Eighteen months ago, Hala, the daughter of my wife’s friend, travelled to Britain to get her Master’s degree in management, hoping to start a new life with her family. Back in Gaza, Hala used to work in journalism. She agreed with her husband that she would travel first, and that he would join her after three months, along with their three month old baby at that time, but her husband changed his mind. Hala remained in Britain for eighteen months until she completed her masters degree and was able to obtain a job there, taking her first steps towards her dreams of a better future.
When Hala left the Gaza strip, she left behind her child -with her husband’s approval- at her parents’ house where her mother raised him for eighteen months. Meanwhile, Hala’s relationship with her husband had begun to worsen, and they eventually agreed to get a divorce. On the 23rd of February, Hala came back from Britain to finalize the divorce procedures. She had previously agreed with her husband that she would take their child back to Britain for a better life than the blockaded one in Gaza.
In the midst of March and after 22 days from Hala’s return, her husband visited their child in her parents’ house and took him back with him to sleep in his grandfather’s house, assuring that he would bring him back in the morning.
The child was taken on the 16th of March and stayed at his grandfather’s house for almost a month, with the grandfather refusing to return the child to his son as agreed, and depriving his mother of seeing him. He did not even allow her to speak to her child over the phone, refusing any kind of contact between them.
Before Hala filed a report to the police, many tribal intermediaries tried to intervene, but in vain.
Hala tried to speak with the child’s grandfather and persuade him to give her child back, but he refused, preferring to refer the issue to courts, cunningly depending on the imposed emergency state and the suspension of Sharia Courts until further notice.
Coronavirus and Sharia Courts
The emergency state was declared all over Palestine to face “Coronavirus”, with Sharia Courts suspending their work in Gaza strip, following the decision of the Head of the Higher Sharia Court Council, that was based on the Judicial Police decision to suspend receiving official reports. Consequently, registered and reviewed judiciary and executive cases before first instance courts were delayed, and filing new executive and judiciary cases to the first instance court and the appeal court were suspended, as well as clothes regulation proposals, travel permissions, all enforcement-related procedures, and receiving appeals before Sharia Supreme Court.
Hala’s parents are friends of the family, they called me for help, so I called the prosecutor in Gaza who requested the city prosecuting attorney to receive Hala’s complaint, but the police refused to receive it and directed Hala to the Police Public Relations to have her issue settled amicably.
After many calls from my side as well as others, and after the failure of repeated efforts exerted by Hala to get her child back, Women’s Rights and Human Rights Organizations intervened and made frequent contacts with the legal judiciary, which held an urgent session where the judge ordered the judicial police to enforce the decision. Subsequently, Hala managed to have her child back after a 20 days wait.
It can be said that women are among the groups most affected during the period of quarantine and lockdown
Hala was deprived of her right to keep her son, knowing that Gaza code states that a mother may retain custody of children only until the age of 9, according to the Law of Family Rights issued during the Egyptian administration of Gaza Strip in 1954. Hala told me that her child’s father tried to use different horrible methods to prove that she was not a good mother, such as saying she was an open-minded, liberal woman in a conservative, male-dominated society.
One of the judges told Hala that her son was not young enough for her to have him back, while another judge said he could do nothing until the Sharia (religious) courts opened and that many women had the same problem, and could not do anything about it now.
Hala appealed to all those concerned in Gaza and said that the emergency state declared due to the “Coronavirus”, should not permit mistreating women more, demanding the punishing of men who take advantage of this emergency state to deprive women of their rights. “I was in a court that was almost empty because of the emergency state, and I felt really sorry listening to many women complaining and suffering from the same problem, who were being abused by their children’s fathers,” she added.
It’s such a sad thing to know that not a single man suffered the same problem, they were all women. Even the most powerful of women become powerless in the absence of laws and justice.
“When I went to the police station to file a complaint, I didn’t have any official document related to my son, neither a passport nor a birth certificate, and I was not intending to leave Gaza, as crossings were closed and the law prevents wives from traveling with their children unless they obtain the father’s official approval. Moreover, mothers in Gaza cannot issue a passport to a child without their father’s full consent. I demanded custody of my son, in Gaza,” She said.
Hala is not a victim of the “Coronavirus”, but of the delaying justice which deprived her of seeing her child or even hearing his voice through the phone. Her story is one of many others that occur every day due to the inability of some judges to consider urgent cases and to bring justice to the entities that shutdown and did not deal with urgent women’s issues―such as domestic violence and denial of custody, among others―as an emergency case.
Women’s Rights and Human Rights Organizations have warned since declaring the emergency state, that it might be used to violate human rights regulations. It can be said that women are among the groups most affected during the period of quarantine and lockdown, bearing in mind the abuses they are subjected to during the obligatory isolation and having to stay at home with a violent man who might be a father, a husband or a brother. Thus, the fates of many women are depending upon the mood swings and psychological disorders of such violent men, under a judicial and legal inability to protect them.
Since the declaration of the emergency state, Women’s Rights and Human Rights Organizations have launched their programs and set hotlines to receive women’s complaints during the spread of the “Coronavirus” and this home-quarantine period, which increased the burdens on women who are subjected to psychological and social pressures and violence. But of course, this is not enough, as civil and individual efforts are not enough to protect an entire society, it is the main duty of the ruling authority to do so.
The competent authorities, including the Public Prosecutor’s Office, civil and Sharia courts, confirmed that violence against women had increased considerably in the period of quarantine, where feminist organizations had noted receiving hundreds of complaints.
During such circumstances, governments and the judiciary have to rectify what happened and let civil society organizations, especially those concerned with women’s matters, participate in developing plans that would ensure that, during the home-quarantine period, individuals are not subjected to violence and ill-treatment. This would also help ensure that the courts, the Public Prosecution Office and police continue to receive and follow up on women’s complaints according to the law, so that women do not fall victim to the fight against the “Coronavirus”, and they are protected from being deprived of their fundamental human rights.