RAMALLAH, West Bank – For decades, Palestinian women seeking to divorce their husbands risked years of miserable, expensive litigation or lengthy domestic battles as they begged their spouses for permission to leave.
Now Palestinian religious authorities announced sweeping reforms of divorce laws that will make it easier for a woman to end her marriage. The changes make a huge step forward in a society where many still believe that a woman should have no right to separate from her husband.
"In Islamic law, the relation between spouses should be based on tenderness, love and understanding," said Sheik Yousef al-Dais, head of the Islamic courts in the Palestinian Authority, as he announced the changes Thursday. "If there's hatred between them, should we force them to stay together?"
Marriage rules throughout the Middle East are based on Islamic law but have been heavily influenced by stricter tribal traditions that erode rights enshrined to women in Islam, such as a dignified divorce. Proponents say the reforms still conform to Islamic law.
Under Palestinian law, women cannot unilaterally demand a divorce. That is still the privilege of men, who can divorce their wives without recourse to a court.
Instead, a woman must ask her husband for permission to end the marriage or go to court and prove he has treated her poorly.
Proving ill treatment often entangled women in years of court hearings as they struggled to produce tangible evidence, like a landlord testifying a husband never paid the rent, or medical certificates proving a woman was beaten. Some mistreatment like marital rape or psychological abuse was almost impossible to prove, judges said.
If a woman asks her husband for a divorce, she must return the dowry and gifts she receives from her husband upon marriage. Some men demand more out of spite: exclusive children's custody, thousands of dollars, apartments — even ice-cream treats or bus tickets, said lawyers and judges. Or they can simply deny the divorce.
"These women are investment projects for men, open to extortion at any time," said al-Dais.
The changes mean women no longer have to prove ill treatment. The Islamic judges who decide divorce cases for Palestinian Muslims will have the power to decide, without evidence, that her marriage is harmful for them. Husbands are also barred from seeking "unreasonable" sums of money beyond the dowry, and the divorce must be completed within three months.
It is potentially a radical change for women.
Nisreen, a 31-year-old woman, said she spent three years in court before a judge finally agreed to her divorce request. She said her husband smashed her nose, frequently dragged her across the floor by her hair, and sold all their furniture and skipped town while she was giving birth to her son, leaving her with nowhere to sleep.
Judges initially refused to grant the divorce because her husband promised to change, said Nisreen. They also didn't accept police reports detailing her husband's violence because they were from another country, where they first moved after they married. She declined to name the country or provide her last name, fearing it would help her husband identify her.
"You are destroyed psychologically, and physically, and then the sheiks say 'patience,'" she said.
She estimated her divorce cost her family $7,000 — the sum that the average Palestinian makes in five years.
The pressure to update divorce rules appeared to have been prompted by an August incident in which a man killed his wife by slashing her throat in a marketplace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. The wife had battled judges to grant her a divorce. Her husband is now in prison. The incident provoked widespread outrage in a culture where violence against women mostly takes place in private and is considered an internal, family issue.
Feelings over the reform were mixed in this deeply conservative society. Many families pressure women not to divorce, worried it would ruin the family's reputation. Divorced women are seen as loose troublemakers, and men don't like to be seen as dumped. Few families can afford to hire a lawyer and begin proceedings.
"If a woman can divorce, she'll dump him anytime she wants," said Ahmad Qawasmi, a 21-year-old cosmetics salesman. "I wanted to get married, but now I'm reconsidering, because if my wife leaves me, people will say: 'There's a guy whose wife dumped him.'"
Feminists said the changes don't go far enough, because there are no clear limits on monetary compensation involved in completing a divorce. They worry that conservative judges will still be reluctant to grant divorces to women. Also, inefficient security forces rarely implement court rulings.
"The judges shouldn't be celebrating so much," said Hekmat Besesso, 43, a women's activist who lost custody of her 6-year-old-son Yazan from her first marriage when she remarried last year — another quirk of Palestinian family law. She then spent eight months in a custody battle because her ex-husband barred her from seeing her son, even though a court allowed her a once-a-week visit.
Divorce for Muslims is handled at Islamic family law courts where clerics serve as judges, since personal status issues are governed by Shariah law. Minority Palestinian Christians follow their own church laws on marriage and divorce.
At one Islamic courthouse in Ramallah this week, four judges wearing turbans and clerical robes welcomed the changes, saying they were sick of men squeezing women dry.
But it may be some time before the changes sink in. Nearby, bureaucrats kept giving contradictory instructions to a young woman in jeans and a scarlet headscarf as she tried to finalize her divorce.
Only 14 percent of marriages end in divorce in Palestinian society, said attorney Fatima al-Muaqat, an expert on Palestinian divorce law. But she said the figure was misleading because the divorce process is so lengthy, stretching up to 10 years in some cases, and because many women either fail or don't bother to seek a divorce.
Other Muslim-majority countries have grappled with the issue of how much freedom a woman should have to divorce.
In Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Iraq, as well as India, a woman can divorce her husband freely but loses rights to compensation, unless she can prove harm.
Some countries are stricter. In Pakistan, clerics often remove a woman's right to ask for a divorce by crossing out the section allowing her to do so in her marriage contract. In Indonesia, a woman who seeks divorce must return their dowry or prove she has been harmed.
In Malaysia, Muslim women have to present their case to religious courts in order to obtain divorces, but evidence of harm isn't compulsory.
The new Palestinian changes won't apply in Gaza, ruled by the Islamic Hamas, the bitter rival of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority that rules over Palestinians in the West Bank.
Al-Dais said he hoped his changes could be a model for Palestinians.
"We are walking step by step. We want to take a deep breath and see how the street will accept it."
With contributions by Mohammed Daraghmeh and Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, West Bank, Mohammed Ballas in Jenin, West Bank, Lara Jakes and Bushra Juha in Baghdad, Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur, Muneeza Naqvi in New Delhi, Brian Murphy in Dubai, Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad, and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan.
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