Egypt's Islamist Family Laws Take Women Back to Square One
Egyptian women have to fight tooth and nail for their basic human rights.
Over the past year and a half, much debate has taken place regarding Egypt's Family Law. Whereas some, mostly Islamists, have argued that certain articles must be changed or removed, many, women and men, have taken the streets demanding that rights be added, not stripped away.
For instance, Law 1 of 2000, otherwise known as the Khulaa Law, acts as an alternative route for women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorce. MP Mohamed El-Omda of the Wafd Party, who is also the head of People's Assembly Constitutional Affairs Committee, suggested with a coalition of other MPs that the law must be canceled. He and Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) MPS also suggested that the National Council for Women be disbanded and that a National Council for the Family be activated instead.
Through the Khulaa Law, courts grant women a divorce as long as they return the dowry paid by her husband prior to the marriage. Opponents argue that the process of the law is against Islamic Sharia law and that it also increases divorce among married couples.
However, Nehad Abul-Komsan, chairwoman of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights, said in a TV interview that divorce rates resulting from resort to Khulaa Law represents only three per cent of all divorce cases.
Azza Kamel, co-founder of Egyptian Women for Change (EWC), believes that those appealing for abrogation of the Khulaa Law are ignorant of Sharia law, in addition to the issues women face in asking for their rights.
"Some argue that women now receive all their rights, which is nonsense. We still demand major changes in Egypt’s Personal Status Law to acquire women rights," Kamel said. She added: "If any of those MPs tried to visit the Family Court in Egypt they might realise how women suffer for years regarding divorce issues.”
Nabil Helmy, international law professor and member of the National Council for Human Rights, said that “according to Islamic Sharia, Khulaa Law is totally legal and acceptable." Thus, it should not be eliminated. However, if the majority of the People’s Assembly (PA) members decided that it should, then they can do so through the PA's Legislative Committee.
Azza Soliman, legal assistant at the Centre for Egyptian Women, said that Khulaa Law is not the main goal, but merely a step towards attaining women's rights in Egypt. “We have been working on a project for a reformed Personal Status Law for 3 years,” Soliman said.
She also added that Khulaa Law is a necessity for achieving justice regarding divorce issues, and a right for every woman that suffers in order to receive a divorce verdict. “Through Khulaa, it could take only six months for a neglected, suffering woman to be officially divorced,” Soliman explained.
Amendments to several articles of Egypt’s Personal Status Law that were made in last March’s constitutional amendments are under debate as well. The changes made to the Custody Law 25 of 1929 (amended by Law 4 of 2005) gave divorced mothers the right to keep their children until the age of 15, instead of 10 for a son and 12 for a daughter. Changes also allow fathers to have care of their sons/daughters for 48 hours a week instead of only three hours a week.
Last year’s amendments also covered two articles in the Childhood Law, including Article 31, which raises the age of marriage to 18. However, in the past couple of months, some Salafist MPs argued that there should be no minimum age for marriage for both sexes, explaining that in Islamic Sharia, an age for marriage is not specified. They also argue that not defining an age for marriage can help stem the prevalence of vice and eliminate spinsterhood.
Kamel explains that according to international law, a child means every human being below the age of 18 years, meaning that those under 18 aren't mature enough for marriage or for child bearing. "Most under age girls might suffer miscarriage problems, and even die," Kamel said. She added that Salafist appeals are attempts to marginalise women, "just like they did in the current Constituent Assembly. where only five women are represented."
“A license to drive, and to even vote, requires you to be 18 years old or older. Are those things more important than being a parent and forming a family?” Soliman asks, adding that she believes it’s wrong to set the age of marriage below 18, or “12, as some imply.”
In addition, some have called for cancelling the implementation of CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, often described as an international bill of rights for women, since allegedly it contains articles that contradict Islamic Sharia.
The FJP held a conference last March under the title "Women and the Future," demanding the elimination of National Council for Women, arguing that it is against Sharia law and claiming that it — and also CEDAW — serves a foreign agenda. The conference was held only a few days after the National Council for Women was reformed and headed by Mervat El-Tallawy, in place of Suzanne Mubarak.
“CEDAW has been applied in Egypt since 1981, with the exception of four articles. Articles 9 regarding nationality, Article 2 regarding equality between men and women, Article 16 regarding family rights, and Article 29B regarding complaints,” Soliman explains.
TV host and writer Doria Sharafeddin, spokesperson of the National Council for Women, argues that those who oppose applying CEDAW in Egypt are probably ignorant of the fact that Egypt lodged reservations on certain articles long ago. “Even Saudi Arabia signed it, though it’s a more conservative country than Egypt,” she added.
Sharafeddin believes that CEDAW, and women's rights in general, should not be linked with the wife of the former president, and former head of the National Council for Women, Suzanne Mubarak, because “the council is a product of women’s struggle for decades. Reforming the council is what should be worked on, not totally eliminating it.”
Sharafeddin also believes that some want to apply Wahabi thinking in Egypt, to marginalise women, even though in the Gulf region women are beginning to play an important role in society.
By Sarah Mourad
How do you see it? Does the new Islamist parliament need to back off from the hard-earned women-friendly laws? Or is it within their rights to call for a change?
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