DAMASCUS, Syria (WOMENSENEWS)–Every Sunday morning, Eva Zatari gets up early, puts on her best clothes and goes to church where she solemnly recites the Lord’s Prayer.
Christianity may have 2 billion followers around the world, but here in Syria and the surrounding Muslim countries, Zatari’s religion is exceptional, along with some of the conventions and traditions that go with it.
While the vast majority of Syrian women wear headscarves in public, for instance, a Christian woman here can quickly be spotted by her bare head.
And in Syria, as is true in other Islamic countries in the region, Christian women, by virtue of their faith, are governed by different family laws mandated by religious authorities.
That means polygamy should not be an issue for Zatari. Nor should she face the risks for women that come with repudiation, the unilateral right of a man to divorce his wife, which is legal in many Muslim households.
But Zatari, nonetheless, says she has much in common with Muslim female counterparts in her region, where religious traditions and authority–Islamic or Christian–heavily influence everyday life.
The 24-year-old translation student dreams of pursuing higher education in France, but her relatives will not allow her to live abroad alone. Being the only girl in a family of three children, she has the traditional responsibility to take care of her widowed mother. As for marriage, her heart is set on someone, but she worries her family won’t approve of him.
"Christian families in the Middle East can be very traditional and very strict with their daughters," she says.
Governed by Tradition
In Syria, as well as in neighboring Jordan, every citizen is obliged to profess a religious faith. This means that atheists officially do not exist and only religious marriages are recognized by the state. Lebanon allows civil unions under one condition: when the weddings take place out of the country.
The legislative powers held by religious authorities throughout the Muslim world means that the lives of Christian women are often shaped by traditions that have become archaic by contemporary human rights standards. Several denominations, for instance, do not tolerate divorce, and the legal age for marriage can be as young as 12 for girls.
Sharia, or Islamic law, in Syria or Jordan can also extend to all female citizens in certain situations, such as those involving inheritance rights. A woman in either country, whether Muslim or Christian, inherits only half her brother’s share of their parents’ property. And when her husband dies, she is entitled to a quarter of his wealth, or an eighth if the man had children.
"In some areas, Christian women enjoy more freedom than Muslim women," says Asma Khader, a prominent Jordanian human rights lawyer. "But under the inheritance law, I, as a Christian woman, will also always get only half the share of my brother’s."
Only Catholic women in Syria–since the introduction in 2006 of a new personal status law for their denomination–enjoy equal inheritance rights with men.
Sharia also affects a Christian woman who is married to a Muslim. While she can retain her religion, her children will always be of Muslim faith.
Converting for Divorce
Moreover, to easily win a divorce, some Christian men convert to Islam. Nael Georges, an expert on minority issues at the University of Jordan, says these men choose Islam to be able to repudiate their wife or to legally marry a second one in order to obtain automatic custody of the children and to avoid paying alimony.
Honor killing–the murder of a family member who is believed to have brought shame on the family–is most common among Muslims but also extends to Christians. Last year one honor-killing victim, out of 18 cases reported in Jordan, was a Christian woman, says Khader.
Christian and Muslim women in the Middle East are often equally concerned when it comes to women’s rights violations, says Zatari. "We are all the same. Religious differences don’t really matter."
Working Hand in Hand
Emily Naffa, a leading women’s rights advocate in Jordan, says that women from different religious affiliations, aware of their common interests and legal complaints, team up to fight for unified and civil personal status laws that would supersede religious authorities, customs and traditions.
"More and more Christian and Muslim women work hand in hand to improve their situation," she told Women’s eNews.
A Jordanian coalition of nongovernmental organizations recently urged the government to amend 12 discriminatory laws, including one that prevents a woman from transmitting her nationality to her children if the father is not a Jordanian citizen.
But for now, Naffa says, their chances are dim, particularly when it comes to changing the rules of marriage.
"There’s no hope civil marriage will become legal in the near future. It’s impossible to convince Parliament because the majority are men and the few women MPs come from a conservative background."
Since 2003 six of Parliament’s 110 seats are reserved for women. The government rejected a proposition in 2007 to double this quota.
Elisabeth Roy Trudel is a freelance journalist from Montreal, Canada, who writes on human rights and social issues.