Traditional Customs vs. National Laws
10 October, 2008
in the rural region of Deir al-Zur in northeastern Syria are being deprived of
their rights to inherit property because local communities apply traditional
custom and practice rather than national laws.
The ministry of social affairs and labour voiced concern about the issue in a study on female inheritance rights earlier this year.
Residents of Deir al-Zur say the practice of cutting women out from ownership altogether is commonplace there, even though it violates Sharia or Islamic law, Syria’s inheritance law and the constitution.
Under the constitution, women are guaranteed the same inheritance rights as men. Yet inheritance law, as defined under civil affairs legislation dating from 1953, is based on Sharia, which grants women only half the share received by males.
Thus, following the death of a parent, a son receives twice the legacy that his sister gets. A wife inherits one-quarter of her deceased husband’s property if there are no children, and one-eighth if he does. By contrast, a husband gets half or a quarter of his late wife’s assets, depending on whether there are children.
The ministry’s study, as reported by the state-run news agency SANA in September, indicates that women in Deir al-Zur are routinely denied even these lesser rights. It said that close to 100 per cent of residents of both sexes there believed it was acceptable to prevent women inheriting property.
Abu Mohammed al-Fawaz, a 65-year-old farmer from the village of al-Abd in the Deir al-Zur countryside, defended the practice, arguing that men were ultimately financially responsible for women, and should be given control of legacies so as to keep property intact within the family.
“Who pays all of marriage costs? Who supports the household? Don’t men do that?” he asked. “This is the norm for us; these are our grandfathers’ traditions. Land to us is like honour - should we give it away to a stranger”?
A few people do try to challenge tradition.
Munthir al-Fannad and his wife left al-Abd years ago to work in Saudi Arabia. They ran into financial difficulty, and al-Fannad’s wife demanded her share of her inheritance – 700 square metres of farmland that had belonged to her father.
But the couple faced a backlash from the wife’s family and it took three years of court battles to prove their case.
“We had to file a lawsuit – we actually ended up winning, three years after filing the case,” recalled al-Fannad. “But we lost our family, our relatives. We are treated like scabies-ridden sheep. We paid a high price.”
These rules appear to apply even when the women concerned are in a position to know better.
As a lawyer, Saniya Yusuf is well aware of her legal rights. Yet she claims that both her and her sister were forced to cede their right to inheritance to their brother.
She says tradition overrides legal and religious provisions when it comes to inheritance.
“It is true that Sharia law and the national inheritance law provide women with certain rights. Still, it is custom that govern most women in terms of inheritance. On this matter, it is stronger than religion.”
According to Yusuf, women can be deprived of their rights in a variety of ways – some give them up voluntarily, and others are forced to do so by threats and intimidation.
“Sometimes a father will transfer ownership of his property to his sons before he dies. A woman might voluntarily give up her right to inheritance and be compensated with a small gift such as a piece of jewelry. Immense pressure is exerted on women at times, with the threat of being cast out by the family. The social and emotional pressures make them give up in the end,” she said.
Her description is backed by the story of 57-year old Aziza al-Abd from the in Deir al-Zur village of al-Bolail.
Al-Abd, who is illiterate, lives in a poor suburb of Damascus and works as a cleaner.
When her father died, she gave up her share of the inheritance to her brothers in order to keep their land in the family. Her two sisters did the same thing.
The pattern was repeated when her own husband died seven years ago. He left behind the small house where they used to live in al-Bolail. Since al-Abd’s only son, Hamad, needed a house in order to get married and settle down, she and her four daughters renounced their rights to it and moved to Damascus to find work.
One of her daughters was unhappy with the decision. “She tried to refuse to give up her share of the house to her brother, so I threatened that I’d get mad at her if she did so,” said al-Abd. “We are poor and making a living is hard for us. How would her brother Hamad be able to marry if we divided the shares in the house among the girls?”
In al-Abd’s view, it is marriage, not inheritance, that should create financial security for women. “They get married and their husbands take care of them,” she said.
For women’s rights activists, marriage is not the answer. They are pressing for legal reform and claim the current legislation represents a breach of the constitution – which stipulates complete equality – as well as of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which Syria signed in 2002.
Whatever changes might be made to Syria’s formal laws, it will take time to alter mindsets in Deir al-Zur.
“I will not do this to my daughters, who were brought up with principles of non-discrimination,” said Yusuf. “But I don’t know what the future will bring, especially when I hear my husband saying that his son is more deserving of his money.”
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