At the request of parliament, Al-Azhar, Egypt’s three Christian churches, the National Council of Women (NCW) and a number of NGOs have prepared draft laws regulating marriage, divorce and the custody of children.
The NCW has been working for 18 months on its version which it says will protect women’s rights and promote the best interests of children.
Urfi marriages — customary arrangements which involve couples writing a contract in the presence of two witnesses — deny women their basic rights.
Unless the contract is registered, its meagre provisions are non-binding. While current laws recognise a woman’s right to seek divorce from an urfi marriage they do not allow for the payment of alimony or child support.
The paternity of children born in these customary unions, of which an estimated 100,000 take place annually, often ends up the subject of disputes.
The NCW’s draft law requires all urfi marriages to be registered within five years of the legislation being passed. It prohibits the changing of a child’s name by either of the parents, and bans children from being taken abroad in the absence of the permission of both parents or — should the issue be subject to legal proceedings — the permission of a court.
The draft upholds current provisions that children aged 15 or above can choose the parent with whom they reside.
The draft stipulates family support centres will follow up on the enforcement of judicial custody rulings and alimony and child support payments, and will beef up visiting rights. Often judicial rulings on alimony go unimplemented, leaving mothers with children struggling to support them financially.
Lawyer Azza Suleiman argues the new draft will fill several loopholes in the current personal status law.
“It obliges the husband to authenticate a divorce which is a significant step in protecting women’s rights,” she says, “and setting a time limit for documenting verbal divorce could help reduce divorce rates.”
Al-Azhar has been working on its draft of the personal status law since 2017 and has conducted 30 hearing sessions on the new legislation.
Al-Azhar’s draft, which criminalises urfi marriage, also seeks to regulate the termination of engagements. It proposes that, in the event of an engagement ending, women have the right to keep the customary gift (shabka) from their fiancée should he call the engagement off, but must return it should they end the engagement.
Al-Azhar’s draft also sets conditions for the taking of more than one wife. A husband seeking a second marriage will be required to inform his first wife in advance, and should only remarry if his wife is unable to fulfill her marital duties.
Its draft personal status law outlaws second marriages for pleasure and criminalises child marriage, obligatory marriage, child labour and female genital mutilation.
Egypt’s three Christian churches are expected to finalise their own draft after Ramadan ends. The Coptic Orthodox Church only condones divorce should one partner have committed adultery or changed their religion, the Catholic Church forbids it entirely and the Evangelical Church allows divorce in very limited circumstances.
“The divorce rate in Egypt has steadily increased. Now 44 per cent of marriages end in divorce,” points out Ahmed Zayed, a professor of sociology at Cairo University.
“Currently there are nine million children facing the consequences of divorce. It has become imperative that a law be introduced protecting their rights.”
And that law, says Zayed, must allow for the timely resolution of disputes and help clear the backlog of 350,000 women battling for their rights, and the rights of their children, in the courts.
It is not the first time the personal status law has been amended. Law 100/1985 on alimony rights and Law 1/2000 on personal status procedures were controversial at the time but had the backing of Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the then president Hosni Mubarak.
Indeed, the laws were sometimes referred to mockingly as Suzanne’s laws.
Fawzia Abdel-Sattar, former MP and professor of law at Cairo University, says that despite the controversy the amendments were based on Islamic Sharia and have helped millions of families, and women in particular.
“Before the khul [a woman filing for divorce unilaterally and rescinding her rights] and alimony rights laws women were victims of the courts. They would spend year after year attempting to prove their right to alimony or secure a divorce.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Regulating family life