Women, Shari'a, and Personal Status Law Reform in Egypt after the Revolution

Recommending the following analysis by Camilo Gómez-Rivas | Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern history – The American University in Cairo.

Like almost everything else during the uncertain period of the transitional government, the future of personal status law reform is at a crossroads in Egypt. The new constitution (assuming one will exist)[1] may technically have little direct impact on how the country’s laws affect women’s lives, but the legislative process that emerges thereafter most certainly will. Likewise, while the ongoing electoral and constitutional process may have no immediate bearing on the laws of family and personal status (such laws are often implemented more gradually), much of the population does not see it so. For many, the role religion plays in the future political life of the country is an issue of utmost urgency and significance. And the application of shari‘a often symbolizes this role, a role that in Egyptian society is most visible in the laws of personal status, which cover matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance.

Women’s legal status, as affected by these laws, constitutes, therefore, a key symbolic battleground over which conservative and progressive forces are struggling to realize their visions of the future. The debates raging over whether elections or a constitution should come first, followed by the debate over what constitutional or supra-constitutional principles the process should follow, illustrates this struggle in broad scope.[2] Efforts to affect the social and legal status of women more directly are also afoot, however, as myriad social and political groups attempt to organize across the country. The eventual process of legislation and enactment will necessarily be complicated, but the political narratives that seek to affect it are not — the power of the political message depends on its simplicity. Some argue that Islam and family are the foundations of a healthy society and paint past reforms as part and parcel of the corruption of the former regime. Others, including both foreign and domestic parties, see any talk of Islam or shari‘a as a symptom of a truncated democratic process. There are many shades in between.

In Egypt, the debate over personal status law reform for Muslims (Christians have their own family law) has centered on the Islamic legal term khula‘, a divorce process initiated by the female spouse in which she forfeits financial rights and reimburses her husband the dowry paid when contracting the marriage. A period of reconciliation must ensue before the divorce is enacted, and she must state in court that she “hates living with her husband” and is “afraid to cross the limits of God.”[3] The key issue about khula‘ is that it does not require spousal consent. It is a reform to divorce laws that is based on the Islamic legal tradition, while also representing a break from the classical definition of khula‘, which required consent and could thus be easily thwarted by the husband.

This current form of khula‘ was incorporated into Egypt’s personal status law in 2000 and was accompanied by other reforms, including the formulation of a new standard marriage contract that gave women the right to stipulate conditions, such as the right to divorce in the event of a husband’s contracting a second marriage. Further reforms in 2005 also included the establishment of family courts, the creation of a Family Fund for court-ordered alimony and maintenance for female disputants, and new child custody laws (child custody laws have increasingly become central in the national debate). Support for the reforms by means of mobilizing and drafting came from various quarters of Egyptian society, but the final legislation counted on the support of the now-defunct National Democratic Party and the National Council for Women, headed by the former First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak.

Post-January 25 detractors of these reforms refer to them as “Suzanne’s Law” — echoing criticism of a set of reforms enacted under Anwar Sadat, then labeled “Jehan’s Law,” after First Lady Jehan Sadat — and are seeking to repeal them on the basis that they “contradict shari‘a” and are a legacy of the corruption and tyranny of the fallen regime. Criticism of such reforms, especially by invoking shari‘a, is nothing new in Egypt. What is new in the current backlash “is their being presented to the public as part of a revolutionary struggle against corruption and the political repression of the old regime,” according to Mulki al-Sharmani, former research faculty at the Social Research Center at the American University in Cairo.[4]As the transitional government lumbers toward national elections and the drafting of a new constitution, social and political actors are positioning themselves to affect the ultimate outcome, some calling for a complete repeal of existing reforms, others calling for broader and more thorough legislation in favor of gender equality.

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