"Nadine did not die in an accident! Your laws killed her". “We want our children to grow up with us, and not end up praying for our soul. Your laws are killing mothers every day”. “Rest in peace Nadine. We will carry on the revolution!” read some of the banners held by protesters. All of the slogans were followed by the hashtag: “Custody of my children against the Ja’fari court".
A divorcee and a fervent advocate of women's rights, Nadine Jouni was killed on the Damour-Saida highway as she was heading to Beirut to take part in the protests against the economic situation in the country. Monday morning, her village of Bint Jbeil in South Lebanon paid her a last tribute, in the presence of her friends, her colleagues (the young woman was responsible for media campaigns and press relations at the Abaad association), as well as representatives of different feminist NGOs. For a few minutes, her son, who was accompanied by his father's family, took one last look at his mother's coffin.
"In jail ... to keep my child"
The story of Nadine Jouni could be that of any divorced Shiite mother seeking custody of her children, " religious courts favor chauvinist traditions that serve the interests of men", claims Rita Chucair. Rita is 26 years old, divorced and has a son. Her ordeal began just after her divorce in 2015. Shiite law states that women can have custody of their children up until the age of two for boys and seven for girls. "These laws do not take into account the psychological state or the social status of the child," Chucair laments. “Their goal is to keep the man's grip on the woman. In this framework, the child ends up becoming a tool used by the father to pressure the woman into abandoning the rights that Islam has provided her with, such as being able to divorce without her husband’s approval, or include a clause regarding the custody of the children in the marriage contract. Not to mention the harassment she undergoes from the sheikhs or the judges who promise to grant her her rights in return for sexual favors."
Rita confides that she has suffered from all of these atrocities. She says that after getting her divorce, "I filed a complaint for protection against domestic violence that also included my son. It was followed by a lawsuit to obtain custody of my child, particularly because my ex’s parents hit me when I went to their home to see my son," she says. Rita's ex-husband lived in Beirut, while her child lived with his paternal grandparents in Southern Lebanon.
The court issued a temporary decision that granted her visitation rights of twenty-four hours a week, while in accordance to the protection order, she was only allowed to see her son for three hours a week. "The court was slow to review my case" Rita adds. “In the meantime, my son was suffering from emotional violence. In addition, he suffered from psychological disorders mainly due to being away from me."
No longer willing to see him suffer, Chucair decided to keep him with her. "I was ready to be jailed for six months, even if it meant taking my son with me" she says, adding that, "I was dragged from one police station to the next until the day when the order to incarcerate me was issued." Chucair, who was greeted with a lot of support when her story became public, has meanwhile created a Facebook page "المرأة والقضاء اللبناني" (Women and the Lebanese justice). "The strong support and backing of everyone around me have forced the judge to reassess his decision," she says. A few months ago, she obtained custody of her son. "But we carry on the fight through our page so we can help the many mothers who are fighting for their rights," she says.
"Hoping they will come back"
R. who is also Shiite, and who asked to remain anonymous, was not as lucky as Rita. Twice divorced and a mother to five children (three of them from her first marriage), she says that her story is typical of "any Shiite mother living under the horrific laws of the Ja’fari court system, which displays an abuse of rights by systematically granting custody of a child to the father, even if the latter proves to be an alcoholic, or violent ... ". "A mother can only have custody of her children if the father decides so," she explains. “But even then, he puts down the conditions and can take the kids back if the rules are not respected. All the judges side with the man without any consideration for the woman or the children. Very often, the father refuses to let the mother see her children. She is then forced to refer to the police in regards to each visit,” says R. R. reveals that she went through all of these humiliations when going through the court system for her first divorce. "I had to spend ten years in court so I could get custody of my children, and I had to abandon all my rights," she says. “Their father, however, retained the right of guardianship. When my children turned 18, they kicked him out. They no longer wanted to see him."
R.'s second marriage was equally unsuccessful. Her husband left her eleven years ago when she was pregnant with her second son, in order to get remarried. "I never saw my children again," she says. “I get their news from friends who send me their pictures. My children hate me. They believe that I have abandoned them. My eldest son, who is 15 years old, just started accepting the thought of having a mother. This is thanks to his classmates who show him what I write on my Facebook page."
R., who lives in Southern Lebanon, says that every day, when school is over, she stands outside waiting to get a glimpse of her eldest son. "I cannot see my youngest child, because his father takes him to school. My children do not attend the same school," she says, her sadness clear to see.
Despite her ordeal, R. keeps smiling and hoping. "I am sure that the day will come when –maybe out of sheer curiosity- my children will look for me. And maybe also so that they can blame me. I am living, hoping they will come back."
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 8th of October)
On Monday night, protesters silently lit candles in front of the Ja’fari court in Beirut in memory of Nadine Jouni, the 29-year-old Shiite mother who tragically died Sunday all the while fighting for custody of her nine year old son, Karam."Nadine did not die in an accident! Your laws killed her". “We want our children to grow up with us, and not end up praying for our soul. Your laws are...