Arab Christian women take a stand against church paternalism

Churches in the Middle East – Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, Maronite – typically share the conservative values of their Islamic surroundings. Yet the resistance of Arab Christian women to church paternalism is growing. Claudia Mende reports

By Claudia Mende

Religious communities in the Middle East and in North Africa still exercise enormous control over the lives of their members. This is because the state has allocated them jurisdiction over matters concerning marriage, divorce, custody rights, and inheritance. As such, Islamic or church dignitaries decide upon important questions in the lives of individuals.

Christians require the blessing of their church in order to marry, as civil marriages are not yet recognised in the region (with the exception of Tunisia). When a marriage fails, the difficulties begin. Middles Eastern churches usually only allow for divorce in cases of adultery or the conversion of one of the partners to Islam.

In practice, this means that it is almost impossible for Arab Christians to legally divorce. Even those who have somehow succeeded and have obtained a divorce certificate face further hurdles if they want to re-marry. Re-marriage is impossible without express permission from the church.

Karima Kamal, a prominent Egyptian journalist, was one of the first to address this issue, writing about the plight of couples who can no longer live together and yet are forced to stay together for years.

Narrow-minded when it comes to divorce

Kamal is a member of the Coptic Christian minority, which makes up around ten percent of the Egyptian population, and was responsible for reporting on social issues for the Al Masry al Youm daily newspaper. She has since retired. "The Coptic Church has shown itself to be too narrow-minded when it comes to the issue of divorce," she says.

"The rules for divorce are in need of urgent change." In 2016, a Coptic synod did rule that divorce is possible not only in cases of adultery or a change of faith, but also following a period of separation of at least three years (five years for couples with children). However, this is no longer enough for many Copts.

Karima Kamal (photo: Claudia Mende)
Als eine der ersten Christinnen überhaupt hat die prominente ägyptische Journalistin Karima Kamal das Thema Scheidung aufgegriffen und über die Not von Paaren geschrieben, die nicht mehr zusammen leben können und doch gezwungen sind, jahrelang beieinander zu bleiben.

Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, they have been exerting pressure on their church. Groups such as "Copts 38" and "Right for Life" have been publically campaigning for civil marriage. There have been protest actions in churches, as well as public "divorce parties" by former couples, who, after years of wrangling, could finally rejoice after receiving official permission to end their relationship.

Extremely lengthy and expensive procedure

In Jordan, only three percent of the population are Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox. Last year, the Jordanian Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) championed this issue, receiving a broad positive response. At events held in a number of cities across the country, women had the opportunity to discuss church law and its impact on their lives.

Many women came to vent their frustration, says lawyer Lina Khader. On behalf of human rights organisations such as "Sisterhood is Global" and "Mizan Law Group", she represents Christian women who have separated from their partners and want to pursue their case before an ecclesiastical court.

"This is a huge issue for us in Jordan," says Khader. Proceedings before ecclesiastical courts are drawn out affairs, opaque even for lawyers, and too expensive for all parties concerned, criticises the lawyer. Divorce proceedings can result in court and lawyers' fees totalling around 10,000 euros.

In a country like Jordan, where a teacher doesn’t even earn 500 euros a month, this amounts to a small fortune. The judges are almost always men, who have been appointed by the respective church hierarchy. And they lack an understanding of the living conditions of women.

In light of the growing number of those seeking divorce, the ecclesiastical courts are sometimes prepared to grant grounds other than adultery or apostasy, claims the lawyer. Yet case outcomes depend entirely on the discretion of individual judges.

Custody rights a problem

Things become very difficult when it comes to custody rights for the children. In such cases, the churches tend to adhere to the traditional Islamic view that fathers should make the crucial decisions in matters of upbringing and education. Khader has experienced the haggling that goes on before ecclesiastical courts about who gains custody of the children.

Nonetheless, there has been movement on the part of the hierarchy. In 2019, Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, announced a reform of divorce procedures and improvements are also to be discussed with churches affiliated with Rome. However, no official decisions have yet been taken.Of course, not only women, but men as well, suffer under the rigorous divorce law. In another matter, that of inheritance law, it is clearly women who are at a disadvantage. According to Islamic inheritance law, a woman is entitled to only half as much as what a male relative can claim.

The fact that many churches apply Islamic law in inheritance disputes and thereby discriminate against women, angers many Christian women. Many Christian men insist on Islamic rules, especially when land is involved, says the Jordanian lawyer Lina Khader. It is not the state, but rather the churches that impose these rules upon their members. In matters of morality, the churches are just as conservative as the representatives of Islam.

In Egypt, the Coptic lawyer Hoda Nasrallah successfully fought her case, causing somewhat of a sensation. Her father bequeathed Nasrallah and her two brothers a modest house in Cairo. Her brothers were quite willing to share the inheritance fairly with their sister, stresses Nasrallah. Yet, as she is a lawyer, she wanted this confirmed by a court. It is not clear why, as a Christian, she would only be entitled to half a claim.

In favour of fairer inheritance laws and civil marriage

In Egypt, in contrast to Jordan, such matters are regulated by state courts, but in family matters and questions of inheritance, judgements are made in accordance with respective religious guidelines. For instance, Islamic law is used for Muslims engaged in family disputes.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III (photo: Claudia Mende)
Bewegung in das erstarrte hierarchische System: 2019 hat der griechisch-orthodoxe Patriarch Theofilus III. mit Sitz in Jerusalem eine Reform der Scheidungsverfahren angekündigt, auch bei den mit Rom verbundenen Kirchen werden Verbesserungen diskutiert. Spruchreif ist das alles aber noch nicht.

Up until now, the Coptic Church has applied Islamic laws in inheritance cases, although it is not required to do so. So Nasrallah went to court and initially lost in two instances. In November 2019, however, an appeal court in Cairo ruled in her favour.

"Many Coptic men are content to profit from Islamic laws," said Nasrallah in an interview with the Al Jazeera television network. The Coptic Church, however, is in no way obliged to impose Islamic inheritance laws on its members. Whether the judgement in favour of Nasrallah is just an isolated case or a sign of a general reappraisal by the Coptic Church on its position still remains to be seen.

The case was also closely followed by Muslims in the region. A number of Muslims, though still a minority, have voiced demands for fairer inheritance laws and the introduction of civil marriage. In 2018, the Tunisian Parliament proposed a reform to inheritance laws, although a vote has not yet taken place on the matter. Scholars from the Al-Azhar University in Cairo were quick to reject equitable inheritance laws as non-Islamic.

There have also been initiatives promoting civil marriage. Recently, Raya Al-Hassan, the Lebanese Minister of the Interior and herself a Sunni Muslim, demanded the introduction of civil marriage in her country. The reaction was swift. Both the Maronite Patriarch and the Chief Mufti of Lebanon categorically rejected the proposal. Yet, these topics are no longer taboo and the debate will continue.

Claudia Mende

© 2020

Translated from the German by John Bergeron