Disinheritance of Women Legalized?
Amman (AlGhad), May 2014 – For 12 years now, Um Mohammad has been struggling to regain her part and that of her three sister’s from their father’s inheritance after her older brother deprived them of this by getting them to sign over their rights in a power of attorney.
Um Mohammad and her sisters are among one in five Jordanian women who lose their right to parental legacies through family coercion, complicity or shaming, according to the Chief Magistrate of Sharia Law, Dr. Ashraf AL Ummari,.
Several phrases can be heard repeated by Jordanian families when one of their members passes away, including: “No women should inherit; don’t allow others knowledge of our affairs; her husband shouldn’t get our father’s money; I can’t ask for my wife’s inheritance; you will become fodder for gossip if you file a case against your relatives.”
This investigative report, which took one year to compile, has established that even mothers will sacrifice their daughters’ rights in favour of their brothers!
Be they Muslin or Christian, these women are pressured by social traditions that do not permit women the right to inherit, or are blinded by their lack of knowledge in legal and Sharia law matters. The waiving of their rights happens as a result of legal loopholes, which do not criminalize these coercions. Worse, families manoeuvre within these grey areas to deny their daughters what is rightfully theirs.
Um Mohammad recalled how her brother took advantage of the mourning period and went into their father’s room and stole all his identity papers and money. He charmed his sisters into signing a power of attorney giving him the right to handle all the property. Four months after the death, the sisters went to Sahab Court to cancel the power of attorney, only to be met with “a barrage of threats from their brother saying he would disown them and throw them out of the house.”
Faced with threats from her brother and his sons against her and her family, Um Mohammad filed a complaint with the courts in 2004, after which her brother, his wife and children all agreed to a restraining order.
However he continued to incite conflict and succeeded in managing to rob her of the home her father had given her in his lifetime (without a deed or rental lease) and relocating her from Marj El Hamam (West Amman) to Al Yadouda (South Amman).
This reporter attempted to get in touch with the brother, who refused to comment or provide any answers. He had the support of his mother who said: “any attempts to interfere in family affairs or bring up the inheritance will divide this family and money would go to the husbands who are outsiders.”
Weak monitoring by the Sharia courts and lack of punitive measures as well as legal awareness among women to their inheritance rights allows families to misuse personal statutes and laws, forcing females to give up these rights. Traditions help.
This investigation has shown that the Sharia justices “agree” to the relinquishing of rights to inheritance within the framework of an exclusion agreement, in accordance with the latter’s terms of registration and organization, without the inheritance itself being registered. On many occasion the judge relies on “reading the woman’s facial expression” to see whether she had been coerced or shamed into giving up her inheritance.
Kholoud Khreis, director of the Women Against Violence Society, has noted that females who refused to give up their rights have had to face threats and in some cases killings and attempts at murder, which families have said were in the name of honour and not money.
She said: “this is an increasing epidemic and is one if the severest form of violence against women; what is worse is that almost 95% of what is known as honour crimes are related to inheritance matters. In the many cases I have followed through the society, an underage member of the family, usually a brother is asked to kill his sister and this way he would get off with a light sentence; all for the sake of a measly amount of money!”
An Inspector at the office of the Chief Magistrate for Sharia Law Dr. Ashraf Al Ummari said that one in five women in Jordan waive their right to inherit as documented by information gathered and registered between 2008 and 2012. During this period, 20125 cases of exclusion (giving up rights to inheritance) by women were submitted, out of a total of 70676 inheritance applications.
A study on inheritance that relied on a survey carried out on women who had been deprived of their rights of inheritance in Irbid Governorate, the second largest in Jordan, has shown that 74% of the females did not receive their full inheritance, whereas only 15% had willingly waived that right. (This study was carried out by the Hashemite Fund for Human Development and the Jordanian National Commission for Womenin 2012, in cooperation with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) under the supervision of Oxfam Quebec in Canada.)
These cases continue to happen even though, as Chief Magistrate Ahmad Hleil explained in an interview, the department has attempted to regulate exclusion agreements through directives that were issued in January 2011, pertaining to inheritance issues, in order to preserve rights especially with regard to women.
Hleil said: “we usually wait three months at least before looking into inheritance cases, allowing time for tensions to ease after the death of a family member, and giving the inheritors time to ponder.”
When asked about the possibility of reform to exclusion agreements or penalising those who deny women their rights to inherit, he said: “the law that exists is the best there is; Sharia law does not prohibit waiving one’s rights and we find sometimes that wealth is more in favour of women than men.”
He said no one had the right to force any woman to give up her legal right to inherit, even her husband, unless by agreement.
Mervat Al Atti, in her early 30s, who said she was shot eighteen times and had to have her leg amputated in 2008, recounted how the courts acquitted her uncle who had shot her after her underage brother confessed to the crime; she now lives alone and in hiding denied the right to live in her father’s home because she refused to waive her right to the inheritance.
She added: “I am now trying to seek refuge outside Jordan in order to protect myself and my money after my family had decided to put an end to my life. My brother who had lied and said he had tried to kill me has been let go because he is under 18 years of age; he has left the rehabilitation and reform centre.”
Sumaya, 53, is victim of her legal ignorance. “I ask God that he help me get my rights and my home back from my brother. I raised him. He should fear God and give me back what is rightfully mine.” Her brother took over the deed to her house at a cost of 5,000 Jordanian dinars – way below the actual market rate, abusing her ignorance of real estate prices. When she discovered the real cost he cut all ties with her.
My brother told me: “You will never get the house back no matter what. After giving him the house he refused to see me or to ask about me. They throw me out every time I go over there.”
Dr. Al Ummari, who is an inspector and a magistrate said that “a judge can rule in such a situation when the property is not at the current price rate” which is what happened in Sumaya’s case.
Roman Catholic Bishop, Father Yasser Ayash denied the existence of any issues regarding women being denied their inheritance rights in the church. And if it did happen then it constituted a few random cases. He added: “whoever attempts to do this is going against the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
And in such cases according to Father Ayash the Jordanian Civil Law, which governs inheritance laws, is implemented in accordance with Islamic Sharia Laws, despite the fact that Christian teachings equate between men and women in inheritance matters.
Hleil said that the Chief Magistrate Department has not received any complaints to that effect from churches.
Legal counsellor at The Jordanian National Commission for Women, Dania Al Hjouj said that the complaints of “inheritance omission” have receded as a result of the three months wait period prior to any exclusion agreements.
Yet, and despite this, cases continue to come in, as in the situation of Khawla, 40, from Amman, who waived her right to her father’s inheritance of land and property in favour of her brothers in early 2012.
She said: “I was shamed and convinced into taking an amount of money that is one quarter the worth of my part of the inheritance. Despite this, the exclusion agreement went ahead smoothly at the Sharia Court and when I learnt of the right amount it was too late to do anything; everything had been handed over to the family members and documented legally.”
Sheikh Mustapha Abu Rumman, the Imam of Suhaib bin Sinan Mosque relies on verses 11 and 12 of Surat AnNisa (Chapter – The Women) in the Qur’an to prove that Sharia orders are not governed by male or female factors.
“Men and Women can do with their money what they wish, if a woman waives her right to a man then that is up to her and not due to Sharia Law.”
The other aspect of omission happens prior to the parent’s death, when a father for example, decides to deny some of his children from their inheritance by registering his property in the names of his male offspring, in an attempt at outwitting Sharia Laws.
Professor of Sharia Law at the University of Jordan, Ahmad Nofal said this “an injustice committed by the parent and he is beholden to it dead or alive!” He has witnessed several similar cases, even in the midst of religious families who know and adhere to Sharia teachings.
Eva Abu Halaweh, Executive Director for Mizan – a law group for human rights – pinpointed six areas in which a woman waives her right to inheritance. She pointed out two hidden factors which are: “the right to pursuit which many are ignorant of and cannot be proved and is easily contested, and the transfer of property prior to demise which the law permits, but is not regulated.”
She added: “when it comes to distributing the inheritance, it is first assessed and then the debts are paid and finally it is given out; a woman has the right to the remainder of her dowry if she hadn’t taken the full amount at marriage and this is considered a debt that has to be paid from the inheritance. Many women are ignorant of this fact!
Abu Halaweh stressed that “wealth and educational levels do not play a part in the female’s decision to waive her right to an inheritance”.
Buthaina Freihat, member of the Women’s Rights unit at the Jordan Commission for Human Rights, said that misguided traditions and practices interfere in the woman’s right to an inheritance, especially with regard to her not needing any money while under the responsibility of a male family member. The Commission’s hotline, she said, has received a number of complaints related to women whose rights had been violated.
In spite of the fact that the Chief Magistrate’s Office has issued guidelines for exclusion agreements in 2011, these legal measures are often not enough and it is necessary to look into a woman’s face to verify whether she is willingly waiving her rights to her inheritance or has been coerced or shamed into doing so.
According to Al Ummari, “the judge usually requires a keen eye and acumen when asking questions aimed at deducing whether the agreement is being carried out willingly. He may use legal guidelines to support an extension or ask for more explanations so as to provide more time for all parties to reconsider this legal matter.”
He added that in one instance, “one of the parties was giving me signals in her hand and eyes indicating that she did not want to sign an exclusion agreement, so I stopped the proceedings without providing explanations to her brothers.”
He said that the “the law must respect the wishes of a consenting adult.” He confirmed that in order to uphold the law it is necessary sometimes to rely on additional investigative measures to make sure no undue pressure has been put on any of the parties. The judge, he said, may ask them a number of questions to help him come to a favourable conclusion or he may ask to meet with each of the parties separately. It is not permissible to carry out an exclusion agreement if one of the parties is underage and a guardian cannot carry out such an agreement on their behalf.”
The guidelines for exclusion agreements for the year 2011 have been published in the official paper, which was issued January 16, 2011.
Tribal law does not take a stand regarding such cases where according to Sheikh Abdul Karim Al Sane’, leader of AtTarabeen tribe “issues of legitimacy are unclear!”
He called for reforms in the civil law asking that it stipulate that males and females should share an inheritance and have their names registered. Women can then do what they will with their part of the inheritance. Al Ummari opposed this explanation saying it went against Sharia Law. According to him, the solution does not lie in laying claim to shares and registering them. He explained that anyone with intention to force a sibling into waiving their rights can do so at the land registry or in a court of law.
Professor of Sharia Law at the University of Islamic Sciences, Dr. Sana Al Huneity, blamed the law saying that females file a waiver with the courts “and the law has to be certain that they are doing this willingly, without any pressure, just as they would in a marriage agreement.”
Attorney Taghreed Al Dughmi agreed. She stressed that a woman’s ignorance of the law pertaining to inheritance laws and exclusion agreements is what usually leads her to waiving her rights to her inheritance. She blamed the Sharia Justices saying it should make women more aware of the dangers and legal ramifications of exclusion agreements.
Professor of Sharia Law Dr. Majdi Al Attar confirmed that exclusion agreements have strict guidelines that have been set by scholars and the state. “The person waiving his rights must be clearly identified as a male, or an adult female who willingly and without any pressure and without holding the person pressuring her in high esteem asks for this to be carried out.”
The study carried out by the Hashemite Fund for Human Development and The Jordanian National Commission for Women has called for criminalising all coercions and pressure that is put on women to waive their rights to inherit.
This reporter has noticed the lack of awareness programmes dealing with inheritance and exclusion agreements, with only a few attempts at spreading information, which doesn’t usually reach the target audience.
According to Al Ummari: “The Department of the Chief Magistrate has dedicated a section of its website to Questions and Answers on the issue of inheritance. It also sends out periodic messages on the subject as well as on exclusion agreements in addition to running training programmes for empowering women in cooperation with the Jordanian Hashemite Fund.” The study carried out by the same fund however, concluded that one of the main reasons that lead women to waive their rights of inheritance is their ignorance of the subject and not having enough knowledge of inheritance division laws.
A study carried out by The Jordanian National Commission For Women in 2009 proved that the only 4% of Jordanians who owned property were women, and very small part was inherited.
According to statistics obtained from the General Statistics Department, in 2011, the percentage of females who owned land stood at 8.2% compared with 81.3% for males, with 10.5% co-ownership. As to the ownership of apartments, it was 18.8% for females, 74.5% males and 6.7% co-ownership.
The director of the Women Against Violence Society, Khuloud Khreis said that the problem of female powerlessness lies with the Sharia Courts’ lack of support and monitoring which have turned women into weak beings that are in need of care, allowing their rights to be violated and bringing harm to them and to their children.
A large percentage of women are afraid of being ostracized by their families and society. They would rather remain silent and give up their financial rights as thought they are not legitimate offspring.
This investigation was carried out with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism.