Syria just opened its first official shelter for battered women and has enacted reforms favorable to women in recent years. But safety activists can’t rest as long as authorities tolerate families who consider it honorable to kill their kinswomen.

Women crossing Omayyad mosque in Damascus.

DAMASCUS, Syria (WOMENSENEWS)–Oasis, Syria’s first shelter for battered and abused women, opened its door the first week of August.

"The importance of our shelter is that we are the first shelter to be officially authorized," says Youmn Abou Alhosn, board member of the Association for Women’s Role Development, which supervises both the Oasis shelter and a juvenile detention center it founded earlier. "This allows us to push for more shelters and provides a basis for changing the laws. But our main purpose is to protect. We don’t want to provoke the governmental bodies we are working with or our societies."

Abou Alhosn says violence against women here is typically treated as a private family matter that goes unrecorded and unprosecuted.

According to a 2005 study prepared by the Syrian Federation of Women, 1 in 4 Syrian women suffered domestic violence at the hands of male relatives. While that’s comparable with levels around the region and the world, the country’s response to the problem has so far been lagging.

Before the Oasis shelter–which opened with 30 beds and plans 50–the main refuge for battered women in Damascus was the Christian Sisters of Good Shepherd convent, which operates a shelter, runs a daily hotline and offers free legal counsel. The convent declined a visit request from Women’s eNews, citing its wish to keep a low profile.

Muna Al Assad, a lawyer volunteering at Good Shepherd, says its counseling–for both Muslim and Christian women–often focuses on reconciliation because divorce has such negative consequences in Syrian society. Few battered women, she said, choose to take their cases to court.

"Even if the woman considered going to the legal system, where she might get partial fairness, people around her will resent her if she is strong enough to do it," Al Assad says. "They will outcast her because normally the person who committed the violence is her husband, father or brother."

Al Assad has worked on 13 domestic violence cases in 17 months. Of these, only one resulted in divorce. In that case the victim’s family supported her.

Laws Called Discriminatory

Al Assad says many of Syria’s personal status laws discriminate against women, including those seeking divorce, and break the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, which Syria signed in 2003 after making some provisions to accommodate Islamic law.

But she and others reserve their strongest criticism for Syria’s failure to revoke Article 548 of the penal code, which exempts a domestic killer from standard punishments, as the most serious flouting of CEDAW. "He who catches his wife or one of his ascendants, descendants or sister committing adultery, (flagrante delicto) or illegitimate sexual acts with another and he killed or injured one or both of them benefits from an exemption of penalty," the article says.

Those who commit honor crimes rarely serve more than a few months in jail, while other types of crimes–including murder, treason and membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, one of Syria’s primary political opposition groups–can carry the death penalty.

In early 2007, the Syrian Women Observatory and other women’s rights organizations based in Damascus lobbied against honor killings after Zahra Al Ezzo was murdered by a brother in reprisal for her elopement.

Killing Sparks Outcry

The case sparked a national outcry, prompting Syria’s grand mufti, Ahmad Badr Eddin Hassoun, to declare honor killings un-Islamic in 2007 and call for a change in the law.

The Syrian Women Observatory estimates over 200 honor crimes are committed a year in Syria, a country with a population of almost 20 million people.

Bassam Al Kadi, director of the Syrian Women Observatory, says honor killings need a cultural not just a legal solution. "Honor crimes are committed by Christians and Muslims, those who live in the countryside and the cities, the uneducated and the literate, the rich and the poor."

Maha Al Ali, a Damascus-based women’s rights lawyer and activist, has been working to prosecute Al Ezzo’s case as a first-degree murder instead of an honor crime so the accused will face a harsher sentence. She hopes a victory will give pause to any families thinking about ordering their male relatives to kill in the name of honor.

Canceling article 548 and 549, she adds, would also help.

Al Ezzo died of four stab wounds to the back and one to the neck. Her brother confessed to the crime and her husband, whom Ali represents, took the case to court. Up to a few months ago, she says, the family of the accused pressured her with phone calls to drop the charges.

Laws Privilege Men

Syria’s personal status laws–based on Sharia religious law–privilege men in matters of marriage, custody and divorce.

While men and women can file for divorce on the basis of simple accusations of adultery the burden of proof, for example, is heavier on women. Women must produce a confession from the husband or testimony from a third witness.

Also missing from Syria’s legal landscape is a woman’s right to choose her family name and pass on nationality to her children. While women in neighboring Lebanon face the same restriction, Egypt in 2003 allowed women married to foreign men to pass on their nationality to their children and Morocco made a similar change in March 2008.

The country, however, has watered down some of its male bias.

In 2003 it revised child custody laws, granting the mother custody for daughters under 15 and sons under 13, up from ages 11 and 9 respectively. In 2004 it extended paid maternity leave in the public sector. Women are now entitled to four months’ paid leave for the first child born, three months for the second and 72 days for the third and all subsequent children.

But the new measures–approved by at least 75 percent of parliament and endorsed by President Bashar al-Assad–do not satisfy Al Assad.

"All of that," she says, "touches the surface but does not tackle the deep changes that need to be addressed. We need to radically change Syria personal status laws and change it to a modern family law. But above all we need to stop the excuse for honor crimes."

Dominique Soguel is Women’s eNews Arabic editor.

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