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.

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: