In comments made on the sidelines of the Aswan Forum for Peace and Sustainable Development over the weekend, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi pledged not to ratify an anticipated law aimed at regulating personal affairs unless it was fair to women. “I am also sure that when it comes time to debate this law, parliament will do it in a balanced and moderate way,” Al-Sisi said.
Al-Sisi told participants at a session on African women during the forum’s second day that “Egyptian women are the ones who stood most firm in 2013 to preserve the identity of Egypt. When Egyptian women discovered that the policies in 2013 (when the Muslim Brotherhood were in power) would lead to the loss of the Egyptian state, they mobilised to stem the tide,” Al-Sisi said, adding that Egyptian women were at the vanguard of that year’s 30 June demonstrations to protect the country from the forces of terrorism and extremism.
In Al-Sisi’s words, “the great women of Egypt played a big role in fighting terrorism over the past five years, and in all ceremonies we hold to honour the families of martyrs, not a single woman complained about the loss of a husband or a son. They were even ready to provide more martyrs for the sake of protecting the country.”
Moreover, Al-Sisi said that when the state embarked upon economic reform, it called upon women to extend a helping hand in this respect.
“For these reasons, it is very important that we give Egypt’s great women the prestige they deserve and which they have won efficiently,” he said.
The president called on all Egyptian women to always take the initiative and not wait for anyone to give them their rightful dues. “I know that some men would disagree, [but] if we are just, we should appreciate what women do... without the women of the world, humanity wouldn’t exist and this is what we should remind each other of,” he said.
Every time women are asked to hold a position, whether in government or the provinces, they show that they are the most responsible and efficient and the least corrupt, the president said.
The president’s comments came amid recent speculation that parliament will soon discuss new amendments to the Personal Affairs Law. Mohamed Abu Hamed, deputy chairman of parliament’s Social Solidarity Committee, told reporters that a new law is being drawn up. “Government officials told the committee that they are working on the new draft and that they have two months to finish it,” Abu Hamed said. The draft law, which regulates marriage and divorce, is viewed differently by the various stakeholders, be it civil society, Al-Azhar or the church.
Abu Hamed said as many as six MPs had submitted draft amendments to the law. “These amendments are currently in limbo as the committee is waiting for the government’s draft law to be submitted,” Abu Hamed said.
Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal warned in early October that parliament might discuss amendments proposed by MPs. “This would happen only if the government failed to submit its own draft during this session,” Abdel-Aal said.
However, Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi, head of the committee, told reporters that parliament has not yet received any government-drafted personal affairs law. “Nonetheless, I want to assure all that MPs are keen to see a new law be passed in a balanced and fair way,” Al-Qasabi said.
Sunni Islam’s prominent institution of Al-Azhar revealed two weeks ago that it had revised the law after parliament referred to it.
The National Council of Women protested Al-Azhar’s amendments, insisting that they restrict the rights of women in family matters. The council said it had been working for a long time on its own version of a law that it said would protect women’s rights and promote the best interests of children.
The legislation Al-Azhar revised shall regulate the controversial issues of urfi (unofficial) marriage and alimony paid to divorced women. Al-Azhar’s draft seeks to regulate the termination of engagements as well. It proposes that, in the event of cancelling an engagement, a woman shall have the right to keep the customary gift (shabka) presented by the fiancé should he call the engagement off but must return it should she end the engagement.
Al-Azhar’s proposed amendments caused much controversy among women, particularly on the issue of “verbal divorce.”
President Al-Sisi criticised such a divorce, describing it as unfair to women. Al-Azhar, however, insisted that verbal divorce is part of Islamic Sharia and should be part of any personal affairs law.
A number of civil society organisations and political parties said in a statement last month that Al-Azhar’s amendments are an insult to women. They believe they allow girls below 18 to marry, restricts a woman’s right in choosing her husband, turns women into a tool for pleasure, and strips them of their economic and social rights after divorce.
Intesar Al-Said, head of the Cairo Institution for Development and Law, said Al-Azhar’s amendments are discriminatory against women. “They espouse the same principles which have made women in Egypt vulnerable to violence, harassment and discrimination for over 100 years,” Al-Said said.
MP Fayeka Fahim told Al-Ahram Weekly that “parliament has been under public pressure for four years to pass a new personal status law. We should positively respond to this pressure and discuss the law in its final legislative season 2019-20.”
The majority of Egyptians believed the current Law 100/1985 is outdated and unjust, Fahim said, adding that “it resulted in a dramatic rise in divorce rates, made it difficult for people to earn their rights, and negatively affected their economic and social well-being.” MP Inas Abdel-Halim, deputy chairman of parliament’s Health Committee, said the legislation in effect, though amended several times, had failed to address the needs of Egyptian Muslims and Christians. It has led to “the exacerbation of family problems, leaving negative psychological effects on children and undesired repercussions on social stability”.
Egypt’s three Christian churches have also finalised their own draft. The Coptic Orthodox Church allows divorce if one partner commits adultery or changes their religion. The Catholic Church forbids divorce entirely, and the Evangelical Church allows it according to very limited conditions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.