CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)–Laila, 35, has an international career with an economic development organization and she is armed with an Egyptian passport, yet she is interrogated and accused of smuggling and prostitution at Cairo’s international airport whenever she travels without her husband or son.
“I don’t want to say it’s a police state, but things like travel are treated like a privilege given to you by the state rather than a right,” says Laila, requesting that she not be further identified.
Laila is luckier than many women in Egypt, considering that she has her travel documents and her husband’s support. Without it, her career would be unobtainable. All Egyptian women need permission from their father or husband in order to travel freely.
The Egyptian Parliament is preparing to debate a reform eliminating the requirement that a guardian male must approve a female’s passport; however, many women warn that it will take years to effectively implement a new law and change traditional attitudes of male dominance and female subservience.
The Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women in Egypt hopes to provide at least the beginnings of a public forum to discuss the proposed change. The women’s association and other non-governmental organizations last week began collecting signatures on a petition supporting a woman’s right to travel and obtain a passport. They hope to present it to Parliament before the debate begins.
The right of women to travel freely and to obtain passports independent of male approval was included in last year’s overhaul of the Personal Status Law, signed by President Hosni Mubarak, whose wife, Suzanne Mubarak, is president of the new National Council for Women.
The centerpiece of the reform was to make it possible for women to divorce without their husbands’ approval, but the debates were acrimonious and conservatives prevailed against what they perceived as an assault against immutable gender roles.
Despite Bitter Debates on Women’s Rights, Battle Again Joined
Under the new Egyptian law, a woman may divorce her husband even if he objects, provided that she returns any dowry and frees her husband from financial obligations. Ten years of debate and lobbying preceded the law’s passage in January 2000.
The women’s divorce provision is exceptional in the Middle East, according to women’s advocates and scholars, although an Egyptian woman is still denied alimony if she is the party who seeks the divorce.
But in order to divorce his wife, all an Egyptian man need do at any time is tear up the marriage contract.
As a last-minute concession to conservatives, women’s travel freedoms were excised.
Now the National Council for Women, along with several non-governmental organizations, hopes for swifter success in giving women equal travel rights. Though Parliament prepares to discuss the women’s travel issue in the next two months, no firm date has been set.
“According to the Constitution, women are equal to men,” Farkhonda Hassan, the council’s new secretary-general wrote earlier this month in the semi-governmental newspaper, Al-Ahram. “They should be able to exercise their freedom of mobility.”
The first steps toward women’s freedom of travel were taken last November by Egypt’s Constitutional Court, the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that men cannot block women from obtaining passports.
Women Now Have Right to Obtain Passport, but Not to Use It
“It is the right of the citizen to obtain and hold a passport, since it is part of the personal freedom that is protected by the constitution and the right of traveling is part of public freedoms,” the high court said in its ruling.
Yet, a woman must obtain her husband’s or father’s signature on her passport. So, while men can no longer go to the Interior Ministry and bar their wives or daughters from leaving the country, the male relatives can refuse to sign their passports and can seek court injunctions against travel, on a case-by-case basis.
Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia and some other countries in the region allow women to travel and obtain passports on their own. Countries usually considered much more conservative than Egypt, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, also require a male family member’s consent. Moreover, the Sheik of al-Azhar, Mohammad Sayyid Tantawi, Egypt’s paramount religious leader, supported earlier drafts of the revised 2000 Personal Status Law that included a woman’s right to travel and obtain passports freely.
“There has been a recent trend toward trying to explain religion in a tight and backward way,” said Hada Badran, president of the Arab Women’s Alliance based in Cairo. “But there is also a parallel movement of intellectuals trying to get women ahead and recognized as total beings.”
Hania Sholkamy, a professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo, is glad that the divorce laws changed, but remains skeptical about the possibility of an additional women’s rights victory in the Parliament.
“At least a man can’t go to the Interior Ministry and bar a woman from traveling easily now. I think it’s as good as it’s going to get for now,” Sholkamy said.
“The push for women’s travel is coming from the cultural elite,” she added. “There is no respectable middle-class reason to grant women this right, nor is there the necessary public fora to debate the issue,” Sholkamy said.
Heather Bourbeau is a free-lance writer living in New York. She holds a master’s in international economics from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
For more information, visit:
National Council for Women, Egypt:
Legal Research and Resource Center for Human Rights, Egypt:
Read two documents on women’s rights in Islamic countries:
“Lawyers Argue Laws, Not Quran, Repress Women,” Women’s Enews:
“Unfulfilled Promises: Women’s Rights in Egypt,” Population Council (1.7 MB PDF file):