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.
Sense of Amazement
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.
Robust Set of Rights
Syrian women enjoy relatively robust rights in the context of other Arab countries. Women here make up 23 percent of Parliament, versus 2 percent in Lebanon. But provisions in the nationality code, personal status code and penal code all make women dependent on their husbands in various ways.
In one recent change to the penal code, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on July 1 abolished Article 548 of the penal code, according to Human Rights Watch. That part of the law "waived punishment for a man found to have killed a female family member in a case 'provoked' by 'illegitimate sex acts,' as well as for a husband who killed his wife because of an extramarital affair."
Human rights groups and other activists portrayed the step as too small since it still doesn't punish honor crimes as harshly as other murders.
Syrians in the past year have continued to use Facebook as a way to battle for women's rights. One group, with more than 2,000 members, calls for the introduction of civil marriage in a country where religious courts rule wedlock and divorce.
"Every couple should have the right to get married in Syria, regardless of their race, religion or beliefs," the group's mission statement says.
Syria is a secular country according to its constitution, but it uses Islam as one of its main sources of legislation. That means that a Muslim man here can marry a Christian woman but a Christian man cannot marry a Muslim woman.
Some online users say the time for such laws is long gone.
"When as a people we reach a certain level of maturity, we are entitled to choose for ourselves, our partner, and our path in life," posted one user. "The law should have nothing to say regarding who you might want to give it a try with."
--Women's eNews staff members provided 2010 updates to this story.
Sarah Shourd was teaching English and living in Syria when she filed this article in July 2009. She has a 10-year activist history, advocating for women's rights and writing about her activism, from peace work in Chiapas to spreading awareness around the femicides in Juarez, Mexico. Her writing can be found on her blog, Thru Unfettered Eyes: Dispatches from Addis Ababa to Damascus: http://unfetteredeyes.wordpress.com/. To learn more about Shourd and two men seized with her and held in Iran, go to Freethehikers.org: http://freethehikers.org/
For more information:
Human Rights Watch's work on Syria: