For decades, Palestinian women seeking to divorce their husbands risked years of miserable, expensive litigation or lengthy domestic battles as they begged their spouses for permission to leave.
On Thursday, Palestinian religious authorities announced sweeping new reforms of local divorce law that make it much easier for a woman to end her marriage. The rules have put the West Bank at the forefront of a movement that is slowly taking hold in the traditional, male-dominated societies of the Middle East.
“In Islamic law, the relation between spouses should be based on tenderness, love and understanding,” said Sheik Yousef al-Dais, head of the Islamic courts in the Palestinian Authority, as he announced the new changes. “If there’s hatred between them, should we force them to stay together?”
Under Islamic law, a woman cannot ask for divorce simply because she was unhappy. That is a privilege enjoyed only by men. Instead, she must prove ill treatment or receive approval from her husband.
Proving ill treatment often is no easy task. That requires evidence, like a landlord testifying a wayward husband never paid the rent, or medical certificates proving a woman was beaten. Proving those cases is sometimes impossible and frequently entangles women in years of court hearings.
If a woman can’t claim harm, she may ask her husband to grant her a divorce. In those cases, she must return the dowry and gifts she receives from her husband upon marriage. Some men demand more: exclusive children's custody, thousands of dollars, apartments, or simply deny the divorce.
“These women are investment projects for men, open to extortion at any time,” said al-Dais.
From Thursday, women don’t have to give proof of ill treatment. A judge will have the power to decide, without evidence, that her marriage is harmful for her. Husbands are also barred from seeking “unreasonable” sums of money beyond the dowry, and the divorce must be completed within three months.
These changes mark a huge step forward in a society where many still believe that women should have no right to separate from her husband.
A 31-year-old woman said she spent three years in court before a judge finally agreed to her divorce request. She said that during the proceedings, her husband smashed her nose, ripped out her hair repeatedly - clutching it to drag her across the floor - and left her homeless after giving birth to their son.
The woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name Nisreen because of fears for her safety, said the judges initially refused to grant the divorce because her husband promised to change. They also didn't accept police reports detailing her husband’s violence because they were from another country. Where? why?
“You are destroyed psychologically, and physically, and then the sheiks say patience,” she said.
She estimated her divorce cost her family $7,000 - the sum that the average Palestinian makes in five years.
The pressure to update divorce rules appears to have been prompted by a gruesome incident this month in which a man slashed his wife’s throat in a marketplace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. The incident provoked widespread outrage in a culture where violence against women is mostly considered a private, family affair. Did she want a divorce? What happened to the husband? I presume she died?
The changes have prompted mixed feelings in this deeply conservative society. Many families pressure females from not divorcing, worried it would ruin the family’s reputation. Divorced women are seen as loose trouble makers, and men don’t like to been as dumped. Few families can afford to hire a lawyer and begin proceedings.
“If a woman can divorce, she’ll dump him anytime she wants,” said Ahmad Qawasmi, a cosmetics salesman, 21. “I wanted to get married but now I’m reconsidering. Because if my wife leaves me, people will say: There’s a guy whose wife dumped him.”
But feminists said the changes don’t go far enough since they don’t limit the length of time or monetary compensation involved in completing a divorce. I thought there are limits. And lumbering security forces rarely implement court rulings.
“Let not the (judges) be so joyful,” said Hekmat Besesso, 48, a women’s activist who said she spent eight months in a custody battle because her husband didn’t allow her to see her son, even though a court allowed her a once-a-week visit. Besesso lost custody of her son when she remarried another man last year - another quirk of Palestinian family law. How old is the boy? Is she allowed to see him?
At an Islamic family law courthouse in Ramallah this week - where divorces are lodged - four judges sporting turbans and clerical robes welcomed the changes, saying they were sick of men squeezing women dry while attempting to divorce.
But it may be some time before the changes are implemented. Nearby, bureaucrats kept giving contradictory instructions to a young woman in jeans and a scarlet headscarf as she tried to finalize her divorce.
Only 14 percent of marriages end in divorce in Palestinian society, said attorney Fatima al-Muaqat, an expert on Palestinian divorce law. But that figure was misleading because of the lengthy divorce process, which stretch up to 10 years, and the many women who either fail or don't bother to seek a divorce.
Other Muslim-majority countries have grappled with the issue of how much freedom a woman should have to divorce.
Under a 2010 ruling in the United Arab Emirates, a woman can divorce her husband regardless of his consent.
In cases where a court declared the wife was mistreated or forced to file for divorce, she can retain her financial rights including the dowry and other compensation. Under the country’s tribal codes, a woman who files without her husband’s consent risks waiving her rights to any dowry or compensation.
In conservative Pakistan, religious clerics take away a woman’s right to ask for a divorce by crossing out the section allowing her to do so in her marriage contract.
In Malaysia, Muslim women have to present their case to religious courts in order to obtain divorces, but evidence of physical or material harm is not compulsory.
The new Palestinian changes won’t apply to women in Gaza, ruled by the Islamic group Hamas, the bitter rival of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority only rules over Palestinians in the West Bank. What about Christians?
Al-Dais said he hoped his changes could be a model for Palestinians.
“We are walking step by step. We want to take a deep breath and see how the street will accept it.”