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When Sunni become Shia for women’s rights

13 November 2007

BEIRUT - Nada had no choice. The Sunni Muslim Lebanese woman decided to become a Shia because that branch of Islam guarantees that her daughters will one day be her sole heiresses.

“If I became a Shia it was not out of conviction,” Nada told AFP. Had she not converted, the girls’ uncle would receive the bulk of her inheritance when she died, in line with Sunni laws.

Shias, a minority community in Islam, have sometimes been at odds with the Sunnis in the Arab world, but in Lebanon conversions between the two branches are easy and mostly done for practical purposes.

In Lebanon, religious tribunals rule on marriage, divorce and inheritance.

For both Sunnis and Shias, women receive one-third and men two-thirds of an inheritance.

Problems arise when a Sunni couple only has girls. They would inherit just a small part of the assets while the larger part of the inheritance would go to the closest male relatives — grandfathers, uncles or cousins.

One solution for Sunni couples in such a situation is to become Shias, as the sect’s religious regulations allow daughters to be the sole heiresses in the absence of male offspring.

Sunni couple Hassan and Sana Tawil became Shia about 30 years ago because they had two daughters.

“We saw atrocious things happening in the family, such as an uncle who wanted to take everything from a cousin. It made an impression on us when we were children,” Hassan recalled.

They may be Shias on paper but the Tawils remain deeply Sunni in practice.

“I stayed profoundly Sunni,” said Sana, confirming that she raised her daughters “in line with Sunni values.”

“Even famous Sunni politicians became Shias for the same reason,” she explains, citing Riad Solh who was prime minister at the time of Lebanon’s independence in 1943 and who had five daughters.

In line with Lebanon’s confessional political system, the country’s prime ministers are Sunni — although at least four of them became Shias because they did not have sons.

Like other couples in the same situation, the Tawils went to a Shia court where they converted before a sheikh who seemed to be very aware of the real motives behind their conversion.

“The sheikh looked at me and asked: “Do you have children?’ I said yes,” recalled Sana.

“He said: “How many?’ I said two. He asked: “Boys?’ I said no. Then he just looked at me and nodded. And I became a Shia,” said the 63-year-old woman with a smile.

Sheikh Mohamad Noqari, director general of Dar Al Fatwa, the highest Sunni religious authority in Lebanon, confirmed that some Sunnis were becoming Shias.

“It is true that some Sunnis are doing this,” he said. “But if someone converts from one Muslim confession to another for material reasons, it is not really correct.”

But for Sheikh Jaafar Fadlallah, from the Shia Sharia Islamic Institute, converting is “an issue of personal choice.”

“Nothing should prevent a Muslim from converting to the (Islamic) branch that suits him best,” he said.

Shia authorities said that about 350 Sunnis become Shias every year in Lebanon, where the Sunni and Shia communities each form slightly less than 30 percent of the country’s four-million population.

According to sociologist Marlene Nasr, “there are sometimes cases where people are ostracised, but not by the religious authorities — rather by their own families” after converting.

Talal Khodari, a lawyer specialising in family legal affairs, said such conversions were “common,” although often “not accepted and not taken very well” in Lebanese society.

He also said the issue sometimes causes additional family problems because male relatives feel they are somehow being accused of despoiling their female relatives.

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