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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Since 2000, however, women's rights advocates have chalked up a series of victories in Egypt. That year saw the approval of a new divorce law, which allowed women to divorce their husbands for any reason whatsoever so long as they repaid the dowry and gave up their right to alimony.

In 2003, Egypt's first female judge was appointed by presidential decree and later that year women's groups won a decade-long struggle to grant citizenship to the children of Egyptian mothers and non-Egyptian fathers. This spate of victories recently prompted a writer for the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat to proclaim 2004 "the year of the Egyptian woman."

Other Side of Struggle

Support for change is far from unanimous. In a musky office lined wall-to-wall with books on Islamic jurisprudence, Mustapha Al Shakaa, an authority on Islamic law and the author of over 40 books, stands on the other side of the struggle.

The elderly Al Shakaa is a member of Al Azhar's Islamic Research Academy, best known to readers of the Western press as the body that determines which books should be banned as offensive to Islam.

Shakaa says those who are advocating change in Egypt's divorce laws are trying to alter Sharia. "Divorce does not have a law in Egypt. Divorce is a part of Islamic doctrine. So divorce law is in Islam and not in Egyptian law."

He would like to see a 2000 law, which gave women the right to divorce without their husbands' consent, reversed.

"This law made big problems," Al Shakaa told Women's eNews. "Many of the wives rushed off to get divorced without thinking . . . Because the woman is more emotional, if we put the right of divorce in her hand she might divorce for the smallest reasons. But the man, known for bearing more responsibility, will not divorce except in states of extreme necessity."

Dr. Zeinab Abdel Meguid Radwan, the female scholar in Islamic philosophy, is poised with a theological retort.

Radwan is a former provost of the Dar Al Ulum Faculty at Fayoum University. Dar Al Ulum is regarded as one of the most religiously conservative faculties at Egyptian universities. The Cairo University branch graduated alumni such as Hassan Al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sayid Qutb, often deemed the father of modern Islamic fundamentalism. Nonetheless, Radwan boldly rejects the veil and consistently frames her arguments with passages from the Quran and other Islamic legal sources.

"The religion does not force the woman to have to go to a judge in order to get a divorce and wait five years for a divorce, while he is out getting remarried," she says. "And since he is still technically married to her he should be supporting her, but he doesn't. She sits four, five years without any money, and the judge cannot force him to pay until he rules on the divorce. All that is un-Islamic."

Charles Levinson is a freelance journalist living in Cairo. His articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere.

For more information:

The Human Rights Watch--
Women's Unequal Access to Divorce in Egypt:

Egypt's most noted feminist Dr. Nawal El Saadawi:

The National Council for Women:

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