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Inheriting Injustice


Palestinian Women Face Discrimination In Inheritance


Ramallah – They may argue they enjoy better conditions than their peers in Arab countries, but Palestinian women share a similar problem with them: being forcibly denied their legitimate inheritance.


Women are usually shy about making such demands or fear social pressure such as being ostracized by their family. Others simply believe their male relatives are more entitled to the inheritance because they are the family’s bread-winners, and give up their rights to inherit intentionally.


Social workers and lawyers familiar who work on such cases blame Arab society’s culture and norms, since women’s right of inheritance is granted by Islam’s Sharia law and the Palestinian laws derived from it.


The Sharia law implemented in this area clearly classifies who gets what. Christians refers to their churches’ courts which also give women the right of inheritance.


Jwana Rafeedie, Coordinator of the YMCA’s Inheritance Denied Project, told The Media Line that the YMCA started their lobbying and awareness project after 2004 statistics showed only four percent of Palestinian lands and properties were owned by women. "We believe if women acquired their rights [to inherit], the figures would go up to 33%," she added.


The tribal and family unit still plays an important part in Palestinian society, making women less willing to challenge traditions regarding inheritance. In an attempt to try to keep the wealth within the family, the inheritance is split solely among the males. Rules are even stronger regarding property because granting a piece of land to a woman is seen as tantamount to giving it to her husband, often labeled a "stranger" if he is from a different clan.


Keeping the money in the family is what often leads to a preference for young Palestinians to marry close relatives, such as first cousins.


Of the 10,000 men and women the YMCA and their partners targeted in inheritance rights awareness campaigns in the middle and southern West Bank, only 50 women utilized the free legal consultation offered, and just two went to court.


Social pressure in particular discourages women from demanding their rights. "One woman couldn’t find witnesses to prove the date of her grandfather’s death. No one from the village agreed to stand by her," Rafeedie told The Media Line.


The relatively long and costly court procedures also make women reluctant to seek justice.


Women are often asked to waive their right to inherit a deceased relative’s land in exchange for a sum of money, Sheikh Youssef Idees, Chairman of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Courts, told The Media Line.


Since it is often unclear exactly how much land the deceased had, and women are often unable to have the land properly appraised, they frequently waive their inheritance claims for a fraction of its true value.


Idees told The Media Line that he is working on issuing a decree that women who agree to the money instead of the land must sign the waiver in front of a judge to ensure they are given their full rights. However, he said he expects to encounter social resistance to the idea.


Sahar Ahmed (not her real name) fought for her sister-in-law’s right to inherit her father, who died five years ago. "My mother-in-law didn’t want to give any of the land even to her own daughter, saying that she was living a good life already," Ahmed told The Media Line.

She said that her eldest brother-in-law agreed with his mother, saying that he also didn’t want his daughters to inherit him in the future," she added.


After years of discussion, Ahmed succeeded in convincing her mother-in-law that Islam gives Palestinian women the right to inherit even when they are wealthy.


"It’s strange when people try to impose religious views on women, like wearing the hijab [head covering] and so on, but when it comes to their rights in inheritance, they just turn their backs," she added.


The Ahmed family members plant their land with olive trees, sell the olives, and share the yearly revenue.


Sa’eda, who finished secondary school, is a housewife and received her first share of the land’s crop of olives this year.


"You can’t imagine how happy she was. I believe I did a good thing because her husband is not doing well now, and this year’s crop helped sustain the family," Ahmed said.


Over the last three years of the YMCA project, Rafeedie noted that she didn’t find any major differences between women and the inheritance issue in terms of their social and academic status, location or religion.


Rafeedie believes changing this long-held tradition will not be an easy task. "A man killed his sister last April because of an inheritance dispute, and then the killer claimed it was an ‘honor killing’ incident, she said, adding that the idea of women having financial independence is still unacceptable in Palestinian society.

Honor killings refer to a family member who kills a woman suspected of adultery to preserve the family’s honor.


Salman Jabareen, 48, keeps asking her brothers  for her share in her father’s lands but to no avail. "My husband and sons won’t allow me to file a law suit against my brothers. They think it’s unacceptable that we go to court over this," she said. Jabareen, a housewife and mother of four, told The Media Line she believes her brothers will eventually give her and her sisters their share.


Conversely, Rabab Mousa’s family not only gave her the inheritance, but also split the money equally. "Islam says that the son inherits double the daughter, but my brothers said they wanted us to be equal," she told The Media Line. Mouse, a 38-year-old government employee, said that her family is not highly educated or very religious, but behaved ethically in this matter.


As Islam doesn’t acknowledge wills of the deceased, some men still get their way by convincing relatives close to death to legally transfer the lands to male relatives, making it impossible for the women to inherit this land.