By Sara Mourad- Lebanese Author and Assistant Professor
On July 14, the Damour Police Station issued an internal memo, which was quickly leaked to the local media, reporting that MP and Hizbullah member Nawwaf al-Moussawi had attempted, along with a group of armed men, to storm into the station. His daughter, Ghadeer, was inside filing a complaint against her ex-husband, Hasan el-Mokdad, when four men barged into the station, stabbing the latter with a screwdriver.
News broke out: Al-Moussawi was after his ex-son-in-law. The security forces had to intervene; the station was on lockdown. Soon after, gunshots were fired from outside, injuring El-Mokdad who was then rushed to the hospital.
This, as it turns out, was a family affair gone public.
Hasan and Ghadeer had been fighting a bitter custody battle since their divorce. They had grown accustomed to meeting in police stations where the children went back and forth between mother and father. This time, though, was different. The couple was accosted in the midst of a violent argument by a police patrol on the main coastal road between Beirut and Saida. Hasan was chasing Ghadeer’s car on the highway. She was accompanied by her two children, aged 4 and 7, as well as her younger sister Faiza, who filmed the chase on her mobile phone camera.
Soon after news of the incident broke out, the mobile phone video was leaked to the public, showing Hasan attempting to break into the car, terrorizing Ghadeer and the children, all heard screaming. He was allegedly after the video that his ex-wife’s sister was recording on her phone. “You are filming! You are filming!” he is heard yelling as the picture goes black.
Along with the leaked police memo about an incensed father seeking revenge, the public was now privy to his daughter’s panic, fear, and angst intimately captured in the grainy footage of a mobile phone camera. A private custody battle was here made public for all to see, Al-Moussawi quickly anointed as its hero, with the hashtag #InSolidarityWithNawafAlMoussawi trending at number one on social media.
Ghadeer al-Moussawi’s case is far from exceptional. Indeed, stories of women losing their children in bitter and often violent custody battles have made news headlines over the past few years. This has occurred in large part because women today are less reluctant to talk publicly about their trials and tribulations with marriage, divorce, and custody, governed as they are by discriminatory religious personal status laws. Indeed, public culture abounds with women’s avowals and testimonies of violence as well as physical and emotional abuse by the men in their lives. Whether on sensationalist television talk shows or in legislative campaigns and awareness videos by civil society organizations like ABAAD and Kafa, women’s personal stories with family and sexual violence have caught the attention of the public. Even recent popular TV melodramas, not incidentally written by women, have featured female plotlines revolving around domestic abuse, divorce, and custody battles. A whole genre of female complaint has thus flourished, only to be amplified through the #MeToo movement which exposed the scale and scope of sexual harassment. As was the case with the hashtag-cum-movement against sexual violence, Lebanese mothers have taken to social media to expose the violence of security forces and religious courts in their quest to have their children forcefully removed from their care. In the past year, videos shot on mobile phone cameras circulated in the media, documenting security forces breaking into women’s homes, taking their terrified, screaming children away from them in fulfillment of the court’s orders.
And so it is that the video that was leaked of the car chase, where Ghadeer and her children’s screams could be clearly heard, belongs to a now clear line of mediated public exposure of the violence women endure, often alone and in silence. What was unseen is now on the record; what once was private is now available for public recognition and debate. And, through the efforts of women’s rights organizations and coalitions over the last decade, it is now also subject to new legislation and criminal prosecution.
Enter Al-Moussawi, paterfamilias.
In the Name of the Father
In a statement made to local media, Al-Moussawi explained that he was merely assuming his responsibilities, acting in his capacity as a father. Yes, he is an MP, but he had decided that his duty and obligation to protect his daughter now superseded his obligations as a legislator. Commenting on his resignation from parliament on July 18, he emphasized his need to deal with private matters privately, relinquishing his role as a public servant. “My priority now,” he said in a statement to a local TV station, “is to be a father not an MP. I took this step because when I am a protecting my daughters, I don’t want there to be any ramifications or effects on the party and [Hizbullah’s] Resistance. It is to say that I assume personal responsibility for all that has happened.”
But Al-Moussawi, as Diana Moukalled has shown, has a track record of progressive stances on legislations to protect women from violence, his position often diverging from the official party line on the matter. Indeed, and as he himself has repeated, he was the only Muslim MP to vote in favor of legal protections for women from domestic violence. His personal experience, the story goes, has deeply shaped his public position on the matter, leading him as far as advocating for a unified civil personal status law. Many, himself included, have noted that it was through his daughter’s personal ordeal that the patriarchal structure of the law – under which Ghadeer labored among many – was revealed to him. As an MP, he tried to rectify what he understood to be a discriminatory, unjust system, often heeding the call of women’s rights groups spearheading legislation against domestic violence and sexual harassment.
But, even he, a man of the law and a member of the most powerful political party in the country, found himself powerless, unable to protect his daughter, let alone women. Fatherhood was his final recourse.
A Family Portrait
But the polemic pits Al-Moussawi against another, equally powerful father figure. His ex-son-in-law’s father is the Director of Ayatollah Khamenei’s Office in Lebanon. But al-Mokdad is also a large and powerful family clan, one that Hizbullah cannot afford to alienate. Thus, and although belonging to the same ideological and political apparatus connecting Hezbollah and Iran, the two men now stood on opposite sides of the spectrum as fathers of a divorced couple fighting a custody battle.
Ghadeer Al-Moussawi’s case was thus a high-profile scandal. It had all the reasons to be: A famous and controversial political figure, a family feud, a revenge plot, party politics, and the Ayatollah himself. But it is also scandalous because it gives a public name and face to what is widely known but not recognized: The rising incidence of divorce and the need to reform the outdated and discriminatory laws that govern it, including custody.
But it is also an exemplary story, a cautionary tale, on the perils of a “broken home.”
In March of 2017, Hizbullah secretary general Hasan Nasrallah delivered a memorable speech on the occasion of Muslim Woman’s Day. In it, he extolled the virtues of Fatima al-Zahraa, daughter of Prophet Mohammad, singling out her patience and resilience, and presenting her as a role model for Muslim women today. But in the speech he also tackled, at length, women’s role in protecting and maintaining the family in the face of cultural attacks that purportedly seek to undermine it. “They want to go inside, inside us,” Nasrallah warns, “To hit this society from the inside, and to destroy it, culturally and psychologically.” This amount, he explains quoting Ayatollah Khamenei, to a soft war.
Maintaining order on the “inside,” in the private realm of the household, is a feminine prerogative equaling armed resistance in its strategic importance. Without it, social disintegration would inevitably ensue. In this bifurcated model of social organization, the family constitutes the frontline where the inner and outer realms – the private and public spheres – coalesce into a front of resistance.
Expressing alarm at the rising divorce rates in Lebanon and in Arab and Muslim societies more broadly, he retorts, “our mothers and grandmothers were not like that. In the old days, women used to be patient. Today, a woman goes to her parents and complains about her husband, then they quickly proceed with divorce.” In this regard, he identifies the disappearance of shame from what he calls the “feminine society” to be of dangerous significance, accusing the hypothetical wife and her parents of relinquishing their responsibility in saving the institution of marriage against all odds.
One can only wonder, what kind of father was Al-Moussawi? What did he say, when his daughter came to complain about her husband? Did he try to convince her to stay? Did he fulfill his duty as father, outlined as it is by Nasrallah? Or did he, long before the violent confrontation with his son-in-law, feel the incompatibility between the ideological dictates he is meant to embody and the lived reality of his own family? Was Ghadeer sitting among the audiences of women who assembled in Nabatieh, Baalbek, and the Southern suburb to watch Nasrallah’s live speech on a large screen? Was her father nodding, as he listened to Nasrallah’s diatribe on the sanctity of marriage and the perils of divorce?
In an interview with the Legal Agenda, Al-Moussawi explains that Ghadeer realized early on that she could not stay in her marriage. And when she sought the consult of religious authorities, she was advised to “protect her family.” But when her situation was no longer bearable, she filed for divorce, thus losing custody of her children whom she can now only see once a week. This was her husband’s condition. The problem with Shia personal status law, he explains, is that that the wife cannot end the marriage contract, which remains the man’s prerogative. Only he can end the marriage whenever he pleases, a legal discrepancy that he finds to be deeply unjust.
“I know that cases of violence against and murder of women are much more prevalent than what is disclosed, but they don’t go public,” he asserts. “The woman prefers to be beaten and violated than to expose herself.” Shame, it seems, and contrary to Nasrallah’s claim, is far from withering from feminine society. And yet, going public is precisely what Al-Moussawi found himself compelled to do, and what eventually cost him his parliamentary seat. Like the many women who have lost the legal battle, Al-Moussawi decided to go public. What women lose in reputation and social standing, he lost politically, foregoing as he did his legal immunity as an MP.
In justifying his resignation from parliament, Al-Moussawi invokes the law of the father. The justice he seemingly failed to achieve as an influential Hizbullah member was compounded with a failure to achieve it as a legislator. So it was as a father that he now decided to speak. And while he is not alone in doing so, his was a distinctive kind of paternalism – one of foregoing power in the name of family.
When Michel Aoun assumed the helm of the presidency, assuming the seat that had been left vacant for over two years, he did so under the slogan “the father of all.” Aoun was not merely a president; he was a father figure allegedly uniting all the sons of the divided nation. But the once exiled political pariah-cum-president is also the patriarch of an emergent political dynasty carrying his name. Having fathered only women, it is his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, minister of foreign affairs and current leader of the party Aoun himself had founded, who is being groomed for presidency.
And he is not alone. Men of politics are often fathered into the role: Taymour Jumblat, Tony Frangieh, Michel Mouawad, Sami Fatfat, Sami Gemayel, Walid el-Baarini, Tarek el-Merhebi, and Faysal Karami. As the ubiquitous posters of Prime Minister Saad Hariri with his late father and former compel us to remember, “yalli khallaf ma met” (The man who bears children is immortal).
Indeed, in the recent parliamentary debates on the much-contested national budget, the memory of the slain Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel became the subject of a skirmish between his son, MP Nadim Gemayyel, and Zahle MP Salim Aoun. It quickly spiraled into a series of insults in which Gemayyel asserted “I am not here because I am my father’s son,” a statement he himself surely did not believe. For Gemayel the son is the male custodian of his father’s legacy. To his credit, the joke was not lost on him, as he jokingly concluded the argument: “my father is stronger than yours.”
So, if all these men have inherited their public roles, following in the footsteps of their fathers, why is Al-Moussawi’s paternity sufficient evidence of his inadequacy as a politician? Why, in other words, is his personal role as a father irreconcilable with his public role as a legislator?
Personal Status is a Political Status
Personal affairs cannot interfere with politics, we are told in Al-Moussawi’s resignation letter. Not in this manner at least. Political families are ubiquitous and widely accepted; it is in the name of a father, or in fidelity to his memory, that many speak and act politically. Family politics, on the other hand, are off bounds. Conjugal rape, domestic violence, domestic labor, and incest are not to be talked about publicly. Indeed, it is through the advocacy of women’s rights organizations over the past decade that these became subjects of legislation and state regulation. The issue, then, is not about the imbrication of the personal and the political. It is about which personhood counts as worthy of political claims.
In an alternative world, Ghadeer’s story and the many that preceded hers would be taken as stark evidence for the need to take women seriously, as political subjects, and to take their suffering seriously, as a political problem. The systemic inequality between men and women, entrenched as it is in religious and civil codes, is a problem that needs systemic solutions – not protective fathers. Why is it that Hizbullah’s party line fails to push for legal reforms that are in favor of women, especially those in their political constituency? Because women, as we know, are far from being a true political constituency, one whose needs and interests are heeded by political parties and legislative committees.
Nasrallah may extol the virtues of women, and other leaders may advocate for “women’s empowerment,” patting themselves on the back for including women on their electoral ballots and in government. But this remains a far cry from fully recognizing that private life is rife with power relations where women are almost always on the losing side of the struggle. It is not about a few bad seeds – “not all men are predators or abusers” – nor about the disintegration of family values. Ghadeer’s story exposed how even those who hold power may be victims of patriarchy in their private and public lives.
As to her father’s story, it demonstrated how personal experience inflects politics. It was, after all, his personal struggle alongside his daughter’s that shaped Al-Moussawi’s outlook on the political and legal status of women and propelled his will to reform it. In defending his daughter, Al-Moussawi may have adopted a paternalistic register. But, curiously, it was one that articulated a different kind of defiance to the reigning patriarchal order, one that is grounded in tradition, morality, and masculinity.