The Community Centre in Arabeh hosted a panel discussion about “Women’s Rights of Inheritance” on 27 October, an initiative of the local women leaders that was kindly supported by Kayan’s Community Department, the Local Council and chaired by Kayan’s Legal Department Coordinator Shirin Batshon. Both organisers and audience regarded the event highly successful, not only in terms of the high number of attendees – which included men and women from diverse age groups – but also in terms of its exceptionally tension-free and open atmosphere, paving the way for further public discussion on the topic.
Initially, the discussion focused on the respective differences between religious and civil laws of inheritance. Both can be applied in Israel and have implications for gender equality, something explained in detail by private attorney and personal status issues expert Mohammad Fahed Hijazi. Israeli civil law, known to give men and women fairer allocation of inheritance than religious law, tends to be more commonly employed while religious law wields authority only if all parties, men and women, agree to it. Religious law, Shari’a law in particular, offer women less entitlement to inheritance – a matter addressed to guest speakers Kadi Ziad Lahwai, Judge of the Shari’a Court in Acre, and Father Elias Daw, Head of the Appellate Court of the Greek Catholic Church.
Ziad Lahwai accounted for this circumstance by drawing on historical structures of society within which men, being responsible for the family’s finances as a whole, are expected to work and earn an income in the public sphere, while women are in charge of domestic duties and are financially taken care of by their husbands. Dr. Laila Abed-Rabo, expert in Islamic Studies and a member of the NGO “Women and Horizons”, proposed a feminist interpretation of religious texts arguing for a bigger stake in inheritance for women. Criticising, amongst other things, the gap between the religious courts’ definition of women’s rights of inheritance and their actual implementation of those rights, she suggested to the qadi that being a good Muslim essentially entails the provision of a fair and rightful share to women.
Throughout the course of the panel discussion, an intensive discourse between the five speakers came to concentrate on the crucial gap between existing civil and religious laws, and the worrying lack of willingness of women to actually claim their allotted share of inheritance. Up until today the main reason for a woman to contact a lawyer or enter a court regarding inheritance issues is her intention to voluntarily give up her share to a male family member – a very common occurrence – while claiming this share for herself remains an exceptional case. The panel unanimously agreed that it is this lack of self-oriented action that constitutes the principal obstacle to progress in women’s rights of inheritance. In reference to the previously discussed discrimination of women’s rights of inheritance by the religious courts, the two judges emphasised that the real problem is that Arab women do not, in practice, demand even this limited form of inheritance.
According to Tamam Shalash, women leader of Arabeh and speaker at the panel, the reason women do not demand this right is rooted in traditional codes of conduct within Arab society, which continue to dominate patterns of behaviour amongst Arab women. As a result, women tend to refuse to litigate, even at times of financial desperation, in order to avoid a potential crisis within their family. Naturally, as long as women fear that by claiming their rights they will be automatically labelled as ‘trouble-makers’ – something that stands in sharp contrast to their traditional role as upholders of family stability and harmony – women’s equal rights of inheritance will remain a very sensitive subject.