CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)--Despite the stigma attached to divorce, ending a marriage is still relatively easy for Muslim women in Egypt. All they have to do is file paperwork with a family court and the deed is done, as long as they're not seeking alimony or damages from their husbands.
For the country's millions of Orthodox Christians, or Copts, it's been nearly impossible since Pope Shenouda III, the head of one of the most conservative churches in Christianity, forbade divorce except in the case of conversion or adultery three years ago.
That overturned a 1930s law that allowed Copts to obtain a divorce or an annulment for several reasons, such as impotence, mental disabilities and cruelty.
In Egypt, religious institutions have sole authority to sanctify and dissolve Coptic marriages. Human rights advocates claim this practice is detrimental to the mental health of the couple as well as their children.
"It's a violation of personal rights," says Abdel Tawab, deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "It adds psychological pressure . . . which could lead the destruction of the fundamental essence of the family itself. So of course it has a negative effect on the person."
On the rare occasions the Coptic Church does allow divorce, couples often must first endure a trial -- that includes witnesses and sworn testimony -- presided over by church officials.
A high-profile outbreak of violence in May underscored the explosive issue of divorce among Copts. The case involved a formerly Coptic woman who identified herself to a local TV station as Abeer Talaat, an Assiut resident who said she became Muslim to escape her abusive husband. She converted in September 2010 and then filed for divorce.
Months later, after Talaat had agreed to marry another man, someone reported her to church authorities. Talaat said that members of the church then forced her into seclusion and encouraged her to embrace Christianity and go back to her husband.
A group of Muslims heard of her captivity, according to local media, and clashed with several Copts in Imbaba, where Talaat was being held. At least five died in the fighting.
Hopeful Era for Freedom
Amid a more hopeful era for freedom and civil rights here since the Jan. 25 revolution, a growing number of Copts and women's advocates are looking to prevent such clashes by allowing Copts the option of civil unions with more inclusive guidelines for divorce.
The Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance Foundation, a group based in Cairo that is leading the cause, protested outside Egypt's justice ministry in early July with a small group of Copts to press the government to change the personal status law of Christians and put matters of matrimony under government jurisdiction.
To make divorce for Coptic women easier, the legal assistance center's staff has drafted a law it says will restore divorce rights that Copts lost under the current pope and give couples more freedom in choosing whether divorce is right for them. This tests the choppy legal waters in Egypt on how far Christian religious authority will bow to state courts. (The proposal only covers a marriage between a Muslim man and a Christian woman because Christian men are not allowed to marry Muslim women in Egypt.)
"When we talk about family for Muslims, it is already civil law," says Azza Suleiman, director of the legal assistance center.
Lobbying for civil unions has failed in the past under the government of the now-deposed Hosni Mubarak, who shrank from confronting religious authorities.
The current timing may not be any better as Egypt's interim leadership is mired in corruption cases, preparing for elections set for the fall and trying to calm pressure from hundreds of protesters camping out in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the center of revolutionary demonstrations.
A Recent Precedent
A recent precedent of Egyptian courts confronting Christian leaders in cases of remarriage indicates the law is far from clear. The church forbids remarriage within the faith for some divorcees, but last year the Egyptian Supreme Administrative Court fined Pope Shenouda $3,272 for refusing to issue another marriage license to a divorced man.
The case didn't set a clear trend of state winning over church, though. A similar case of a man seeking a license to remarry was thrown out by the Supreme Constitutional Court, which ruled marriage is under the jurisdiction of religious entities and not the state.
In private, some Copts say priests exercise discretion over divorce, with some bending the pope's law for an issue such as abuse and others not.
Michael Malek, a 28-year-old single Copt, was one of the few members of the faith willing to talk about the issue. He doesn't know any couples who have sought divorce.
Some couples admit that they are unhappy and should have given their relationships more thought before marrying, but he says many don't consider divorce or changing religions. Instead, they let faith be their guide in what they deem a purely spiritual matter.
Malek says the topic of divorce is divisive for the faithful but that it's unlikely Pope Shenouda will ever accept civil marriages.
"The Pope has addressed this issue many, many times in his meetings. He frequently gets this question: 'Will you allow divorce in the Orthodox faith?' He says: 'It's in the Bible and there is no divorce. If you can't live with it, you can go to another church that allows it. But don't ask to remain [a Copt] and get a divorce.'"
Jessica Gray is a Canadian journalist reporting on the Middle East from Cairo.
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For more information:
CEWLA Foundation Egypt:
"Egyptian women's legal center demands personal status law for Copts," Al-Masry Al-Youm:
"Thugs behind Imbaba church fire, says fact-finding committee," Jerusalem & Religions: