By David Rosenberg

Beirut, Lebanon

New legislation intended to combat domestic violence in Lebanon has run into opposition by the country's religious establishment.

Dar Al-Fatwa, the country's highest Sunni religious authority, claimed that the new law contradicted Islamic law (sharia) and would deprive Muslim women of the ability to turn to religious courts for protection. It warned the legislators against "religious innovations" such as the concept of rape within the marital framework.

"[The draft law] was not introduced to improve women's status, but rather to break up the family similar to Western ways, which are foreign to our society and values," the statement from Dar al-Fatwa said following a meeting between the Grand Mufti of the Republic Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani and other leading Sunni sheikhs.

Lebanon, a patchwork of different religions and conflicting attitudes towards modernity, has become a battleground for women's rights. Among Islamists, the push for issues such as birth control and other feminist issues is often interpreted as a Western assault on the Muslim faith.

Personal status issues are dealt with in Lebanon by the country's religious sects, and womens' rights advocates are treading carefully in lobbying for the new law.

"We disagree with the decision of Dar Al-Fatwa, and urge them to reconsider their position," Aman Kabara-Shaarani, president of the Lebanese Council of Women (LCW), told The Media Line. "We are engaged in ongoing dialogue with the religious authorities on this issue, and were surprised by this announcement." LCW is an umbrella organization representing 170 civil rights organizations nationwide.

The draft law, which would be added to Lebanon's penal code, was approved by the caretaker government of Saad Hariri in April 2010 and was sent to parliament for further debate. The bill criminalizes marital rape and forces police to intervene when a woman files a domestic violence complaint against a family member.

Rasha Moumneh, a Beirut-based researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Lebanese women suffered no more domestic violence than women in other countries, but they have no law to protect them. She said the Sunni religious establishment, led by Qabbani, was less concerned about the encroachment of Western ideas than of losing power.

"The religious establishment fears loss of power," Moumneh told The Media Line. "This is because according to the law, domestic violence issues will be discussed in civil courts rather than religious courts."

Moumneh said that religious opposition to the draft law was part of a larger campaign against the push for women's rights in Lebanon. She contended that women's legislation in Lebanon was based on the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which extremist Sunni organizations had recently decided to attack.

"In the north, Salafists [Sunni fundamentalists] have been handing out leaflets against the UN convention, which Lebanon had ratified back in 1997," Moumneh said.

Lebanon's Islamists claim that the draft law contradicts the current law on personal status, but Moumneh said this was false, saying the current law doesn't treat domestic-violence issues at all. The only legislation protecting women is of a general nature covering any kind of violence. Women's rights activists say it's insufficient because police usually claim it doesn't authorize them to intervene in cases of violence within the home and family.

Rima Abi-Nader, a social worker at Kafa, a Lebanese organization tackling domestic violence and the initiator of the new legislation, said social attitudes allowed Lebanese men to practice almost unlimited domination over their wives.

"Some religions give men the right to beat their wives, and act as a dictator at home," Abi-Nader, who operates a hotline for domestic violence, told The Media Line. She said one of the most important components of the new law is psychological and behavioral training, which will allow the husband to return to the family.

Moumneh of Human Rights Watch said that although the Sunni establishment is the most vociferous in opposing progressive legislation, it is by no means alone. Hizbullah, the country's leading Shiite group, also opposed universal legislation that would harm its absolute authority to decide in personal matters within the Shiite community.

"Naim Qasem, the deputy secretary-general of Hizbullah, has spoken out against a universal civil status law in Lebanon," Moumneh said. "A new nationality law, which will allow women to pass on their Lebanese nationality to husbands and children, was opposed across the board by all religious groups."

Moumneh said that the religious establishment in Lebanon was not independent, but tightly linked to the political leadership of Lebanon's sects. In the case of Dar Al-Fatwa, that would mean a link to Saad Hariri's March 14 movement.

"There is a common perception that March 14 is more moderate than other groups on these issues, but in reality that's not the case," Moumneh said.


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