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Egyptian female divorcees, less of a taboo, still face same old challenges

With divorce rates steadily rising, female divorcees in Egypt have become less of a taboo in recent years, but only to a certain extent

Sherif Tarek , Thursday 21 Jul 2016
Divorce
In early 2015, an unwed Egyptian woman named Samah Hamdi appeared in photos and video going through her daily routine donning a wedding gown and a veil in an attempt to ridicule communal pressure on Egyptian women to marry.
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Safaa Ahmed decided to brush off her polygamist husband two years into their marriage.

Her husband -- who was already a father when they got married in 2013 -- planned to bring his children to live with them.

But after three or four months as a newlywed husband, he decided to remarry his ex-wife. His marriage to Safaa did not come to an end here, though.

"I still tried to work things out," recalled Safaa. "Many problems occurred after he returned to his ex-wife, which made me his second."

Polygamy is legal pursuant to Egyptian law, which allows Muslim men to have up to four wives as Islamic Sharia stipulates. It is often met with public refusal, however.

"His family's frequent interference in our marriage, broken promises to straighten things up, I had to deal with many things," Safaa continued.

"He eventually got married to a third woman and that was the straw that broke the camel's back."

A sales manager with no children, Safaa knew she can afford unilateral divorce, which is known in Arabic as khul and drops most nuptial legal and financial rights that a female divorcee is entitled to in case of an ordinary divorce instigated by the husband.

The Cairo-based 36-year-old opted for what can be an unattainable choice for many women who would feel obliged to sustain their respective marriages despite eagerness to get divorced due to lack of financial independence.

"Sometimes I say to myself that if I had been unemployed or I had been a mother with dependents in my custody, I wouldn't have been able to opt for divorce," Safaa said.

The unemployment rate for Egyptian women in the last quarter of 2015 reached 25.8 percent, almost triple that of men -- which stood at 8.9 percent -- according to statistics released by the governmental Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS).

Even though the increasing female unemployment could act as a deterrent to the separation of supporting husbands and dependent wives, divorce rate still went up in 2015 by 10.8 percent compared to the previous year, accounting for almost 200,000 divorces.

As much as mounting financial difficulties could be a reason for a failing marriage to continue, other forms of daily-life pressure over the past years resulted in the deterioration of Egyptians' psychological health, which is a main cause for higher divorce rates according to psychiatrist Radwa Osama.

"Divorce usually poses the easiest remedy when a couple are at loggerheads with each other," explained Radwa, who conducts workshops held by woman's magazine, Nooun, to help female divorcees overcome their ordeals.

"Not many people these days have the patience or the will to seek to work out their differences; many people are psychologically damaged one way or another," she added.

With divorce rates steadily rising, female divorcees in Egypt have become more socially acceptable in recent years, but only to a certain extent with the same perennial communal challenges barely alleviated.

Safa's work might have enabled her to part company with her husband and lead a single life without worrying much about the financial aspect, but her 2015 divorce has been anything but easy for her.

"After I got divorced I didn't let anyone know about it at work for a year. No one felt anything because I was acting exactly the same with no different attitude," she narrated.

"When it was known, however, I noticed that my colleagues started to put many things down to the fact that I am a divorcee, whether any changes to my performance at workplace, my mood or anything else."

"In general, you start to notice or wonder how people around you have changed, either those who are close to you or acquaintances. You don't really know how people see you."

Several restrictions imposed on female divorcees have long been rife in quite a few social circles in Egypt.

For one, it is generally seen as inappropriate for a woman to live alone or with flat-mates other than first-degree relatives, preferably including a man or a parent. Such a situation could be further socially unacceptable in case of a divorced woman.

The notion stems from a belief that a divorcee would be eager to compensate for the absence of her ex-husband, and thus is likely to use her privacy to get into a relationship outside wedlock, which is illegal and carries religious and social stigma, especially against women.

Such notions have barely changed, even though female divorcees are given a bit of a respite thanks to high rates of divorce nowadays, said Samia Khedr, a sociology professor.

"Living alone could be a problem nowadays, for instance," she said. "The situation of a female divorcee is more common but it's still far from normal for most of the public."

Radwa echoed similar sentiments, saying a divorced woman can be regarded by men as an "easy target".

Coming a long way on the route to recovery over the past year after attending Radwa's workshops, which were instrumental in helping her adapt to and accept her divorce, Safa said she is still struggling on the social level.

"I can't say I've recovered 100 percent; I still every once in a while come across obnoxious people who would make me feel there is something wrong with my situation," she said, without getting into details.

The only time Safaa felt absolutely comfortable with being divorced was when she traveled to Virginia this year upon Radwa's advice. The social burden was taken off her shoulders during the two and a half months she spent in the US.

"People there just mind their own business," Safaa said. "They wouldn't even think about other people's social statuses or act accordingly in any way."

"It is opposite in Egypt where a divorced woman, unlike a male divorcee, have diminished chances to get married because men and their parents usually prefer a virgin. The closest people to you might stop talking to you after being divorced."

Divorcees usually see their social circles shrink, among other social changes after the separation, Radwan explains.

"Many mutual friends would opt to talk to one of the separated couple and not the other. Also, no more extended families in most cases or couples activities, thus adaptation is key."

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