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Syria: Women’s Rights in Light of New Amendments to Syrian Personal Status Law

(Apr. 8, 2019) On February 5, 2019, the People’s Assembly of Syria approved amendments to more than 60 articles of the Personal Status Law issued by Legislative Decree No. 59 of 1953. (President al-Assad Issues Law Amending Certain Articles of Personal Status Law Issued by Legislative Decree No. 59 of 1953 and Its Amendments, SYRIAN NEWS AGENCY (SANA) (Feb. 19, 2019) (in Arabic).) The Personal Status Law of Syria governs matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. The most significant modifications to the Law pertain to the right of each spouse to include her or his own conditions in the marriage contract, provided that these terms do not violate Sharia (Islamic law) and Syrian law. (Id. (art. 14(1)).)

Legislative Background

The Personal Status Law, No. 59 of 1953, contains 308 articles. The provisions of this Law apply to all Syrians, except as provided in article 307, which includes some special provisions concerning marriage, polygamy, dowry, divorce, and wills and inheritance in the Druze community. (Law No. 59 of 1953, Sept. 7, 1953, official website of the People’s Assembly of Syria (in Arabic).) In like manner, article 308 applies solely to the Christian and Jewish communities with regard to such issues as marriage, alimony, marriage annulment, and custody of children. Article 305 asserts that matters not covered in the text of Law No. 59 are to be governed in accordance with Hanafi Islamic doctrine.

Amendments to the Law Pertaining to Women’s Rights  

The new modifications related to article 14 stipulate that the husband or wife may impose his or her conditions on the marriage contract provided they do not violate Islamic and Syrian law. If a condition violates Islamic law, it is deemed void, but the marriage contract remains valid.

The new amendments also raise the age of marriage from 17 to 18 years for both men and women. (Id. art. 16.) Furthermore, a woman has the right to invalidate a marriage imposed by her guardian without her overt consent. (Id. art. 21(2).) Likewise, the new amendments provide that women are entitled to marry without their guardian’s approval if they are 18 years old. (Id. art. 20.)

Under the new amendments, if the husband abandons his wife, she may request a divorce (id. art. 111) or request a separation from her husband for compelling reasons (id. art. 105).

Reaction to the Amendments

Despite the benefits Syrian women are said to receive from the new Law, some jurists and lawyers argue that the Law has not produced any fundamental changes to improve Syrian women’s rights. (Nour al-Dalati, Amendments to Personal Status Law… Violations of Legitimacy or Equity for Women?, ENAB BALADI (Feb. 24, 2019) (in Arabic).) For instance, civil marriage remains forbidden, and Syrian Muslim women are still prohibited from marrying non-Muslim men while Christian women are allowed to marry Muslim men. Moreover, women’s right to inheritance remains limited and polygyny remains legal. (Walid Barkasia, Amendments to “Personal Status” in Syria… and Pressure Ignored by the Regime’s Media, AL-MODON (Feb. 2, 2019) (in Arabic).)

Some Syrian civil society organizations suggest that while these amendments are positive, they are insufficient steps toward a modern civil family law that brings equality for all citizens. (Adnan Ahmad, Amendment of Syrian Personal Status Law… Allegations of Maximizing the Rights of Women and Children, AL-ARABY (Feb. 6, 2019) (in Arabic).) Moreover, the Law does not punish the perpetration of domestic violence. (Barkasia, supra.) Thus, in the view of Syrian writer Walid Barkasia, much remains to be done in Syria to achieve gender equality in compliance with international human rights laws. (Id.)

This article was written by John Al Saddy, Foreign Law Consultant, under the supervision of Foreign Law Specialist George Sadek.