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Palestinian lawyer fights for women, one divorce at a time

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In this Tuesday, March 29, 2016 photo, Palestinian divorce lawyer Reema Shamasneh poses for a photo in the office of her legal aid center in Ramallah, West Bank. One divorce at a time, the Palestinian lawyer fights for female clients in an Islamic family court where a man’s testimony is worth twice a woman’s. Shamasneh, a devout Muslim, believes the laws are the way they are because they were passed by men. She shuns traditional marriage for herself, saying she can take care of herself. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — In a divorce court where a man’s testimony is worth twice a woman’s, victory for lawyer Reema Shamasneh is rare and often bittersweet.

On this morning in March, a young nurse is desperate to end her marriage to a truck driver who she says beat her, doused her with scalding tea and kept her from seeing her dying mother. But the price of freedom for a woman in the West Bank is high. Her husband only agrees to a divorce if she forgoes all alimony, including the $14,000 lump sum stipulated in the marriage contract.

Eager to escape the abuse and claim her young son, she says yes. The man stands before a copy of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and repeats after an Islamic judge to his second wife: “You are divorced.”

Shamasneh blinks back tears of relief and frustration, and then quickly composes herself.

“This is not a big victory,” the 39-year-old lawyer says with an air of quiet determination. “I gave her what she wanted, but at the same time I am not happy because she gave up her rights.”

Dressed in the headscarf and long robe of a devout Muslim, Shamasneh fights for Arab women in the most intimate arena of their lives: Marriage and divorce. One case and one client at a time, from a West Bank courtroom, she challenges the gender roles at the foundation of Arab families.

Women across the Arab world have gained ground in education and health, but inequality remains entrenched in most family courts where Islamic law, or Shariah, is applied. While countries such as Tunisia and Morocco have introduced reforms, brides in others must still be represented by male guardians who sign marriage contracts. Men can divorce on a whim, while women must prove cause. And polygamy is legal only for men.

Such notions enjoy strong support, even among women. In a 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, large majorities in seven Arab countries said a woman should obey her husband, from 74 percent in Lebanon to 87 percent in the Palestinian territories and 93 percent in Tunisia.

“We cannot copy the Western laws because the Western societies are different and they have very complicated problems,” says Maryam Saleh, a representative of the fundamentalist Islamic group Hamas in the now-defunct Palestinian parliament.

But Shamasneh believes the laws are the way they are because they were passed by men.

“The ones who fill the major posts are men,” Shamashneh says. “They were raised in a certain culture that says men are better than women, and this is reflected in the laws.”

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I HATE TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE

Shamasneh’s views grew out of her upbringing in the farming village of Qatana, on the edge of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

As a girl, Shamasneh says, she would see women get the leftovers of the traditional meat-and-rice dishes served at wedding feasts, after the men were done. And while her four brothers could come and go, she and her five sisters had to account for their limited movements.

“Until now, there is discrimination, even with simple things,” she says over coffee and cookies in her family home, with a view of the Israeli coastal plain. “This makes me angry.”

However, on one important point, her father Mohammed, a retired contractor, offered equality — he wanted all his children to get an education. Shamasneh chose law, a profession that turned out to be a good fit for her pragmatic, analytical nature, despite her initial bashfulness.

Her 74-year-old mother Amneh, sitting across from Shamasneh, says she is proud of her daughter’s success. But her mother was against her studies, Shamasneh interjects.

“My mother said, this is a job for men, not women,” she recounts.

Her mother, wearing a colorfully embroidered white robe typical of older village women, expresses regret.

“At the time, it was shameful for a woman to study and have a job,” she says apologetically.

Amneh herself was married off at age 13, without her consent, and had her first child at 15. Four of Shamasneh’s sisters married in their 20s. A fifth was forced to accept an arranged match at age 16 and endured a prolonged divorce two years later.

Shamasneh was a child at the time. She says the bitter experience, including the lack of empathy displayed by her sister’s male divorce lawyer, helped get her interested in law.

Her sister, now 45, beat the odds by opening a beauty parlor and remarrying in her 30s. But in general, divorced women are monitored even more closely than the never-married. The unspoken assumption is that they might more easily break the taboo against sex outside marriage.

“All eyes are on her,” Shamasneh says of a divorced woman. “Her opportunities to get married again, to start over, are very limited.”

As a single woman, Shamasneh’s only socially acceptable option is to continue living with her parents.

“She’s a girl, she shouldn’t live by herself,” Amneh says.

Shamasneh, the only one of her siblings still at home, says she would move out if she wanted to, but she likes spending time with her parents. In her childhood bedroom, law books are lined up on a shelf above her dresser.

She is fiercely protective of her relative independence. She is leery of arranged marriage, which is still common in her conservative community. She believes such a union would unravel more easily than a love match.

“I can take care of myself,” Shamasneh says. “I am a strong woman. I hate traditional marriage.”

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DO YOU WANT US ALL TO GIVE UP OUR CHILDREN?

On a typical day, Shamasneh arrives before 9 a.m. at the Islamic courthouse in Ramallah, a 20-minute drive from her village of Qatana. Ramallah is the West Bank’s most vibrant and liberal city, where young women in short sleeves mingle with others in conservative dress in markets and cafes.

The court takes up the ground floor of a five-story building, and hearings are held in two small rooms crammed with tables and chairs. Doors stay open, and people wander in and out. Female lawyers and clients wear headscarves when appearing before the judges.

On a recent morning, Shamasneh signs in with the court clerk to ensure her cases are heard early, then meets a client, 25-year-old Sabreen. The thin, pale woman in a frayed green robe and headscarf seeks a divorce from her abusive 27-year-old husband. Sabreen, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, is accompanied by her father, who is to testify on his daughter’s behalf.

Shamasneh had also expected Sabreen’s brother to attend the hearing; the court requires two male witnesses or a man and two women. Sabreen says her brother is sick. Shamasneh sternly cautions her client that this may hurt her case, because while some judges feel empathy with women and accept one witness, others do not.

Sabreen asks if she can expect a divorce decree in that day’s session.

“He is unbearable,” she later says of her husband. “He hits me, he doesn’t bring food. He sold my clothes. He is a drug user. I tried all ways. I gave him all the chances, but he doesn’t want to change.”

Shamasneh tells her client that the case will take at least four more months, including required periods for attempts at reconciliation, counseling and arbitration. Sabreen filed for divorce two months ago, but the clock hasn’t started ticking yet because the husband has failed to appear in court.

In a small victory, the judge rules later that day that the case can move forward.

Under Shariah law, a husband can end a marriage by declaring his wife divorced, but a wife must prove abuse or neglect in court. In some countries, she can pay the husband compensation to get out of a marriage, in a so-called “khula” divorce. Legal action can take months or years.

There is no civil marriage in the West Bank, so those seeking divorce must appear before religious courts. The divorce rate has risen slightly over the past five years or so in the West Bank and Gaza from 1.5 to 1.7 divorces for every 1,000 people.

The growing presence of female lawyers like Shamasneh has helped create more empathy for women going through divorce, custody or alimony hearings. When Shamasneh began practicing 15 years ago, female lawyers were rare. Now women occasionally outnumber men in the courthouse. A 50-year-old schoolteacher represented by Shamasneh says her lawyer “felt my pain and the injustice I was subjected to.”

There’s even a female judge. Kholoud al-Faqeeh is from Shamasneh’s home village, was a year behind her in law school and received her groundbreaking appointment as Shariah judge in 2009.

Al-Faqeeh defends the law in principle, saying that it reflects different gender roles, and that women sometimes fail to exhaust their legal rights. Occasionally, al-Faqeeh reins in men appearing before her. When a witness in a custody hearing portrays a sister-in-law as an unfit mother because she holds down two jobs, the judge, a mother of four, snaps: “Palestinian women work. Do you want us all to give up our children?”

Shamasneh says the rules often leave her clients without leverage. She’s seen women lose children, home and money in a divorce.

“I feel bad, so bad, when a woman expects to get justice and she doesn’t receive it,” Shamasneh says.

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WE TREAT THEM LIKE QUEENS

On another morning, Shamasneh spars with a male colleague in the small waiting room in the courthouse. She challenges his claim that Islamic law gives the same rights to men and women seeking divorce.

She refuses to give in. When he appears to run out of arguments, he resorts to “It’s in the Quran.”

Mahmoud Habbash, the head of the Islamic courts in the West Bank, warns that the views advocated by Shamasneh and other activists could lead to the collapse of society. He argues that men and women are different by nature and that different rules are required for them. Islamic law is meant to protect women, according to Habbash.

“The problem is that in the West, you don’t understand how we treat women,” Habbash says. “We treat them like queens.”

Only one-third of Palestinians support a wife’s right to divorce at all, according to the Pew survey. Views and laws vary across the region: Support for divorce rights for women is even lower in Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, but is backed by a majority in Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.

With so much opposition, Shamasneh knows that a long road lies ahead.

Her employer, the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, lobbies for legal reform. But progress has stalled, because the Palestinian self-rule government only has limited authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and will not take on ultra-conservative religious and clan leaders.

At home, her village remains deeply conservative — though more women than in the past work in non-traditional jobs, including a few doctors and engineers.

The local mosque preacher, Yacoub al-Faqeeh, says that while he respects Shamasneh as an observant Muslim, he sharply disagrees with demands for equal marriage and divorce rights.

“If women are free in divorce, they will divorce every day because they are emotional, while men are rational,” he says.

Al-Faqeeh also disapproves of women as Islamic court judges; the female judge in Ramallah is his relative. “She is great, but a woman who cannot divorce herself shouldn’t have the right to divorce other women,” he says.

Shamasneh has the option of emigrating and joining two brothers who have settled in Douglasville, Georgia. She knows the area well after having visited seven times, pushing yet another boundary by traveling without a male chaperone. “People talk, but I don’t care,” she says of her solo trips to the U.S.

Yet life in the West holds no allure. Everything is too easy, she says. The struggle for women in her community gives her life meaning.

Despite the frequent setbacks on the job, Shamasneh says she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

“People in the village are resisting change,” she says. “Therefore, I invest my energies in the court.”

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Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai contributed reporting.

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