On Friday, 15 June 2018—the first day of Eid al-Fitr—twelve armed members of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) went to a private residence in Ras El Nabe`, Beirut, to execute a court order. The target of this order was a woman named Manal Mansour, who had been stripped of custody over her nine-and-a-half year-old son by the Sunni Court of First Instance in Beirut—despite recent amendments to Sunni personal status law to raise the age at which boys are “returned” to their fathers to twelve years old.
The ISF broke down five doors to reach Mansour and her son, who had removed themselves to the child’s bedroom. They then forcibly removed him from her as he screamed and cried. The father was there alongside the security forces and watched this unfold. Mansour recorded her and her son’s ordeal on her phone, and has published the video. Lebanese media outlets such as Al-Jadeed and An-Nahar have publicized the case, with the latter publishing a complete and underacted copy of the court ruling by the Sunni Court of First Instance in Beirut.
We must be clear that the public does not yet have the full facts of this case. Only the four-page decision of the Sunni Courts of First Instance, Beirut, has thus far been published. Lawyer’s briefs to courts as well as judges’ deliberations, and ideally the entire case file, is necessary to understanding the fullness of any legal decision or judgment, particularly one that has been adjudicated three times in the span of ten years.
In press reports and in the news segment by Al-Jadeed (see below), Mansour states that, although she is still fighting her case in the court system, she is turning to the court of public opinion to expose the legal fragility of motherhood in Lebanon. Every day mothers are forcibly separated from their children, and only the small minorities of these cases enter the public domain. Moreover, even had Mansour won her case, she still would have had to “return” her son to his father at the age of twelve, the recently amended mandated age (up from seven) at which fathers have physical custody according to the Sunni personal status law.
Custody varies in each sect, and in each personal status law, and according to the gender of the children in question. Shi‘i Lebanese women have physical custody over their male children until the age of two, and over their female children until the age of seven. Lebanese Druze women have physical custody over their male children until the age of twelve, and over their female children until the age of fourteen. Roman Orthodox Lebanese women retain physical custody of their male children until the age of fourteen, and over their female children until the age of fifteen. Maronite Christians cannot divorce and, thus, do not have custody provisions in their personal status law. However, in cases of separation, the law states that men have ultimate legal and spiritual guardianship over their children while mothers are recognized as caregivers.
Each of these laws contains provisions allowing judges to amend custody rules in the best interest of the child. In addition, the Lebanese Juvenile Court System has the right to intervene in custody battles in the best interests of the child. Interventions by the juvenile court system into personal status courts have intensified in recent years, more so in Muslim personal status courts due to their more intimate integration into the bureaucracy of the state relative to Christian personal status courts.
Furthermore, regardless of which party maintains physical custody, only fathers (and their close male relatives in the case of his death) have legal guardianship over their children in Lebanon. This means that even when mothers have physical custody, they cannot perform basic legal or bureaucratic tasks for their children (getting them government IDs, opening bank accounts for them, or in some cases registering them at school. Mothers also cannot travel with minor children unless the (divorced) father gives express permission). Male guardianship over their children is established in Lebanese civil, criminal, and personal status law. A mother, by law and practice, cannot establish legal guardianship over her children unless through “permission” of the male guardian (wikala). Even then, her guardianship is contingent on his consent.
There are several aspects of the video that require some unpacking.
- Mansour alleges corruption at the personal status courts, stating that this case is the third time her ex-husband tried to end her custody and the first time he has won. She claims this is due to her ex-husband’s connections (wasta) and wealth, a common complaint of plaintiffs and defendants at personal status courts and civil courts. Wasta is often gendered in these cases, just as the law itself and capital accumulation is gendered to the benefit of men in Lebanon.
- The ISF did not show restraint or sensitivity in dealing with a child in distress, and no one related to child services accompanied them. The Offices of Judicial Execution of Beirut (Dayrat Tanfeedh)—which tasks the ISF with the execution of court orders, clearly has no special policy regarding cases concerning minors, particularly those with special needs.
- Mansour claims in the video that she has not remarried since her divorce, and that she took this decision in order to further protect her custody over her son. Mansour and her husband, according to court documents, have been divorced for as long as the child has been alive. A mother’s remarriage is often grounds for fathers and courts to strip her of custody. A father’s remarriage, however, makes him a better candidate for custody in the courts’ eyes due to the presence of a woman (his new wife) in the home. Indeed, according to court documents and published accounts, Mansour’s ex-husband is remarried and has children with his new wife.
- In the video, Mansour accuses her ex-husband of slandering her before the court and presenting her as primarily interested in money. In the published court decision, the ex-husband uses the fact that Manal has full time domestic help and often returns late to the home as grounds that she is not a fit mother. He further lists the amounts of alimony and child support he has to pay as evidence of her greed and motivations. He accuses her of denying him visitation, a claim she denies vociferously but one that is accepted as fact by the Sunni Court of First Instance, Beirut. In their custody ruling, the court cites Mansour staying out late and her denial of visitation to the father, although neither are expressly written as circumstances under which a mother’s custody can be revoked in Lebanese Sunni personal law.
- This video and case clearly demonstrates the ways that personal status courts and laws are an integral, not segregated, aspect of the Lebanese legal system. Several bodies of Lebanese law and bureaucracy are involved in Mansour’s case and in the forcible separation of her child from her: personal status laws, courts, and judges, the juvenile courts and judges, the public prosecutor's office, the mayor of Beirut and the mukhtar of the area, the court of legal execution, and finally, the internal security forces. Mansour is also facing a six-month jail sentence for defying a court order.
In the news report by Al-Jadeed and in subsequent interviews, Mansour states that she will never give up her case and is turning to the court of public opinion in order for everyone to see the legal situation of divorced (or widowed) of mothers in Lebanon. She also vows to publish all of the details of her ten year-long court battle in the public domain. This is an extremely brave act given the stigma and shame regarding both divorce and custody cases, and Mansour, and the media outlets that are bringing these documents and videos into the public domain, should be commended. It is also part of a trend of women in Lebanon and their allies publicizing the abuse and harassment (whether by husbands or the legal system) they endure.
On Sunday, 18 June 2018, Lebanese Minister of Justice Salim Jean Jreissati promised to personally look into the case on Monday morning. As of Wednesday 21 June, he has yet to make a public statement on his findings.
The decision from Sunni Court of First Instance was published in An-Nahar, which has also published follow up reporting, can be found here.
The interview with two of the members of parliament representing Beirut, Paula Yacoubian and Rola Tabash Jaroudi, on Mansour’s case:
The news report by Al-Jadeed can be found here: