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When Sally Met Lebanon's Personal Status Laws

ICE Graveyard 14/04/2016 Halim Shebaya

NBA basketball commentators often note that the player who reacts to an opponent's provocations on the court usually gets called for the foul. The reason is that the referee's eyes are on the ball. And he/she only notices the more obvious reaction (say, an elbow or a shove) and misses the initial more subtle irritants (say, the pulling of a shirt or other unlawful defensive tactics).
In Lebanon, the referee has called a foul on an Australian woman, Sally Faulkner. Apparently, she had arranged a Hollywood-like plan whereby child-recovery agents would help her "abduct" and then smuggle her two children out of the country.
What provoked Sally to initiate such an action that has landed her, and the people who assisted her, in the custody of the Lebanese authorities?
From what we can tell thus far, Sally was frustrated with her Lebanese husband, Ali Al-Amin, who had reportedly brought their children from Australia in May 2015 for a three-week holiday. According to a report in the Guardian newspaper, he subsequently informed her via Skype calls that they would remain in Lebanon. And according to Faulkner's friend whom the Guardian interviewed, "she had attempted repeatedly and fruitlessly to contact Amin and the children over the past few months."
The case is obviously sensitive and raises a number of legal and ethical considerations. But given the complicated context of Lebanon (as I will show below), the primary question worth asking is very simple: why did Sally do it?
In other words, why did Sally feel the need to resort to a TV program in order to access her kids? Was she looking for financial profit when she agreed to feature in the TV show that reportedly was filming the events? Or is she simply a mother who got desperate and resorted to controversial means in order to claim back her children?
It is difficult at this stage to get a clear answer to these questions. And we will have to wait until she can explain her side of the story.
In the meantime, this case sheds light on a number of issues in Lebanon's laws that render women "unequal and unprotected" -- as a January 2015 Human Rights Watch report on Lebanon's personal status laws revealed.
According to the report, "Lebanese citizens are not equal before the law when it comes to their personal rights" in light of the "lack of a civil code, and the multiplicity of religious personal status laws that exist in its absence."
What this means in reality is "that Lebanese citizens face vastly different legal, social, and economic realities related to life events such as divorce, with insufficient minimum legal standards or guarantees."
Particularly as they relate to women,

"these religiously based personal status laws particularly disadvantage women... [and] that across all religions, these laws erect greater barriers for women than men who wish to terminate unhappy or abusive marriages, initiate divorce proceedings, ensure their rights concerning their children after divorce, or secure pecuniary rights from a former spouse."

When it comes to child custody, it is usually "the child's age, not their best interests... [that] determines with whom they reside." In addition, there is a difference between custody and religious courts' conception of guardianship. Whereas maternal custody is "time-bound, conditional, and revocable," guardianship is granted to the father -- even after divorce -- and it "entails the preservation and upbringing of children and their assets until they reach adulthood."
In this situation, we have to be sure that we have taken the entire context and history into account when judging a woman's decision to "abduct" or "kidnap" her kids. And in light of the focus of some media on the irresponsible nature of her plan and the adverse effect it could have on her children, it is definitely worth reviewing the state of Lebanon's laws when it comes to the treatment of women in marriage and in divorce.
Going back to my opening example, the NBA has a process of reviewing certain referee calls and looking at the events that led to a foul being called. The aim of such a review is to ascertain whether there is anything substantial that happened on the court and that the referee missed during the game. This is all that I am suggesting here.
This is especially relevant in a developing scenario that involves two parents' battle over child custody in a country where women are victims of structural inequality. It is also relevant in a country where child custody is a key factor behind many women's choice to remain in a marriage they no longer want -- and even at times, to remain in abusive marriages for fear of losing their children.
Regardless of the final outcome, this unfortunate incident should serve, at the very least, as a reminder that Lebanon's personal status laws are in dire need of reform, especially in relation to gender equality and discrimination.
This post originally appeared on the blog Hummus for Thought.

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