(Vatican Radio) Muslims, Christians and Jews share many family values and “can learn a lot from each other’s experiences.” That is according to Nouzha Guessous, a professor at the University of Casablanca and consultant on human rights and bioethics.
Guessous, who helped draft Morocco’s 2004 Family Code, took part in the October 1 interfaith conference in Rome “Women and the Family: between Tradition and Modernity” looking ahead to the Synod on the Family. The conference, organized by the International Foundation for Interreligious and Intercultural Education and the Italian Women of Faith Network of Religions for Peace, brought together Muslim, Catholic and Jewish women, who discussed how their sacred texts contain the answers to how challenges to the family and to dialogue can be addressed in modern society.
In an interview with Vatican Radio about Morocco’s advances in women’s rights and family law, Guessous argues that societies in the Arab world have implemented Islamic principles under a “patriarchal interpretation of the sacred texts, not only the Koran, but also the Hadith, which are the Prophet’s sayings.”
Listen to Tracey McClure's interview with Professor Guessous:
Rethinking a distorted message
Guessous, who is a medical biologist by training, says since the 19th century, “there is a large movement of rethinking the way that we use our religious heritage and the way that cultures - Muslim cultures - have more or less distorted the original message of the holy Koran.” She says today, there is a need to “rethink” the message imparted by Islam’s sacred texts and be “aware that the rules that were settled in the 7th century can no more fit in the 21st century.” “We must go back to the Koran to see that the founding principle of the Koran is equality between men and women, with respectful relationship; they are both equal before God and they should be equal in the daily life.”
“Rethinking” this principle helped bring about the latest reforms to Morocco’s Family code which was originally based on the Maliki school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence (8th century) . It was first codified after the country gained independence from France in 1956 and was revised in 1993 .
The reforms introduced in 2004 make polygamy acceptable only in rare circumstances, and only with the permission of a judge and a man's first wife. They also raise the age of marriage for girls from 15 to 18 and give wives "joint responsibility" with their husbands in family matters.
Guessous says new measures regarding divorce were also introduced “not to make divorce easier, but to make it more fair than it was.” Prior to the reforms, men could unilaterally claim divorce. And women who sought a divorce often had to suffer for up to ten years in “very bad situations” which included physical abuse. They were prevented from divorcing she says, because they could not prove that violence had been committed. Now, Guessous explains, “a man cannot divorce his wife without having the authorization of the court” and without first “trying to find some way of negotiation, reconciliation between the two spouses and trying to find some kind of agreement” before a divorce is pronounced. The wife now also has the right to seek compensation in cases of abuse.
In addition, adult women, she notes, are no longer required to seek a man’s authorization to marry. “They can do it by themselves or they can, for social reasons, let their father or someone else do it for them. So this was a way of recognizing that adult women can take a marriage contract (as they can) do in social life: they can buy, sell, work - they can do all kind of civil contracts, but they couldn’t do their marriage contract.”
The whole philosophy of family law has changed to one of partnership
What is important, Guessous says, is that “the whole philosophy of the family law has changed.” “The new family law is based on partnership between the two spouses: respectful partnership, reconciliation, negotiation – rather than on obedience and hierarchy as was the case in the old code from 1957 to 2004. So I think that this was important because it could be the entry point of what I call cultural deconstruction and reconstruction of some stereotypes in the relationship within the family. And this is the way to strengthen the families, and to make people be harmonious in their marital life and to give to children a good and safe atmosphere. I think it’s important not only for peace in the family, but for peace in the whole society.”
Raising the age for girls’ marriage to 18, Guessous adds, creates “more opportunities for girls to go to school and to get some profession and to be able to be autonomous financially. Because I think that the main question for women, even to benefit from the rights contained in the law, is to be able to be financially autonomous . If they are not able to be financially autonomous, they cannot seek divorce if their husband wants definitely to be polygamous for example…. Regulating the legal age of marriage is something that was important but the implementation was not so good. Still, people get exceptional authorization to marry their daughters earlier because of poverty, of ignorance of the law or simply because they don’t want to be in some kind of family and community scandal if their girls have a boyfriend… In Morocco, like in all other countries, this is something that happens.”
Marriage and Divorce in Lebanon
On the sidelines of the Synod in Rome last week, Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, Patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, told reporters that Lebanon’s different faith confessions, not the state, govern marriage and divorce in their own communities. Explaining that civil marriages and civil divorces do not exist in Lebanon, he said they are considered religious issues subject to each faith group’s own regulations and procedures.
“In that way,” he noted, “the law protects marriage and the family. There are no laws contrary to natural or divine law. The state does not legislate anything having to do with marriage.”
He pointed out that one side effect of such a system can be seen in the example of a Catholic couple which wants to divorce. They can join another denomination such as the Orthodox churches which recognize divorce and second marriages. Citing another problem, the Patriarch said that when a Christian marries a Muslim but remains Christian, he or she cannot inherit the property of the Muslim spouse.
Christians, Muslims and Jews: learning from each other
We asked Professor Guessous if Christians, Muslims and Jews can learn from each other in terms of supporting the family?
“Definitely,” she responds. “Islam came after Christianity and Judaism. So I think that we have this common heritage which is humanity’s common heritage. And definitely, in the three religions, the family is something that is very important and I think that we share (many) more values than the values that are different… Definitely, speaking about families we share definitely the same values so we have to learn a lot from the experience of each other.”
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