated 01 November 2016

Palestinian lawyer fights for women, one divorce at a time

RAMALLAH, West Bank: In a divorce court where a man’s testimony is worth twice a woman’s, victory for lawyer Reema Shamasneh is rare and often bittersweet.
On this morning, a young nurse is desperate to end her marriage to a truck driver who she says beat her, doused her with scalding tea and kept her from seeing her dying mother. But her husband will only agree if she forgoes all alimony, including the $14,000 stipulated in the marriage contract.
Eager to escape and claim her young son, she says yes. The man stands before a copy of the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, and repeats after an Islamic judge: “You are divorced.”
Shamasneh blinks back tears of relief and frustration, and then quickly composes herself.
“This is not a big victory,” the 39-year-old lawyer says with an air of quiet determination. “I gave her what she wanted, but at the same time I am not happy because she gave up her rights.”
Dressed in the headscarf and long robe of a devout Muslim, Shamasneh fights for Arab women in the most intimate arena of their lives: Marriage and divorce.
While countries such as Tunisia and Morocco have introduced reforms, brides in others must still be represented by male guardians who sign marriage contracts. 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 percent in Lebanon to 87 percent in the Palestinian territories and 93 percent in Tunisia.
“We cannot copy the Western laws because the Western societies are different and they have very complicated problems,” says Maryam Saleh, a representative of the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas in the now-defunct Palestinian parliament.
But Shamasneh believes the laws are the way they are because they were passed by men.
“They were raised in a certain culture that says men are better than women, and this is reflected in the laws,” she says.
As a girl in the farming village of Qatana, Shamasneh would see women get the leftovers at wedding feasts, after the men. 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. “This makes me angry.”
However, her father Mohammed, a retired contractor, wanted all his children, including the girls, to get an education. Shamasneh chose law, a profession that turned out to be a good fit for her pragmatic, analytical nature.
Her 74-year-old mother Amneh, sitting across from Shamasneh, says she is proud of her daughter’s success. But her mother was against her studies, Shamasneh interjects.
“At the time, it was shameful for a woman to study and have a job,” Amneh says apologetically.
Amneh herself was married off at age 13, without her consent, and had her first child at 15. Four of Shamasneh’s sisters married in their 20s. A fifth was forced into an arranged match at 16 and endured a prolonged divorce two years later.
Shamasneh was a child at the time. She says the bitter experience, including the lack of empathy displayed by her sister’s male lawyer, fueled her interest in law.
As a single woman, Shamasneh’s only socially acceptable option is to continue living with her parents. She says she would move out if she wanted to, but she likes spending time with her parents. In her childhood bedroom, law books are lined up on a shelf above her dresser.
She is fiercely protective of her relative independence. For her, this means not getting married.
“I can take care of myself,” Shamasneh says. “I am a strong woman. I hate traditional marriage.”
On a typical day, Shamasneh arrives before 9 a.m. at the Islamic courthouse in Ramallah. One recent morning, she meets a 25-year-old client, a thin, pale woman in a frayed green robe who says she wants a divorce from her abusive husband.
Her father is also there to testify on her behalf, but her brother didn’t turn up because he was sick. Shamasneh sternly cautions her client that this may hurt her case, because the court usually requires two male witnesses or a man and two women.
In a small victory, the judge rules later that day that the case can move forward.
The growing presence of female lawyers like Shamasneh has helped create more empathy for women going through divorce. When Shamasneh began practicing 15 years ago, female lawyers were rare.
Now women occasionally outnumber men in the courthouse.
There’s even a female judge. Kholoud Al-Faqeeh defends the law in principle, saying that it reflects different gender roles, and that women sometimes fail to exhaust their legal rights.
Still, the judge occasionally 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?“
On another day, Shamasneh challenges a male colleague’s claim that Islamic law gives the same rights to men and women seeking divorce. She refuses to give in. When he appears to run out of arguments, he resorts to “It’s in the Qur’an.”
Mahmoud Habbash, the head of the Islamic courts in the West Bank, warns that the views advocated by Shamasneh and other activists could lead to the collapse of society. He argues that men and women are different by nature and require different rules.
“The problem is that in the West, you don’t understand how we treat women,” Habbash says. “We treat them like queens.”
Only one-third of Palestinians support a wife’s right to divorce at all, according to the Pew survey. 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. Some countries allow “khula” divorce, where a wife pays the husband compensation to get out of a marriage.
With so much opposition, Shamasneh knows that a long road lies ahead. Progress on legal reform has stalled, because the Palestinian self-rule government has limited authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
At home, her village remains deeply conservative. The local mosque preacher, Yacoub Al-Faqeeh, says that while he respects Shamasneh, he sharply disagrees with demands for equal marriage and divorce rights.
“If women are free in divorce, they will divorce every day because they are emotional, while men are rational,” he says.
Shamasneh could emigrate and join two brothers in Douglasville, Georgia. She has visited the area seven times, traveling without a male chaperone. “People talk, but I don’t care,” she says.
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, and she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“People in the village are resisting change,” she says. “Therefore, I invest my energies in the court.”
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Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai contributed reporting.


Iraq protesters keep up rallies despite pressure from riot police

Updated 26 January 2020

Iraq protesters keep up rallies despite pressure from riot police

  • Police shot four protesters dead on Saturday
  • University students in Baghdad have mostly thrown rocks at riot police but some have tossed Molotov cocktails.

BAGHDAD: Security forces shot live rounds to clear protest hotspots in Baghdad and southern Iraq for a second day Sunday, sparking skirmishes with demonstrators determined to keep up their movement.
Violence has resurged in the capital and Shiite-majority south this week, with more than 15 people killed as anti-government activists ramped up their road closures and sit-ins while security forces sought to snuff out the campaign.
On Saturday, four protesters were shot dead as riot police stormed protest camps across the country, according to medics, stoking fears of a broader crackdown.
But the demonstrators returned in large numbers throughout the evening and by Sunday morning, they were rallying again.
In Basra, hundreds of students protested over riot police’s dismantling of their main protest camp the previous day, according to an AFP correspondent.
Others gathered in the holy city of Najaf and university students led a protest in Kut, where they erected new tents to replace those taken down the previous day.
In Baghdad, young demonstrators on Saturday flooded their main encampment at Tahrir Square and security forces continued using live rounds the next morning in a bid to disperse small rallies in nearby Khallani and Wathba squares.
That left at least 17 protesters wounded, a police source told AFP, but security forces stopped short of entering Tahrir Square.
University students were planning to march on Sunday from a Baghdad campus to Tahrir Square, and other student-led rallies are planned for this week.
The young demonstrators have mostly thrown rocks at riot police but some have tossed Molotov cocktails.
In Nasiriyah to the south, security forces Sunday also fired live rounds to disperse protesters, who were angered by authorities pushing them out of thoroughfares around their main protest camp in Habbubi Square.
At least 50 protesters suffered bullet wounds and around 100 were impacted by tear gas in brief skirmishes, a medical source told AFP.
The youth-dominated protests erupted on October 1 in outrage over lack of jobs, poor services and rampant corruption.
They spiralled into outraged calls for a government overhaul after they were met with violence.
Protesters are now specifically demanding snap elections, the appointment of an independent premier and the prosecution of anyone implicated in corruption or recent bloodshed.
Parliament has passed a new electoral law and Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi submitted his resignation in December, but he still serves in a caretaker role and authorities have otherwise failed to act on the protesters’ demands.
“Unaccountability and indecisiveness are unworthy of Iraqi hopes, courageously expressed for four months now,” the United Nations’ top Iraq official, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said on Saturday.
“While death and injury tolls continue to rise, steps taken so far will remain hollow if not completed.”
Activists have long worried that their movement could be snuffed out after firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr dropped his support on Friday.
The notoriously fickle militia leader-turned-politician backed the protests when they first started and called on the government to resign — even though he controls the largest bloc in parliament and top ministerial posts.
Sadr’s supporters had widely been recognized as the best-organized and well-stocked protesters in Tahrir.
But after holding an anti-US rally in Baghdad on Friday that was attended by thousands, Sadr said he no longer wanted to be involved in the separate regime change movement.
Within hours, his supporters were dismantling their tents in protest camps across the country and riot police began moving in.
Analysts said Sadr was striving to both maintain his street credibility and win favor with Iraq’s powerful neighbor Iran.
Sadr has complex ties with Iran. He is completing advanced religious studies in the holy city of Qom, but has often worked against Iranian-backed parties in Iraqi politics.
Iran holds tremendous political and military sway in Iraq and will likely have a major say in who Abdel Mahdi’s replacement will be.
Talks over the next premier remain at a stalemate in Baghdad in the absence of two key brokers — Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi military powerhouse Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
Both were killed in a US drone strike on Baghdad on January 3, which outraged Iraq and fueled calls for the 5,200 US troops deployed there to leave.