Egyptian Women See Divorce as Religious Right

Sunday, January 9, 2005

Women's struggle to change Egypt's divorce law shows how women's rights advocates here are relying increasingly on Islam to advance their arguments for gender equality.

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A couple walks on Qasr Al Nil Bridge

CAIRO (WOMENSENEWS)--As Egyptian women push to eliminate gender bias in divorce laws here, they find themselves entering a struggle over competing visions of Islam.

"We always use Islam now," says Iman Bibars, director of the Cairo-based Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, which has long struggled to amend Egypt's divorce laws.

To make their case, many advocates are advancing a vision of Islam in which men and women enjoy equal rights in all matters, including divorce.

"Men control the subject in a backwards way," contends Dr. Zeinab Abdel Meguid Radwan, a member of the National Council for Women and a scholar of Islamic philosophy. "This is why there is a big difference between true Islamic Sharia, and what happens in reality." Sharia is the Islam-derived legal code whose meaning and interpretation vary according to different theological schools. Egypt's constitution states that Islamic Sharia is the principle source for legislation.

Radwan says the Islamic Sharia reflected in divorce law resulted from men picking those aspects of Sharia that fit their world view.

Under Egyptian law, men have an absolute and unilateral right to divorce. Women, by contrast, must turn to the courts, where they must provide exacting proof of abuse. The decision is left to Egypt's male-dominated judiciary and decisions can be appealed by husbands wishing to prolong the process.

With approximately 8,000 judges and 14 million pending cases in Egypt, a divorce settlement can take years. While the case slogs through the legal system the woman is left in legal limbo, her husband oftentimes no longer supporting her, and unable to remarry until the case is decided.

Locked in Divorce Proceedings

Naira Al Sheikh, a 23-year old committed Muslim, has first-hand experience with the situation. In the last two months she has been pushing divorce proceedings against a husband she says was abusive and who refuses to support her or to acknowledge the existence of their 7-month-old daughter. But she knows the entire process--given the way the laws are stacked against her--is likely to take years.

She denounces Egyptian women's unequal access to divorce because, she says, they violate Islamic Sharia.

"Allah has been so fair to women, but the (Egyptian) law hasn't," says Al Sheikh. "If I say my husband is not treating me right, he calls me names or whatever, I get a divorce right away by Sharia."

At the end of November, the New-York based Human Rights Watch agreed with her. In a 62-page report, "Divorced from Justice: Women's Unequal Right to Divorce in Egypt," it criticized "profoundly discriminatory laws and practices premised on women's inferiority, particularly in matters related to the family" and called for a complete overhaul of the current divorce system.

Reform Began in 1979

The current state of divorce law reflects decades-long tumult over the nation's family laws. A series of sought-after changes to divorce law were pushed through parliament by Jihan Al Sadat, the wife of then-President Anwar Al Sadat, in 1979.

In 1985, however, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the 1979 laws were unconstitutional and invalid, dealing a blow to the women's movement.

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