EgyptGenderSociety

A question of individuality for Egyptian women

A compromise has been reached on the personal status law that will give Egyptian women some long-awaited rights, but questions remain on how long it will take for more reform to occur.

Following a month of heated debate and nine years in the pipeline, the new personal status law has finally been given the go ahead. Despite strong opposition from conservative ranks, the People's Assembly passed the bill on 27 January 2000.

However, this has not brought the controversy it has ignited to an end. Differences remain over the legitimacy of khulu, divorces in informalurfi marriages and the woman's right to travel. This raises question of whether legal reform can be introduced without addressing the underlying social factors at play, and whether can be anything more than an elusive dream without redressing the balance of power and social perceptions?

Ever since the government put the draft personal status bill to the People's Assembly in December, an unprecedented public debate has ensued. Public interest in the bill has been massive. “Everyone has a personal interest in this law,” interprets Jihan Abu-Zeid, vice president of the Forum for Women in Development.

Debate of legislation is usually confined to dry parliamentary sessions and obscure corners of newspapers. However, the drama of the new bill quickly spread beyond the walls of the assembly and was played out on the pages of newspapers, on television and in the corridors of Al Azhar.

Miles of editorial space were allocated to the on-going public debate. Is the draft law in accordance with Islamic sharia (jurisprudence)? Is it constitutional? Does it give women enough of their rights? Does it give them too many? Will it spell the end of the Egyptian family? Will there be a spate of divorces? These were questions that fuelled the national consciousness for a month.

The government was obviously taken by surprise by the amount of opposition and controversy the draft law had sparked off. The government had been hoping to capitalise on the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) overwhelming majority in the People's Assembly and the upcoming parliamentary elections by quietly hinting to its members of parliament (MPs) that opposition to the bill could damage their public image and hurt their chances of re-.

While the government had obviously been well aware that the passing of such a bill would not be easy (one of the reasons why it has taken nine years to emerge), it hardly expected an enormous break in its own ranks. It appeared that NDP MPs were some of the most vocal opponents in their criticism of the new bill.

In addition, MPs from right across the political spectrum voiced their reservations regarding the draft law and the Wafd Party even walked out in protest. Accusations were thrown about that the new law was un-Islamic and that the Sheikh of al-Azhar was towing the government line.

Twenty-two theologians from Al Azhar submitted a petition in which they asked the government to postpone the parliamentary debate for three months to give them and other clerics a chance to examine the bill further “in the interests of the nation and to guarantee the stability of the Egyptian family”.

On 28 January, the People's Assembly approved the bill. In a compromise, two articles were dropped from the original and a number of other minor amendments were made. The controversial Article 27 that gave a woman the right to travel without her husband's consent was removed from the law. A woman now only has the right to contest her husband's decision to prohibit her from travelling in court, if she perceives it as unfair.

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While this is viewed by women's rights activists as being an infringement on a woman's freedom of choice, they concede that it is a step in the right direction and affects only a relatively small number of women.

Of far more consequence are the estimated 1.5 million divorce cases currently before the courts, which the bill hopes to address. The bill aims to significantly reduce this enormous backlog by applying the new, streamlined procedures retroactively and by giving women the option to revert to the Islamic precept of khula (where they give up their claims to alimony and give back their dowry in return for a divorce).

The bill also addresses the issue of divorce in urfi marriages (informal marriages previously not sanctioned by the law that a rising number of young people opt for out of economic necessity) by allowing a woman to instigate divorce proceeding against her urfi husband in court.

The committee charged with drafting the new law chose to start with the procedural side because it would be easier. However, it was still nine long years before the bill was to finally emerge from the offices of the Justice Department. Part of the problem was the existing law, which had originally contained 560 clauses and was scattered across 12 to 14 different legal areas, including waqf (religious endowments), inheritance law and divorce law. According to Mohamed Abdel-Aal, an attorney at the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), “All these disparate laws had to be reviewed, downsized and unified.”

Although the law is a step forward, there is very little of a radical nature in it. The principles of the existing law remain pretty much intact. Most of the changes in the new bill are only intended to help simplify the process followed in family disputes.

“The streamlining of procedures [in the new bill] is a good thing, if it is put into practice properly,” notes Abdel-Aal. However, with the current bogged down and resource-strapped system, he believes that the procedural reforms and the new time limits imposed on cases will “in practice, be ineffectual, at least for the foreseeable future, due to the enormous backlog of cases waiting to be heard. The freedoms granted by the new law will also add to this backlog.”

Three items in the law have drawn the fire of opponents: khula, urfi divorces and the right of women to travel. “All the law is trying to do is grant women a measure of equality,” explains Abdel-Aal. However, conservatives warn that khula could spell the end of the Egyptian family by setting into motion a tidal wave of divorces.

They also maintain that women are too emotional and are often hasty in their decisions, which, they claim, women can live to regret (the same argument as that used to bar them from becoming judges). “The breakdown of the Egyptian family is already there, with or without the new law,” contends Abdel-Aal.

“If we'd had khula all along, we would never have heard of a woman murdering her husband, cutting him up and putting him into plastic bags because she is forced to live with him. She could have simply gone to court and got a khula [divorce]” he adds.

For her part, Abu-Zeid believes that: “The reason why khula was opposed was because it implies that a woman has an independent will – an idea that the male chauvinists in the Assembly can't bear.” 

Nonetheless, the conservatives were able to extract a compromise. They added a clause to the khula article which states that before a khula can take place members of the husband and wife's respective families must first intervene to try and reconcile between them.

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Urfi divorces are seen by the conservative camp as giving legitimacy to an illegal practice. They contend that the government, instead of finding ways to curb the practice, is encouraging it.

Abdel-Aal counters that: “The old law permits the hearing of paternity suits for urfi marriages [because they are seen as] exceptional cases. The new law permits the hearing of divorce suits for the same reason… It is a case of crisis management by the government.” He wonders, “What do they suggest a woman whose urfi husband refuses to divorce her after he has left her do? Stay married [to an absent husband] forever?”

What these disputes highlight is the continuing prevalence of a die-hard ‘Eastern' mentality which perceives any concession made to women as unmanly. “There is no legal or religious obstacle, the problem is social,” points out Abdel-Aal.

“What's the problem if I give my wife esmaa (the right to divorce without going to court)?” he asks, “The problem is the social perception that it is not a manly thing to do.”

According to Abu-Zeid, “, traditions, the , and history are all employed to marginalise women… They [] want to limit women's willpower and freedom of choice to domestic matters. Men still boast about how good an educator and mother their wife is and how inept she is at dealing with the outside world. How can a woman raise mature and responsible children when she, herself, is not empowered?”

Rather than evaluate people on their individual merit, many still employ traditional stereotypes. The social perception of women as somehow inferior to men in everything not related to the family runs deep. Although many women have successfully broken into many fields, such as business, medicine and NGOs, and have proven themselves as capable as men, they have yet to become judges and are underrepresented in the political field.

The number of women holding seats in parliament dropped to eight in 1995 (less than 2% of the Assembly). This is despite the fact that more than 87 ran for office. Negad Borai explains that “one cannot blame the women for that, it is the system itself. The system is extremely undemocratic.” Abu-Zeid calls for “more political participation for women – both quantitative and qualitative”.

The current reforms are perceived by both human and women's rights activist as a first step. However, they contend that there is much to be done before we have equality in . “Next we need to amend the law itself,” says Abu-Zeid, “In the Personal Status law, we still need to grant women the right to travel and the right to work without their husbands' consent.”

However, discrimination between men and women extends further into other laws. “Criminal law also needs to be changed regarding such matters as rape and adultery,” she recommends. “The idea that a man can get off being tried by marrying the woman he raped or that a woman gets a harsh sentence for killing a rapist in self defence – as happened in a recent case – is unacceptable.”

She points out other unfair aspects of the law: “A woman is tried for adultery and the man she was with is called upon as a witness. This is unfair. A man and a woman should be equal in the eye of the law in such cases. If a man kills his wife while she is committing adultery, he gets off scot-free, because it is perceived as regaining his honour. However, if a woman does the same with her husband, she is usually sent to jail.”

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Perhaps social reform is required before more legal reform can occur. Perceptions of the position of men and women in society and their respective roles need to be questioned and changed. NGOs already organise awareness-raising campaigns, but without the support of other, more powerful, establishments in society, there is little they can do.

Many women do not exercise the rights they already have, such as stipulating pre-nuptial conditions in the marriage contract.  “The campaigns we've organised to make women more aware of their rights and the importance of including conditions in their marriage contract have met with limited success. This is because a woman making demands is viewed negatively by society,” says Abu-Zeid.

She goes on to explain that: “Even when the man doesn't mind, he often worries about his image in front of his family and friends. On the other hand, the woman doesn't usually make a fuss because she is under a lot of social pressure to get married, or she's infatuated, or just plain inexperienced.”

The past century has seen major changes in the social make up of the country and women are becoming more empowered and respected. Naguib Mahfouz's famous autocratic father figure and husband, Si Sayed, may well be an endangered species; and Amina, his meek and obedient wife, may well have become bolder.

However, we still have a fair distance to go before we achieve true gender equality and social justice. Those reactionary men who foresee the coming of the age of Sit Hanem (Miss Madame) can still sleep soundly in the knowledge that role reversal is still a distant and unlikely prospect.

________

This article appeared in February 2000 issue of Egypt's Insight magazine.

Author

  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and . Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the and . He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled’s life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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