Modest Divorce Law Reforms Cause Concern

Article excerpt

Considering how tame the law is, reactions to the controversial amendments to Egypt's personal status laws, passed earlier this year, have been amazing.

The amendments take away a man's right to repudiate his wife simply by filing details of his case with a local marriage registrar, and gives judges, appointed by the new family court authority, the final say in any divorce claim, whether filed by the husband or wife.

According to the new law, in cases where the wife, has sought a divorce, she will have to waive alimony rights and also return her bride price, according to an Islamic precept called khula. However, a more concerning aspect of the law has also come to light in recent months: in some cases, where the husband has bought the marital home outright, on divorce the property must then be returned to him, effectively leaving his former spouse homeless.

This has prompted many human rights activists to question whether the law, however well-meaning, will make an already bad situation worse.

"How can a woman of limited means give back her bride price?" says Magdy Adly of the Nadim Centre, which provides free legal and psychological help to women. "This law serves only the wealthy class." There is unquestionably still a long way to go, especially since, as Adly points out, judges in Egypt -- as yet all male -- sometimes resent granting divorces to women at all. Government statistics put the number of divorce cases filed at about 1.5 million a year, from a population of about 64 million.

Changing laws is one thing but changing attitudes is an altogether trickier business, especially in a country with a largely unpoliticised public like Egypt, where misinformation thrives. Many people have not heard of the new law; others think it is all about allowing women to divorce their husbands at the drop of a hat or to stop them travelling abroad. "The husband will have no control over his wife in the home. Women will control the situation, everything will be in their hands," complained technician Abdel Wahhab Hussein, aged 38. "I'll have a judge interfering between me and my wife," he continued "This law is rubbish because it gives women rights they should not have."

Hussein is by no means alone in his opinions: "The man should be the who dominates because women are rash," said an angry Mohammed Mahmoud, 28, who runs a photography shop. These were typical reactions among men on the streets of Cairo.

Before it was finally approved the law provoked an outcry in parliament -- which has only a handful of female delegates -- and in the press. Newspapers carried cartoons of men in chains, moustachioed wives with downtrodden men at their sides pushing baby buggies, and vampish dames with cigarettes asking for the hand in the marriage of demure-looking males from their shocked fathers. …