After the revolution: Egyptian women yet to win equality

Yasmine Fathi , Sunday 12 Jun 2011

Egyptian women participated in the revolution on an equal footing with men, yet in post revolution Egypt they seem as far removed from winning equality as they ever were

Egyptian women
(Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Gihan knows the grey shabby walls of the Zananiry Family Court all too well. The 35-year-old has been coming here for five years after her husband walked out on her and their five-month-old son. First, she spent three and a half years waiting in the gloomy hallways of the court to finalise her divorce. After this, it has taken another year and a half to try and get child support for her now five-year old son, Mohamed.

“I really want this nightmare to end,” said Gihan, as she sat on one of the court’s staircases while waiting for her case to be called. “He beat me, took my money, cheated on me, made me work even when my leg was broken and would come home every day drunk, and then finally abandoned me. And now I just want some money to spend on my son and my case is always being postponed.”

Gihan is just one of hundreds of women who come to the court every day seeking their rights from their ex-husbands. And for these women, the Zananiry court is as close as they will get to hell on earth. Women line up every inch of the stuffy multi-story building. They sit on the stairs, lean against the walls and patiently line up in front of the session halls for hours until their turn comes. The lucky ones can afford lawyers, but many have to make do with the support of their fathers and brothers and face the judges armed only with the advice of well meaning friends and neighbours.

Across from Gihan, 25-year-old Amal awaits anxiously for her turn. She was married at 18 and now is a mother of two children. Her husband is a drug dealer who was sentenced to three years in prison. A few months ago, he was released early and began dealing drugs from home. She asked for a divorce and he refused. So now, she has filed a Khulaa (the right to divorce accorded to women by Islamic jurisprudence) lawsuit.

“I hope this hell ends soon,” says Amal, accompanied to the court by her uncle. “I don’t want anything from him. All I want is my freedom.”

In front of her stands Aliaa, a fully-veiled mother of two who has been working through the court system for 11 years trying to extract financial support from her former husband. She’s so poor she had to pull her youngest son out of school and send him to work for his uncle, an auto mechanic.

“I’ve sold everything that I have to pay the lawyers, and they always double cross me and end up working for my ex-husband,” says Aliaa. “I just want to have peace.”

These three women are struggling with complicated laws that have, for decades, left Egyptian women wandering through the country’s courts in search of their dignity after their husbands leave. What they don’t know is that now, outside the court, a movement to strip them of more rights is gaining ground. A sad ending to a revolution that was meant to help them gain rather than lose rights.

During the January 25 revolution, millions of Egyptian women hit the streets calling for the fall of Mubarak and for justice and equality for all. They believed that with the fall of the regime they will finally taste freedom, not just from abusive husbands but a freedom that would give them the right to live in the country as equal partners to the men. But sadly, many are realising that their dream may never become a reality.

“Women worked side by side with men during this revolution,” says Fatma Khafagy, board member of the Alliance for Arab Women. “But now the men are telling us ‘thank you, now please go back to your homes and to being good mothers and wives.’”

It is in fact, becoming apparent to many women that the men only wanted their presence on the revolutionary train to be temporary. Indeed, following the fall of Mubarak on 11 February, it became clear that women will not be given a voice.

The constitutional amendments committee appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) did not include any women. The interim government formed to oversee the country during the current transitional period only has one female minister, even though there were four in the old regime. Now, there is also talk about removing the quota of female members of parliament, which could well mean that women will end up occupying very few, if any, seats.

“Following the revolution women were not asked to voice their opinion on anything and that’s a tragedy because we have many great female legal experts and economists who would have provided very useful opinions,” says Khafagy.

Following this, women became the centre of sectarian tension in Egypt as Salafists began torching churches on the grounds that Coptic women who converted to Islam were held captive in there.

“They just wanted to make it look like women were simple-minded creatures who caused trouble and needed men to control them,” explains Khafagy.

But all this is nothing when compared to the fact that many of the laws that Egyptian women have been fighting to implement for the past 30 years, are now under threat. These laws include Law 1 of 2000, otherwise known as the Khulaa Law, which acts as an alternative for women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorce. Through this law, the court grants a woman a divorce as long as she returns the dowry paid by her husband prior to the marriage.

Also, they are objecting over amendments made to several articles in Egypt’s Personal Affairs Law. These amendments include changes made to the Custody Law 25 of 1929, amended by Law 4 of 2005, which gave divorced mothers the right to keep their children until the age of 15, instead of ten for a son and 12 for a daughter, as was previously the case.

The amendments also covered two articles in the Childhood Law, including article 31 which raises the age of marriage to 18.

Activists have worked hard for decades for these laws to be passed, now Islamists, specifically Salifists and the Muslim Brotherhood, are demanding that they be revoked. Protests have been held in front of the Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Justice demanding the revoking of these laws.

“They call them the Suzanne Mubarak laws because they took place in her era,” explains Khafagy. “But what they don’t understand is that these laws are the fruit of 30 years of suffering and not the work of one woman.”

In fact, Khafagy points out, most of the battles to pass these laws were fought long and hard by NGOs and women’s groups before the ousted president’s wife hijacked them.

“Unfortunately she was the only one who had the power to pass these laws, so many women’s groups simply handed them to her,” says Khafagy. “And then she would order Fathi Sorour (former parliamentary speaker) to pass them.”

The problem is, the hate that many Egyptians feel towards Mrs Mubarak and the former ruling family has lead to a desire to purify the country of anything associated with them, including these laws.

“Suzanne Mubarak used to pass these laws in a very authoritarian way which ended up creating resentment and hate towards women,” says Khafagy.

But the old regime is not the only problem. These laws gave rights to women in a society that has always been strictly patriarchal. And now, almost six months into a revolution, nothing has changed.

“We have a rich heritage of discrimination against women in Egypt,” says Khafagy. “And the revolution is not going to change the gender relations in the country in just weeks.”

Many also believe that the laws are simply unfair. Ehab Fathalla, a lawyer who specialises in personal affairs, says that many of these “Suzanne Mubarak” laws put men at a disadvantage.

“Damn her, damn Suzanne Mubarak,” fumes Fahallah. “She has completely ruined the values of the Egyptian family by creating laws that we all know were just passed to impress the West and show them that women here have rights.”

The law, says Fathallah, has made the rate of divorce rate in Egypt skyrocket. He adds that it si abused by women who have turned it into a tool with which to manipulate their husbands.

“I have seen many cases where women marry a rich man for two months, manipulate him to buy her a house and a car in her name and then file a Khulaa case after two months,” explains Fathallah. “It’s become a business for many women.”

Fathallah believes that the law should be amended with restrictions put in place to make it harder for a case to reach court. He added that judges should also be given the authority to reject Khulaa cases if they feel that the women are being manipulative.

“Right now most of the rejections are for procedural [reasons],” says Fathallah. “But to stop this phenomenon from growing, they should be able to say no more often.”

As for the proper age for custody, Fathallah says that Mrs Mubarak twisted the law to benefit the women.

“Previously boys were handed over to their fathers at the age of 10 and now it’s 15,” says Fathallah. “But the problem is, how can he be raised properly to be a man if he is with his mother until 15? He should be given to his father to give him proper training.”

Ibrahim Amin, an appeals lawyer, agrees.

“A divorce case can take years, but a Khulaa case is finalised in a matter of months,” says Amin. “Now a woman can wake up with a headache, have a fight with her husband and file a Khulaa case, it has turned into a fiasco and needs to be stopped immediately.”

Khafagy refutes all of this.

“We conducted a study and found that most women who applied for Khulaa were abandoned by their husbands and didn’t know if they were divorced or not,” says Khafagy. “So they applied for Khulaa.”

The problem, says Khafagy, is not that women abuse the laws, but rather that the whole structure of the Personal Affairs Law, under which most of these laws fall, is wrong and creates tension within a couple, and so they end up in court.

“The law gives the man the right to divorce her for no reason, sometimes even without her knowing, which violates Sharia law; it also give him the right to marry another woman,” says Khafagy. “The whole Personal Affairs Law, is a system of torture for women, and makes it very difficult for the two sexes to have a good relationship.”

So, the Alliance worked with other women’s groups to draft a new version of the law, which they submitted to the policies committee in the former ruling National Democratic Party shortly before the revolution.

Now, however, it seems that the law may never come to pass, especially with the Islamists gaining the upper hand. With many political analysts expecting the Muslim Brotherhood to win at least half of the seats in Egypt’s next parliament, it will become more difficult for the feminist movement to gain momentum. Even when the Brotherhood only had held 88 seats in parliament between 2005 and 2010, the Alliance and other women’s groups were struggling to pass laws that would have helped women, says Khafagy.

But, she says, they will keep soldiering on and, if anything, demand more rights. Already, the Alliance, along with the Association of International Civil Servants and Coalition of Egyptian NGOs have staged a press conference on 4 June. Attended by 3000 members of various NGOs working on women’s rights, the conference was used to air their grievances in public for the first time since the revolution erupted.

They have also, says Khafagy, repeatedly requested to meet with both interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and the ruling military council, but have been ignored by both. The Ministry of Justice, which oversaw many of the laws that are now under threat, has also fallen silent.

“I am really disappointed at how this new government is dealing with this crisis. None of them answer the Salafists and leave us women to deal with them on our own,” says Khafagy. “But when the official address does not mention women, then they give them a bigger chance to attack women.”

Khafagy says that women’s rights have, in fact, become nothing more than a card played by both the military council and the Islamists.

According to Khafagy, the ruling military council is collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood with the former using women’s issues as a way of appeasing and extracting assurances from the latter.

But while the military council, the Brotherhood and women’s group squabble, women like Gihan continue to suffer.

After sitting on the stairway for three hours, her turn finally came. She attended the session briefly, before finally emerging with a tight smile. Her court case has been postponed. Again.

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