Shiite Lebanese women endure painful custody battles
BEIRUT - Every week, young divorcee Rita Choukeir looks forward to the three precious hours she gets with her young son in Lebanon, where child custody is awarded according to religious rulings.
Typically hailed as one of the region's most liberal countries, Lebanon's so-called personal status issues -- including marriage, divorce, and child custody -- are still determined by authorities of its 18 religious sects.
Shiite religious courts have ruled that divorced mothers must turn over custody of their sons when they reach two, and daughters aged seven, when custody goes de facto to the father.
But hundreds of mothers, including 24-year-old Choukeir, are fighting back.
"As a mother, you have the biggest right to rebel, to take on the whole world to protect your son," said Choukeir, who has been fighting for custody of her four-year-old son Adam since her divorce in 2015.
Her struggle is familiar and traumatic: Choukeir grew up seeing her own divorced mother just eight hours a week because of a ruling by a religious court.
Barely holding back her tears, she told AFP: "I've seen the pain of both experiences: my own as a child raised far away from her mother, and a mother kept from her son."
Adam has been living with his father since shortly after the divorce, but Choukeir is now appealing to the country's top Shiite Muslim court for full custody.
- 'Not open for discussion' -
Choukeir told AFP she was not expecting the court to rule in her favour, but that she would not stop fighting for custody "until the last of my days".
"I don't trust the (religious) court, I'm afraid of it," Choukeir said.
"How can someone like me, who was deprived of her mother at three years old because of this court, trust it today?"
According to Shiite scholars, the custody rule is an interpretation of the hadith (words and practices of the Prophet Mohammed) and the Koran, which stipulate that fathers are responsible for child-rearing.
Ali Makki, who heads the religious court at Lebanon's Supreme Islamic Shiite Council, told AFP: "The Shiite sect relies primarily on interpretation, but the highest point of reference for the council is in Najaf," a Shiite shrine city in Iraq.
"Amending the issue (of custody) is not easy for the Shiite sect."
A similar custody rule once applied to Lebanon's Sunni population, but after widespread pushback, clerics amended it and Sunni divorcees were granted full custody until their children turned 12.
Now, Shiite mothers in Lebanon are waging their own protest campaign, with Choukeir's case as a rallying cry.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, dozens of mothers gathered with their children at the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council headquarters in Beirut.
Organised by the "Protecting Lebanese Women" campaign, protesters held banners that read, "Custody is a right for Rita and every mother!"
"We have been waging this battle for four years without any positive response from the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council, which insists that this issue is not open for discussion," said campaign head Zeina Ibrahim.
- 'Stood my ground' -
In some cases, divorcees offer to give up their alimony in exchange for full custody. But sometimes, Shiite women who resist lose their visitation rights, or are even jailed.
In early November, Fatima Hamza, 32, spent six days behind bars after refusing to hand over her four-year-old son Ali to his father.
The top Shiite court had ruled that since her son was older than two, full custody would be awarded to his father.
"The court didn't even listen to me. Instead, they added to the injustice against me," she told AFP.
While Hamza was imprisoned, Ali stayed with a relative and later returned to his mother's care -- although his father is still pressing the legal battle for full custody.
"They renewed their demands that I be imprisoned again but I stood my ground. I told the judge that I was ready to go to jail again, but I would not implement this unjust and unfair decision," she said.
Surrounded by women outside the Shiite Council's headquarters, Hamza said Lebanese "mothers are becoming more daring after breaking down the walls of fear".
Last year, Darine Salman was jailed for 27 days when she refused to hand over custody of her six-year-old son to her Kuwaiti husband.
By the time she was released, Salman's husband had taken custody of their son.
"The religious judge ruled in favour of the father, as expected. He refused to listen to me or let me defend myself," Salman, 36, said.
"I don't want my rights. I just want to see my son."