In Egypt, More People Call for Civil Instead of Religious Marriage

Article excerpt

Controversial cases in Egypt have spotlighted a legal system that leaves regulation of marriage and divorce to religious institutions, limiting individuals' freedom to make personal decisions.

Iriny has wanted out of her marriage for a decade. A member of Egypt's ancient Coptic Orthodox church, she was pushed into marrying a virtual stranger by her family 12 years ago.

Problems quickly developed, and her husband began to beat her, explains Iriny. When they had a son, Iriny's husband beat him, too. This is where her voice cracks.

Fearing for her son, she took him and left her husband to live with her parents.

But Iriny, a woman of modest means from a traditional family, cannot make a new life for herself because she is still married. In Egypt, the state leaves matters of marriage and divorce to the religious establishment, and the strict, patriarchal Coptic church will not grant her a divorce. "I want to continue my life," says Iriny, who did not want her real name to be used. "I want my own home, to live on my own with my son. My life is all lost."

Thousands more are in Iriny's shoes. Now, after a controversial court case and the government's promise of a new law dealing with personal-status issues like marriage, their cases are in the spotlight.

The resulting struggle has exposed the pitfalls of a legal system that, by forcing people to abide by religious regulations, has deprived citizens of the freedom to make decisions about their personal lives. Some - Christians and Muslims alike - are calling for alternatives.

"Our problem is that the state appears to be washing its hands of the problem, saying it's an intercommunity issue," says Hossam Baghat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "The argument we're trying to make as an organization is that Egyptian men and women of any religious conviction should enjoy the right to marry and have a family without being subject to the patriarchal family law."

Egyptian law says that a citizen's marriage and divorce petitions should be decided by the principles of that person's religion.

Christians must go to their leaders for permission to marry, divorce, or remarry, and Muslims abide by sharia, or Islamic law. A citizen's rights effectively depend on the religion he or she belongs to.

Islamic law is more permissive on issues of marriage and divorce, so Egyptian Muslims have more freedom to make such decisions than do Copts. Copts make up the majority of Egyptian Christians, who are about 10 percent of the population.

But the Coptic church wasn't always so strict. A 1938 code listed nine reasons Copts could divorce. But the first decree of the current pope, Shenouda III, upon taking office in 1971 was to disallow divorce except in cases of proven adultery. …