“You Can’t Take my Children in the Name of Religion” Sunni and Shi‘i Attempts to Reform Women Custody Right in Lebanon

By Jean-Michel Landry
Submitted to Session P5011 (Women, Islam, and Family Law, 2017 Annual Meeting
Islamic Law;
In November 2016, the Lebanese media reported the story of a Shi‘i woman sent to jail for refusing to give up custody of her three-year-old child. The prison sentence was based on a judgment issued by a Shi‘i family court stating that the women’s youngest child shall live under the custody of his father until puberty. The news provoked a tide of moral outrage across the country; protests and sits in were organized.
Such waves of protest are hardly new in Lebanon: three years before (in October 2013) Lebanese citizens hit the street demanding that Shi‘i divorced mothers be allowed to keep custody of their children for a longer period. “You can’t take my children in the name of religion,” read the placard of a female protestor. This legal campaign was directly inspired by the success of Sunni Lebanese activists in reforming the custody laws of their co-religionists. In 2012, indeed, the legal period during which divorced women retain custody of their children was extended from five to twelve years. To this day, however, Shi‘i Lebanese have been unable to implement such reform; as a result, women therefore regularly lose the custody of their children after two years.
Based on multi-year ethnographic research, this paper compares the recent campaigns undertaken by Sunnis and Shi‘i Lebanese to extend the duration of maternal custody. The inquiry is based on fieldwork observations (court audiences, NGO debates), interviews (with activists, litigants, judges and lawyers) and a study of legal cases. Why, I ask, can two parallel campaigns around the same issue, launched in the same years and in the same country produce such contrasting results? But instead of approaching this question through a study of Shi‘i and Sunni legal traditions, I turn my glaze toward the political and legal system in which these traditions are currently embedded. Investigating the contemporary mechanics of Islamic law, I argue, requires paying attention to a larger set of institutions, offices, and networks, such as ministers, MPs, secular activists, NGOs, and civil judges. Only by being attentive to a broader range of legal rules and norms, I suggest, can we come to an understanding of what Islamic law has become in our contemporary societies.