mothers fight back

Shi’a mothers fight back: A bargain for power in a man’s world

For the past two weeks, the country has been struggling with an understandably apocalyptic sensation following the spread of the coronavirus, recognized by the World Health Organization as a pandemic.

Calls to self-isolate and halt physical activity are on the rise. With contentious mobilization at its lowest, Lebanon seems to have entered a phase of “post-politics” that may as well act as a failure to recall the anger of subordinate groups a week prior –most notably Shi’a mothers in another surge of discontent and popular anger. 

The latest case involves the story of Lina Jaber, a woman initially pressured into marriage at an early age and later divorced. Lina was forbidden from seeing her young daughter Maya after her split from her husband, despite her daughter expressing her wish to reside with her mother. Her ex-husband Ali Ismail initially deluded his children into thinking that their mother had re-married.

Nevertheless, by the time Maya got closer to the fourteen-year age mark –or the age when given the consent to choose who to reside with– she had informed her surrounding that she chose to live with her mother after years of compulsory separation. 

To her loved ones’ disappointment, Maya soon passed away. Her body was buried in her father’s private garden, fortified to prevent visits from her own mother. Despite the restrictions and threats, a video circulated of her approaching the grave with grief, subsequently instigating anger and frustration amongst mothers all over the country. 

Far from being an isolated case, Lina’s struggle is the natural consequence of a system in which personal and family status codes are determined under the jurisdiction of 15 different sects, all of which discriminate against women in specific ways.

For the Shi’a Ja’fari court, discriminatory rulings on child custody have increasingly grown unpopular within the community, and for reasons that seem to go beyond the “civil society” discourse once prevalent in 2015.

Recurring debates and hopeful moments for mothers

“Unfortunately, some traditional worldviews have prevailed due to the dominance of a system that insists that religion and the sect must come first at the expense of humanism, science, and logic. These principles are not in contradiction with religion, but the activities of the courts promote a negative perception,” said journalist and activist Safaa Ayyad.

Safaa is one of the many activists that rose up in response to the former rulings against Lina and the unaccounted treatment by her ex-husband. Arabic hashtags that translate into “my custody versus the Ja’afari court” and “the anger of mothers” erupted on social media to complement the protest which took place near the end of February facing the Higher Islamic Shiite Council. 

The goal of the campaign was quite clear, as it was centered on raising the age of physical custody, noting that fathers get physical custody for boys over the age of two and girls over the age of seven. This applies until the child reaches a legal age of choice, around the time when they hit puberty.

Despite the severity of the situation, this is not the first time the Shi’a community has witnessed a rather recurring debate involving wives and mothers challenging the jurisdiction of the Ja’afari court in the past year.

In the midst of Lebanon’s October revolution, women in Tyre marched towards both the Ja’afari court and the Central Bank to make a statement that the system is one, coexisting between economic injustice and patriarchal Ottoman era laws. 

Prior to the revolution, the passing away of Nadyn Jouni in early October recreated a sense of moral and intellectual leadership for the movement. As Nadyn’s former struggle with custody over her son embodied a symbol for mothers all over Lebanon, activists, family, and close friends mourned in a protest facing the Higher Islamic Shiite Council. 

In the summer, following a divorce involving Ghadeer Al Mussawi, also daughter of Hezbollah MP Nawwaf Al-Mussawi, her husband chased her car on a highway as he insisted to take their children’s custody. 

Activists suggested that the power to harass Ghadeer into submission on these matters would not have been sustained without the rulings and culture promoted by the courts, which oddly enough have gained Hezbollah’s political and legislative support.

October 17: Redefining movements 

“Religious leaders remain persistent on religious laws that ought to be reformed. We cannot take the model of justice found in the teachings of Karbala’s revolution if not employed to reform the Ja’afari court.”

Safaa’s contemplation of Karbala as an inspiration to reform the Ja’afari court doesn’t fully align with the civil society conception of establishing a secular state and a unified personal status code separate from religious institutions.

“We are not an NGO funded by external actors, but a campaign that was initiated from within the Shi’a community because it is a righteous cause that tackles a sensitive situation,” said Zeina Ibrahim, a member of Protecting Lebanese Women (PLW). 

Instead, it represents a plethora of ways through which women, and specifically mothers, with different concepts of the world can interact with oppressive structures to advance their power in an excessively gendered system. 

One example of interacting with these structures is to reinterpret the texts used to rationalize and justify the subordination of women.

“The issue isn’t about opposing a sect or its ideals, but about rightly modifying a religious ruling on the basis of Islam’s dynamism and capability of renewal,” writes activist Momamad Kleit. 

One wouldn’t be surprised to know that the late Nadyn Jouni, despite standing in complete opposition to Lebanon’s confessional system, regularly collaborated with “conservative” mothers. 

“Despite being irreligious, Nadyn never demonstrated that her opposition lies against Ja’afari thought, but instead was very specific about her demand and critique vis-a-vis the Lebanese Ja’afari court, which she claimed does not necessarily represent the tenets of the thought,” writes Ali Mokh.

A reality constituting religious and non-religious mothers from a Shi’a background fighting for more power in a “man’s world” is also very telling about how October 17 promoted a protest politics that differs from that of the garbage protests in 2015.

While the latter is often suggested to lack a social base wider than the marginal anti-establishment networks, the former envisioned a transition from civil society to popular politics where marginalized groups –including but not restricted to Shi’a mothers– are fighting for power from within their hegemonic environments.