The Syrian regime is nominally secular, but its approach to women’s rights has long reflected the need to strike a settlement with traditional religious forces that are aligned with it and boost its legitimacy.
This contradiction is embodied in the Personal Stats Law, which governs legal rights of men and women within marriage. The law, originally passed in 1953, was recently amended – but the shortcomings of that amendment show that, while the regime is concerned with its international image on issues of women’s rights, it is not credibly committed to equal rights in practice.
The new amendments include laws on marriage and divorce, including amending laws of child custody and guardianship to include the use of DNA for determining a child’s parentage, as well expanding the mandated will to include the children of a female child who dies before her parents. The language of the marriage contract was also amended, with the first paragraph of the fourteenth article now stating that ‘the husband and wife can stipulate special conditions in their marriage contract, which must not violate sharia or the law.’
In other words, the man and woman have the right to write particular requirements into their marriage contract, provided that none of these violate the provisions of Islamic sharia or law of the land. It is now a woman’s right to have stipulations written into the marriage contract if she wishes, such her right to travel without her husband’s permission, and that the bond of marriage leaves the right to divorce in her hands, that she has the right to work outside the home, and that her husband may not live with a second wife in that home.
However, the amendments did not allow for a woman’s right to refuse polygamy, because this would be contrary to Islamic sharia and thus the stipulations of the contract would be considered to be at odds with the sharia system of marriage.
The amendment to the contents of the Article 21, Paragraph (2) was both confusing and feeble. This section now stipulates that ‘if the guardian gives a girl in marriage without her permission, and she later became aware of this, then the contract (the marriage contract) is conditional upon her explicit consent to the marriage.’
This legal language demonstrates the hesitation regarding giving women the right to marry whom they wish. The amended version does not state that this is a woman’s right, but rather forbids the guardian from entering a woman into a marriage contract without her explicit knowledge and approval. Thus, this amendment does not credibly advance women’s right to choose a life partner, given that the woman might choose to remain silent out of shame before the will of her father, who is her legal guardian.
Article 23, Paragraph (2) also makes it clear that, under the Personal Status Law, male blood relatives are still given privileged status in the area of guardianship. It states that the guardianship for the marriage shifts to the mother only if there is no ‘male agnate’, and if she meets the conditions of guardianship, competency and the dowry. The male agnate is the father or the person acting on the father’s behalf according to the line of legal inheritance among unmarriageable kin.
There are some elements of the new amendments that positively advance women’s rights. One is on the value of the dowry at the time the marriage contract is signed. The value of the dowry is to be measured according to the purchasing power of the dowry at that time, rather than based on its face value. Article 54, Paragraph (3) states that ‘upon paying the dowry in full or in part, the purchasing power at the time of signing the marriage contract should be taken into account and should not exceed the value of the dowry on the day it was to be paid unless there is a stipulation or customary law that contradicts that.’
The legislation appears aware of the need to protect women in cases of abdicative divorce (where she no longer retains the right to the dowry) and then is divorced by her husband for arbitrary reasons. The new legal amendment grants her the right to retract an abdicative divorce, because the rationale behind abdicative divorce was to obtain stability for her family and marital status. The second paragraph of Article 57 states that ‘the wife has the right to reverse an abdicative divorce, and to take back her dowry, if her husband divorces her arbitrarily’.
The legislation promotes the rights of women who work outside the home, and requires that the husband must financially support her even if he is dissatisfied with her working, provided that the marriage contract between them states that the woman is allowed to work. Article 87 treats the woman more equitably regarding the question of a woman spending money on her children. If the expenditures are not documented, the law gives the woman the right to regain what she spent over the past two years. Before the recent amendment, the law allowed her to regain what she spent but only from a period of four months.
In addition, Article 117, which sets out a woman’s right to compensation in the case that she is subject to arbitrary divorce, stipulates that ‘if a man unilaterally divorces his wife, without any reasonable cause, and without a request from her, she is entitled to compensation from the man divorcing her, according to his circumstances, in an amount not to exceed alimony for three years as well as alimony for the waiting period. The judge may award [said alimony] as a lump sum or in installments according to the requirements of the situation.’
The modification of Article 257 of the Syrian law on the mandated will also expands the right to benefit from a will to the son’s daughters (whereas before it had been limited to the sons of the son). Article 257 stipulates that ‘a man who dies and has sons or daughters, and if the son or daughter dies before him, then the grandchildren shall receive one-third of what the will bequeaths’.
But in spite of these positive aspects, the amendments present largely cosmetic changes to a law that still does not recognize equal rights for women. Indeed, this appears to have never been the goal. Nabil Saleh, a pro-regime member of the Syrian parliament, said that ‘the recent amendments to the Syrian Personal Status Law are not aimed at Syrian society, but rather are a message to the international community’ – that is, the regime wants to present itself as a champion of secularism and modernity in the face of Islamist extremism. To that end, it appears satisfied to present a front of advancing women’s rights, while being less concerned with improving the reality for Syrian women.