Incident involving Hezbollah MP and daughter’s ex-husband raises women’s rights issues

Activists say case shows that laws need to be changed to give more rights and protection to women and girls

Lebanese politician Nawaf Al Moussawi. NNA
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The involvement of prominent Hezbollah MP Nawaf Al Moussawi in a violent altercation between his daughter and her ex-husband at the weekend is a stark reminder that Lebanese women face routine discrimination in matters of divorce and child custody.

Mr Al Moussawi’s daughter Ghadir, 28, was at a police station in Damour, a coastal city south of Beirut, on Saturday to press charges against her former husband, Hassan Al Mokdad, when her father tried to storm the station with 20 armed men, a police memo leaked by local media said.

A video published by Lebanese news websites and said to have been filmed earlier that night by Ghadir’s younger sister Faiza on her phone appears to show Mr Al Mokdad following the two women on a busy road in the dark. The screaming siblings are forced out of their car and Mr Al Mokdad can be heard threatening Faiza for filming him.

The police report said the sisters and Mr Al Mokdad were brought to the police station at 11pm after an altercation on the main coastal road between Beirut and Saida. The former couple were reportedly fighting over child custody.

It also said that Mr Al Mokdad was attacked several times at the police station, the first time with a screwdriver by four men who forced their way in. Two of them were arrested while the others fled.

A few minutes later, Mr Al Moussawi tried to enter the station with about 20 young men carrying weapons, but they were ejected. Shots were then fired at the station from an unknown assailant, wounding Mr Al Mokdad.

Reports quickly blamed Mr Al Moussawi for the assault, but he told local TV station Al Jadeed that this was untrue and denied the police accounts. “He [Mr Al Mokdad] attacked Ghadir and started insulting her. Nobody assaulted him with a screwdriver, and nobody fired [shots],” he said, adding he had only arrived to pick his daughter up from the police station.

Mr Al Moussawi is a prominent politician in Lebanon who led the party's external relations office until 2009, when he was elected to Parliament. In February, the party suspended him and apologised on his behalf after he insulted the memory of president-elect Bashir Gemayel, who was assassinated in 1982 before he could take office. The Hezbollah media office told The National that this suspension only lasted a "few months" and that he was now back in office.

Twitter was quick to side with Mr Al Moussawi under a trending Arabic hashtag that translates as #SolidarityWithNawafAlMoussawi. “The best support for a girl in our patriarchal, reactionary and mediocre society is her father,” wrote a journalist for Al Jadeed, Dareen Daabous.

But others questioned Lebanese laws that discriminate against women. "A video of Mussawi's daughter being chased on highway by crazed Ex is circulating. Would be much better if Lebanese women were protected by just laws rather than more violent men. #machismo," a Lebanese journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, Sarah El-Richani, said on Twitter.

Lebanese marriages are regulated by the couple’s religion. The small country is very diverse religiously, which means that there are 15 personal status laws. Reports have found that all the various sects’ rules have a negative impact on women’s rights.

Women of all faiths can lose custody of their children for numerous reasons. Alongside a perceived inability to care for their children, these can include long working hours, remarriage or  having a different religious affiliation, a 2015 Human Rights Watch report said.

Access to divorce for Shia women – which is the case of Ghadir Al Moussawi – is more limited than that of other Muslim sects. The custody of children reverts to the father after they reach a certain age.

"The Shia religious court automatically gives custody of the child to the father. If the child is a son, it happens after he is two years old, and in the case of a daughter, after she is seven years old," said Zeina Ibrahim of Protecting Lebanese Women, a group that advocates raising the custody age in Shia courts. The only way a mother can keep custody of her child is if the father grants it to her willingly, she told The National.

To ensure equal treatment between men and women of different religions, human rights activists call for a civil personal status law that would allow couples to wed in secular ceremonies before the state. But, apart from a handful of exceptions, religious groups have managed to pressurise Lebanese politicians into blocking the recognition of civil marriages.