By Sarah Shourd
Monday, June 7, 2010
This story was published with the help of Sarah Shourd's mother and colleagues while the author was imprisoned for over a year in Iran. Shourd was released in September 2010. Her two fellow hikers remain in prison
DAMASCUS, Syria (WOMENSENEWS)--A year ago, this country was on the brink of
passing a revision of the personal status law that some feared would be the most devastating blow to women's rights in Syrian modern history.
"The only rights a woman (would have had) under this law is to food and shelter from her husband," Rodaina Haidar, a member of Syria Women's Observatory, a women's rights watchdog group based in Damascus, said in an interview in 2009, shortly after the bill stalled. "Like an animal, she needs her husband's permission to leave the house. If she wants to work, he can divorce her. He must even give her permission to visit her family under the proposed law."
But in an unusual show of organizational strength, women's rights groups here managed to turn it back.
A 99-page draft version of the law--marked urgent--began popping up in the e-mails of nongovernmental advocacy groups and women's rights activists all over Damascus.
Some of the opposition gathered strength online. A petition on Facebook, which is officially banned in Syria, garnered over 3,000 signatures. News of the opposition made it into dozens of newspapers, Web sites and radio stations throughout the Arab world.
By mid-July of 2009, the Ministry of Information announced that the law would be handed over to the Ministry of Justice, which put the revision on the shelf. No further efforts to revise the laws have been made since then.
Syrian blogger Yasser Sadeq expressed amazement at the success of the political opposition. "This kind of participation in politics is rare in Syria," Sadeq said in 2009. "But this time they were stepping on everyone's toes."
The law would have made it easier for a man to divorce his wife and nearly impossible for her to do the same. It would have allowed Christian men to marry more than one woman. The law technically raised the marriage age for young women to 17 from 16, but it also allowed for some to marry at 13 if the young woman had reached puberty and had parental consent.
It would have denied a married woman the right to work or even travel without her husband's approval.
But none of that came to pass.
Instead, in a country where political opposition is virtually non-existent, public protest and an effective media campaign persuaded Parliament to reconsider.
Bassam Al Khadi, director of the Women's Observatory, is encouraged by this legal victory.
"Our dreams will continue of a modern Syria, not a Taliban Syria. Our country is ours and not theirs," she said last year.
Personal status or family laws are a source of contention in many Arab countries. They are a group of laws governing family, marriage, divorce and child custody, and often delineate the special rights of women and children.
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