Women in Egypt Gain Broader Divorce Rights

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday , April 14, 2000 ; A16

CAIRO –– The trouble in Saba Wahad's marriage started right away.

Wahad, 24, said her husband, a colleague of her brother's, hit her at the slightest provocation and became increasingly volatile with the birth of two children and mounting financial pressure.

"I had no idea he would be like this," said Wahad, whose marriage nearly two years ago, like many matches in the Middle East, was arranged by her family with no time for courtship.

In another era, Wahad's choices would be grim: Tolerate the violence or seek divorce through a court system that demanded women provide exacting proof of abuse, adultery or some other reason for dissolving a union, while giving men appeal rights that took years to exhaust.

Today, however, she and other Egyptian women are coming to court with new authority. A law that took effect last month allows them to seek a unilateral, no-questions-asked divorce, making Egypt the second country in the Arab world after Tunisia to give women divorce rights similar to those of men.

"This is basically a revolution," said Mona Zulfukar, a lawyer and activist who helped win a 15-year campaign for family law reform that also made child support and alimony easier to collect and consolidated what sometimes grew to be a file of seven or eight separate proceedings under the purview of a single judge.

"The mechanics were archaic and outdated. . . . Cases stayed in there for five, seven, 10 years to be resolved," Zulfukar said. "Women were suffering like mad."

Having survived a bitter debate that drew frequent predictions--from men--that domestic upheaval would inevitably follow such a change, the new Egyptian divorce law demonstrated how difficult social reform can be when faith, politics and culture reinforce the status quo.

Women's rights are a particularly sensitive topic in the Middle East, governed by traditions and religious practices that have justified a range of rules, restrictions and customs--from what can be worn outside the home, to prohibitions on driving and work, to female circumcision and the killing of wives, sisters and daughters who stain family honor.

Support from national leaders is no guarantee of change. In Jordan, the lower house of parliament has refused, despite the support of King Abdullah, to eliminate laws that minimize jail time for men who commit "honor killings." The emir of Kuwait tried to extend the right to vote to women last year, but the idea was rejected by the legislature.

In Egypt, it took a diverse coalition to make reform possible, including President Hosni Mubarak, whose wife has been active on social reform issues. Also involved were activists interested in making the legal system more efficient; civil libertarians and supporters of women's rights; and, perhaps most important, Muslim scholars who agreed there was justification within Islam for the proposed changes.

"The whole thing is a cultural struggle today; it is not men against women," said Mona Makram Ebeid, a former member of parliament and a political scientist at the American University of Cairo. "It's a struggle between the conservative element and the civil society."

It was in fact the justification of the new law on religious grounds that won it approval in this often devout nation, where family law in particular is supposed to be rooted in the sharia, or Islamic code. Divorce, Egyptian activists argued, was clearly meant by the Prophet Mohammed to be an equal--or at least nearly equal--opportunity for men and women to dissolve unhappy marriages. Scholars at Cairo's Al Azhar University, the Muslim world's oldest seat of religious learning, agreed.

With Lebanon already studying the statute as a possible model for expanded divorce rights for women there, supporters feel they have found a formula that can overcome tradition, and without the upheaval often predicted in the Middle East when arguments are made in favor of social change.

It is the second major step on women's issues that Egypt has approved in recent months. Last fall, the government repealed a controversial part of the criminal code that allowed rapists to avoid imprisonment if they offered to marry their victims.

During the six weeks the law has been on the books, about 300 women have used it to initiate proceedings. According to Egyptian government statistics, about 290,000 people get divorced here each year. In Cairo, where about one-fifth of Egypt's more than 60 million people live, roughly 15,000 women file for divorce annually.

Opposition from religious conservatives and men who saw their domination of family life threatened required some compromise. As the legislation progressed, a provision allowing Egyptian women to travel without a husband's or father's permission was eliminated as too daring.

And even with the recent reforms, a husband can still break a marriage far more easily than a wife. As little as an hour with the local marriage registrar is all it takes under the broad divorce powers given to men. The wife does not have to be informed.

Under the new law, by contrast, court-supervised mediation is required before a divorce is granted at the woman's request, and then she must return any cash or property provided by her husband under their marriage contract.

Nevertheless, Wahad and other women said, the new law has given them hope that if the courts tie up a case too long examining a woman's claims--it is still preferable to prove cause, if only to retain the marriage payment Egyptian men often bring to a new union--they can opt for a quick exit under the new statute.

"We are going to take this all the way through, but if the courts drag we will use the Khola," said Wahad's lawyer, Wahed Azmy, using the Koranic name for the new law.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company