Nadyn Jouny’s sister taped up two messages in her memory inside a closet at the family home — one of motherly love tinged with pain, another of defiance.
The first Jouny wrote to her 9-year-old son on the one day a week she was allowed to see him under a custody ruling by a Shiite religious court. “Peace be upon the holy nights when you fall asleep near me,” she wrote. “Peace be upon the trace of love painted on your face and features … This is my night.”
That night, Oct. 4, would be her last with her son. Two days later, Jouny was killed in a car accident at age 29.
The second message, written by a relative, has a photo of a smiling Jouny with her son’s arms wrapped around her neck. “They think your voice has disappeared. Nadyn, we are your voice; get some rest…we will fight for you,” it declares.
In death as in life, Jouny — affectionately called Om Karam, Arabic for “mother of Karam” — has showcased the struggles of Lebanese women who are battling laws that give religious courts say over many aspects of their lives.
Lebanon allows its many religious sects to govern personal status issues in their communities, resulting in 15 different sets of laws over such things as rules for marriage, divorce and custody and visitation of children. In cases of divorce for Shiite Muslims like Jouny, the Shiite religious courts usually grant custody of children to the fathers at age two for sons and age seven for daughters. Jouny waged a campaign — online and in street protests — against the laws ever since she lost custody of her son and was given visitation rights of only 24 hours a week.
Supporters of the system say it reflects the country’s plurality of faiths. Critics say it discriminates against women of all faiths and means women are treated differently based on their sect. For example, divorced Sunni mothers can keep sons and daughters until age 12.
“Women have really borne the brunt of the sectarian system of governance and we see that in the personal status laws,” said Lama Fakih, Human Rights Watch Beirut office director. “These are egregious abuses that are resulting in violence against women, that are resulting in outcomes where children are not being taken care of by the parent that is most suited to take care of the child, where families are really not well served.”
Multiple solutions and demands have been put forward: reform or oversight of the religious courts, an option of a civil system for those who don’t want to use religious courts, or a unified civil personal status law for all.
Protests convulsing Lebanon for more than a month have given a new platform for those demanding change. The protests erupted over proposed new taxes and escalated into calls for the removal of Lebanon’s entire political elite and its sectarian power-sharing system.
Zoya Rouhana of the feminist organization KAFA said the myriad of personal status laws is intertwined with sectarian politics.
“Unfortunately, this renaissance that we’ve witnessed and seen on the streets lately through the leadership of women … is not reflected in the laws,” she told a small group who had gathered to discuss a KAFA-proposed draft for a civil personal status law.
Jouny died just before the current protests. But her face or name have at times appeared on protesters’ signs and banners. “The beautiful revolutionary … Your soul is present here with us,” read one. At a memorial marking 40 days since her death, candles spelling out her name in Arabic lit up a main Beirut protest square. “We cannot delay issues of women’s rights … Death does not wait,” read a pin on her sister Nada’s chest.
Badia Fahs, a 49-year-old who has turned out for the current round of protests, first met Jouny at a protest years ago. She remembers a young woman, her hair down, wearing — Fahs thought disapprovingly — too much red lipstick. Jouny was chanting, “Corruption, corruption, it’s underneath the turbans,” a controversial slogan she became known for, referring to allegations against some religious judges.
Fahs, who covers her hair with a scarf, said she was so amazed she broke into tears. “What a way to shatter taboos. I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Even our men cannot talk like that.”
“I would look at her and think here’s this young girl who feels like she can change the world and she is not afraid — not of a sect or of clerics … What am I lacking?” Fahs said.
Lawyer Fadia Hamzeh said she often hears criticism from her Shiite community that she is scandalizing them. She founded a Facebook page called “Revolution of a Shiite woman” to educate women about their rights in the Shiite courts, share their stories and let them know that “if you don’t rebel, you won’t get your rights.”
“We opened the door. Most families are suffering from tragedies. I didn’t create this,” she said. “We must offer an example for other sects because just like we have injustices in religious courts, other sects do too.”
Hamzeh was inspired by the ordeal of her sister, who made news in 2016 when she was arrested and held for a few days over her refusal to turn over her son to his father. Jouny, she said, was one of the people who helped her sister’s case become public and led chants in a march to the police station where she was taken.
“Where are we headed when our mothers die feeling oppressed and when we are depriving our children of their mothers when they’re still alive?” she said.
Sheikh Moussa al-Sammoury, a judge who sits on one of the Shiite courts, said, “Religious matters are not subject to street pressure. The issue has to do with God’s satisfaction; God wants this or doesn’t want this,” adding, “The judge is not acting on a whim or on what he wants.”
But, he said, he and his fellow judges have room to consider the children’s best interest on a case-by-case basis. “If he’s a bad father and is not to be trusted, we don’t award him custody,” he said.
Ahmad Taleb, a Shiite cleric, said the solution is to reform the rules of religious courts, noting that there is more than one opinion on the custody issue in Shiite jurisprudence. He supports raising the maternal custody age to at least seven while allowing judges to leave the kids with the mother longer when it’s in their best interest.
“Religion in its essence is mercy, not plastic texts,” he said. “People who are religiously devout, and I am one of them, demand change.” He said failing to provide solutions within the religious context could drive people to look elsewhere. “Today in Lebanon, there are complaints about religious courts of all sects, Muslim and Christian.”
Zeina Ibrahim, who founded a campaign to raise the age of maternal custody, said she supports the idea of a unified civil law for personal status but believes it is a “far dream.” A more attainable goal, she said, is to raise the age to seven for boys and nine for girls.
She remembered Jouny, with whom she worked for years, as “extremely enthusiastic” and extremely “hurt.”
In many of her photos, Jouny flashes a wide, seemingly carefree smile that belies the anguish her family says she kept private. “She would tell me, ‘Mama, I’m burning from the inside. My son is getting older and I know nothing about him,'” her mother Majida said.
Married before she turned 19, Jouny’s relations with her husband and in-laws soured early on. There was violence. Her sisters said they saw bruises. One day after a fight with her husband, she tried to leave only to have her husband and his mother yank Karam away, her family said. Her activism on the custody issue was born.
“She considered her cause one for all women,” her father said. Her family said she advocated for many causes, including helping street children and refugees and campaigning against sexual harassment and the marriage of minors.
In the Beirut square where Jouny’s family and friends gathered to commemorate her death, Zainab Kawtharani, 25, lit a candle. “Your cause is safe with us. We will continue till the end,” she said she wanted to tell Jouny.
She then clutched a sign: “Your voice has been and will continue to be a revolution, Nadyn.”
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