Personal status laws in the Gulf Cooperation Council states regulate and impact women’s rights in every domain: education, work, freedom of movement, marriage or divorce, children, and access to resources within or outside the family. Establishing a consensus on a codified personal status law is a contested area of public discussion in the Gulf. In 1996, the GCC adopted a standard personal status law, the “Muscat Personal Status Code Document.” Kuwait was previously the only state to adopt a personal status code. Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain (though only for its Sunni population) have since based their personal status laws on the Muscat Document. Saudi Arabia remains the only GCC state without a codified personal status law.
On March 31, AGSIW hosted a panel discussion examining the various triggers and challenges for codification of personal status laws in the GCC. Additionally, the discussion covered the structural and social barriers that impede women’s rights despite the implementation of personal status laws. How do personal status laws in the Gulf Arab states compare to other countries in the region? What avenues are communities working through to change the laws? And what access do women have to justice?
Loujayn Alhokail, PhD Candidate, York University
Kent Davis-Packard, Co-Executive Director, Women’s Learning Partnership
Mohammad H. Fadel, Associate Professor, University of Toronto
Hala Aldosari, Visiting Scholar, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (Moderator)
Loujayn Alhokail highlighted the process of codification in Saudi Arabia and the negative impact on women throughout society. Male guardianship policies and laws create resistance and prevent women from knowing their full rights, therefore impeding any real political or social change. Alhokail provided examples of male guardianship policies in Saudi Arabia regarding travel, access to education, or issuing passports. She specifically spoke about the role of education and how specific curricula reinforce certain beliefs about women. Messages, rules, and teachings, implicit and explicit, in which women are in constant need of protection affect the overall process of codification, which in turn goes against the culture and teachings of how women are perceived and viewed throughout society. She argued that there is a shift happening within the country. Social media, blogs, and information technologies have created safe spaces for women to engage and learn about laws and what they provide. However, more opportunities must be created for academics, lawyers, students, and universities to debate and challenge certain laws, publications, and school curricula. Women therefore, should be included in these discussions and debates and be part of the decision making process.
Kent Davis-Packard provided an overview of personal status laws throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Personal status laws regulate issues such as marriage, divorce, and child custody. Davis-Packard explained that the legal systems across the region are discriminatory against women. Male guardianship over women in the family is replicated in all areas of decision making in the public sphere. She offered numerous country examples of progress, or lack thereof, in terms of codification and family laws. She used the example of Kuwait and how activists and lawyers are working to change certain laws, including raising the minimum marriage age, criminalizing violence against women, and criminalizing marital rape and sexual harassment. Davis-Packard described the role of her organization, the Women’s Learning Partnership, and the global campaign it has started to reveal the link between discriminatory family laws and violence against women. In order to transform culture and perception, Davis-Packard provided an example of an online platform her organization has started, which will make available a witness series, a documentary film, and the different interpretations of personal status codes that women can read and learn about in order to share best practices on legal reform methods.
Mohammad H. Fadel focused on codification as an effective means of generating sociological progress. This progress however is contingent upon a number of factors. There are not enough resources available to transform the codification of laws for women. Reforms will not be effective until broad-based political reforms are changed throughout the region, and not just in the Gulf. He argued that the politics behind codification is an important key factor in determining the effectiveness of progress; the goal of promoting social change can happen through democratic means. Democracy empowers citizens, allowing them to learn about the law through debate and discussion. He explained that Arabs generally have little sense of what Islamic law says or means; strategies should be created about how to internalize legal values. He noted that the first step of legal reform is to recognize that women are rights-bearing persons and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Fadel asserted that freedoms, institutions, and the will of citizens can work in a way to make laws effective and legitimate.
Check out the interview below with Kuwaiti lawyer and women’s rights activist Esra Alamiri, who spoke with AGSIW about personal status laws in Kuwait and their impact on women ahead of the March 31 event.
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