Despite demands, discussion of a new personal status law regulating marriage, divorce, engagement, guardianship and custody is not on parliament’s agenda when it reconvenes in October following the usual two-month summer recess.
Ihab Al-Tamawi, deputy chairman of the House of Representatives’ Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, told reporters this week that the committee has not timetabled any amendments to the law.
“The draft amendments which the government referred to parliament in February were recalled for review and we have not received any notice of the government’s intention to resubmit the law.”
While Al-Tamawi conceded that MPs are under pressure to pursue the matter, he insisted that further action “depends on how the government will react”. He added that while “some MPs have taken the initiative and drafted their own personal status laws they are not as comprehensive as the one drafted by the government.”
In a statement on Monday MP Amal Salama said she plans to submit amendments to the current Personal Status Law that “will protect families and preserve women’s rights”. She claimed “most divorce cases are due to husbands beating their wives” and that the current clauses on alimony and child custody are in urgent need of change.
Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee member Diaaeddin Dawoud said February’s government-drafted Personal Status Law had sparked widespread controversy, forcing the government to put the legislation on hold.
“The draft law faced attacks from the National Council for Women, the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, and Al-Azhar. They each requested a national debate be held on the law before it is put up for final discussion in parliament,” said Dawoud. “As a result of public pressure the government asked the committee to put the draft law on hold.”
In a speech on Saturday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said the new Personal Status Law must be balanced and “reflect the culture of society while guaranteeing the rights of both men and women”.
In a public speech to mark Mother’s Day in March Al-Sisi revealed that the government had withdrawn the new Personal Status Law from parliament in order “to hear from everyone, via a national dialogue, and ensure the law serves the public interest”.
Unfortunately, says Dawoud, a dialogue on the law has yet to be held.
“I think the dialogue should be held, if possible, before parliament meets next month. We know different institutions will have conflicting views and we need to reach common ground as quickly as possible. If MPs return without a new draft having been prepared it could take two years before there is any progress on the law.”
According to Dawoud, the heart of the problem lies in the radically different approaches of liberal organisations representing women, and the conservative views of Al-Azhar.
A study by the Promotion of Women’s Rights Project, funded by the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), noted that while several draft laws have been prepared in the past to codify personal status they always faced strong resistance.
“Whenever women’s rights advocates push for reform, conservative groups and institutions resist. The state, caught between the two, is cautious about interfering or pushing for equal rights within the family,” said the study. It predicted that in introducing future amendments to the Personal Status Law, the government will be “keen to present them as consistent with Islamic Sharia and supported by religious institutions”.
An online campaign launched by the Women and Memory Forum this summer under the hashtag #guardianship_is_my_right allowed women to share stories on how the Personal Status Law had prevented them from making decisions for themselves or their children without the approval of a male guardian.
The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) released its own report opposing the government-drafted legislation which it said contained many gaps. “It strips women of the right to sign their own marriage contracts,” noted the report, “gives any male member of the family the right to prevent women from travelling and gives fathers priority over mothers and grandmothers when it comes to child custody.
In addition, the report underlined that the government draft contained no provisions to solve legal issues, including cases of alimony that can drag on for years in the courts with no safeguards in place for children, or to tackle the problems arising from polygamy, the cause of many family breakdowns.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly