Personal Status law debate: Not just for better or for worse

Dina Ezzat , Friday 3 Feb 2023

A debate over proposed amendments to Egypt’s personal status law is shedding light on increasingly complex questions of marriage and divorce.

Amendments to Egypt s personal status law
Amendments to Egypt s personal status law


It is an untypically busy time for Raaifa, a seamstress who makes evening dresses, including for engagements and weddings. 

For close to a month, Raaifa has doubled her daily hours to meet the demands of women who wish to have a dress to register their marriage (katb al-kettab). For this seamstress who has been in the business for over 30 years, there is a seasonal system that has always applied in the past. 

Around New Year is high season, but more so for Christians than for Muslims. Summer is a high season for everyone. Otherwise, high season for Muslims is generally two weeks after Ramadan or two weeks after the pilgrimage season. For Christians, it is after Coptic Christmas or Easter. 

The interval between the katb al-kettab and the wedding is generally a matter of days or weeks. However, towards the end of December things “suddenly speeded up with a chain of katb al-kettab dresses in demand,” she said. 

What happened is simple. In televised remarks towards the end of December, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi spoke about debates over the introduction of amendments to Egypt’s personal status law with the intention of addressing the increasing rate of divorce. The president said that this was often due to a lack of compatibility and that it was issuing in litigation that in many cases was at the expense of the rights of children and of divorced women.  

There was speculation that in future it might be necessary to get the approval of a judge for a couple to get married and there might be the obligatory deposit of an unspecified amount of money in a family fund. Government officials and MPs were not able to reassure public opinion about the possibility of these changes. 

“We kept telling people to book a prompt date for the katb al-kettab and that there was no reason to worry. We should not expect the state to be forcing young couples to deposit large amounts in the proposed fund, but people just wanted to rush the katb al-kettab anyway, even without having any clear idea of a possible wedding date,” said Mohamed, a notary (maazoun) who works in Greater Cairo. 

“We have been seeing waiting lists and at times we have had to cancel registrations for lack of official contracts,” he added.

In a village in the Upper Egypt governorate of Sohag, Qadri too has had to try to “calm down fears that were started by mere speculation”. Traditionally, he said, the interval between the katb al-kettab and the wedding in the villages he covers is no more than two to four days and is always around harvest season. However, towards the end of December, Qadri was faced with unusual demands for the katb al-kettab further ahead of weddings. 

The maazoun for Muslims is a delegated notary of the Ministry of Justice who documents a marriage contract in the presence of the bride and /or her wakil, or representative, often the father or an older male relative, the groom, and witnesses who are often older male relatives of the bride and groom. 

The contracts are issued by the Ministry of Justice and handed out to notaries. Once the contracts are filled in, they are handed over to the family courts for official registration, allowing the couple to be recognised as man and wife. The role of the maazoun is similar to that of a priest in a Christian church, except that in the Muslim context there is a possible interval between the registration and the actual wedding, which is not the case in Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church.

The notary obtains the contracts from the family courts for around LE200 and asks the groom to pay his share of the price of one contract along with LE100 for an insurance document that he hands over to the Ministry of Justice. This amount has replaced the traditional government stamps required for the official documentation of a marriage contract and was initiated around six years ago. 

In addition, the groom should pay an amount relating to the dowry he is paying to the father of the bride ahead of the marriage and to the bride later in case of divorce (the al-mahr and the al-moakhar). However, in some cases the dowry is left unspecified, either to avoid high fees or social judgements. Meanwhile, the groom or his father pays the notary unspecified fees.

Several notaries have spoken recently of an acute shortage of contracts, making it difficult to cope with demand. “We have had to cancel at times to the dismay of families, but it is completely out of our hands,” one said. 

After repeated appeals to the public not to panic over possibly higher fees for the registration of marriages, Islam Amer, chair of the Notaries Syndicate, said that Egypt’s notaries “are out of contracts, and they cannot cope with the demand.”

DEBATES: The debate over a possible family fund for newly wedded couples or a possible judicial approval for potential marriages was originally part of a wider debate on the introduction of possible amendments to Egypt’s personal status law with an eye on securing two things.

First, they were meant to contain the volume of complaints over the lack of resources that many divorced wives have had to deal with when their husbands decline to pay alimony, and second, to reduce the sharp rise in cases of divorce registered by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) over recent years.

According to statements by Amal Salama, a MP, the new amendments should allow any divorced woman to get a temporary alimony payment of LE1,500 as a basic allowance to cover essential needs pending a judicial ruling within no more than 60 days on the alimony that the former husband should pay his ex-wife and children if the latter are in the wife’s custody.

Several MPs who have addressed the issue of the family fund said that the amount that each couple needs to deposit within the proposed fund should be around one per cent of the dowry. However, government officials have indicated that it the amount will be a single fee for all.

Hana, Marianne, and Sherifa, two engaged to be married women and a recently married woman, said the fund would not help all women in cases of divorce. They questioned its ability to provide adequately for all the children of divorced parents in all socio-economic contexts, given the limited deposits expected of each couple. They also contested the capacity of a judge to decide the capacity of each couple. 

According to Marianne, “why should a Coptic couple be forced to succumb to such a regulation, when it is mostly unlikely for them to be able to get a divorce even if they wanted one without having to go through the ordeal of either changing churches or converting?”  

Shaimaa, Amal, and Hala, three young women from the middle class, argued almost unanimously that any amount that is deposited with the proposed family fund would not lead to a sufficient allowance for a wife with children in case of divorce, especially in view of increasing levels of inflation. 

In the view of the three women, who are all married, the personal status law should simply say that a man who divorces his wife should pay directly to the family court the tuition fees of the children and an allowance sufficient for their daily requirements in line with the established socio-economic context. It should also stipulate a clear legal penalty for men who fail to honour this commitment. 

However, Hoda Nasrallah, a lawyer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a NGO, argued that the idea behind the new fund should not be dismissed in principle.

“One only has to walk through the corridors of the family courts to hear horrific stories of women who are forced to wait for years before they can get basic allowances to help them cover the essential expenses of their children,” she said. 

According to Nasrallah, the proposal of a family fund is a meaningful one. “I think in principle there is a reason to try to introduce a regulation that would put an end to the tricks that some men resort to in order to avoid paying allowances to divorcees. The question is about the details of the idea and how it will be applied without causing unfairness to anyone, including those who might not feel that they would benefit,” she said.

In his book Diaries of a Notary, which has appeared in nine editions since it was first published in 2018, Ahmed Badr argues that there is a need for a clear discussion of the very concept of marriage for young men and women in today’s Egypt. It is essential, he says, for each couple to be clear about the rationale behind their marriage and any expectations of it in order to avoid the disappointments and frustration that could lead to divorce and especially bad divorces.

Around 12 per cent of registered cases of divorce happen during the first year of marriage, and only nine per cent happen during the second year, while a little over six per cent take place during the third year, notes Hala Fouda, a professor of sociology, in a paper published last year by the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies, a think tank. According to Fouda, these figures require thorough consideration.

According to Qadri, in almost nine cases out of 10 the divorce is due to financial problems as the couple starts on their joint life together after having been financially stressed by “irrational expenses” and debts for unnecessary items of furniture and so on. Worse still, he added, are unrealistic financial expectations, either from the side of the man who expects his wife to manage on a small income, or a woman who cannot tolerate an austerity budget.

Mohamed Mohieddin, a professor of sociology at Menoufiya University, agrees that during the past five years or so there has been a visible spike in the rates of divorce that has come hand-in-hand with the devaluation of the pound and rising inflation. However, he insists that it would be wrong to conclude that financial frustration alone is the number one reason for divorce in Egypt. 

“We need more research to be able to decide, and it is only when we know, not just assume, why divorce is happening that we will be able to come up with appropriate legislation on how to fix the problem,” he said.

Moreover, he added, divorce should not be dealt with in the narrow context of a couple squabbling about financial settlements. “This is a much more complicated issue because divorce comes with many other consequences,” Mohieddin said. These could include increasing demand for housing, as each couple needs two separate apartments, and increasing consumption of electricity and gas, increasing food waste, and possible behavioural damage to children. 

Meanwhile, Ahmed and Hani, two men who got married fewer than three years ago, argue that the financial consequences of a divorce on a woman and children cannot be managed through a law that deals with a husband as suspected of evading alimony. 

Mohieddin agreed that any social or legal scheme that deals with divorce strictly from a financial perspective will not help to reduce the cases of divorce, but might prompt some people to look for ways to avoid the system, “again with some considerable social consequences”.

 “A system, any system, that is not welcomed by the majority of society will always be resisted, and in this case, we could see people resorting to other options like orfi [documented but unregistered and at times unannounced] marriages to avoid a legal process,” he said.


OTHER MARRIAGES: In a paper published in the Al-Malaf Al-Masry (Egyptian File) of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, sociologist Mariam Wahid wrote in May 2015 that there is already an increasing trend towards non-traditional types of marriages, including orfi marriages, especially but not exclusively among university students. 

Wahid’s observation relates to the CAPMAS figures that show that more and more men and women are getting married at an older age than the previously traditional mid-to-late 20s and more and more men and women are willing to remain single. 

In the view of Mohieddin, both the growing number of orfi marriages and the delayed or set-aside marriage plans have to be seen in view of many factors, including, but not only, increasingly prohibitive financial factors. Understanding the reasons why people get married is essential to understanding why people get divorced, he argues. 

“We have a crisis of marriage and of divorce. We are just too focused on the divorce problem,” he said.

For over two years, several religious institutions, both Muslim and Christian, along with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, have been working on campaigns designed to set young couples out with realistic expectations about married life. There have also been training courses for notaries to get them to share advice with young couples on how to manage life for better and for worse. 

The objective of such initiatives is to encourage people to reduce the sometimes-exaggerated economic bills of marriage and to show more tolerance towards the hiccups that come after the honeymoon.  

The role of the state in managing marriage and divorce is part of a tradition established by the modern state in Egypt, according to historian Mohamed Afifi. This role, he explained, was part of the wider management of the population that was initiated in the late 19th century with the first census to be carried out. It helped the state gain money both from the fees of marriage registration and from money ending up in state coffers when people die without heirs.

“We have to remember that the exact meaning of the word maazoun is ‘authorised’, because in fact he is the one authorised by the state to register a marriage according to a contract that is decided by the state,” Afifi said. Individuals who do not go to an authorised notary have to go to some other government body, including the relevant courts, to officially document the registration of their marriage even if it takes place in a church. 

As a result, Afifi explained, for well over a century the state has been involved with both marriage and divorce. He added that the introduction of a personal status law and the subsequent amendments to this law and the introduction of bills for the marriage and divorce of non-Muslims have also been part of the state’s role. “Clearly, it is an exercise of power just like any act whereby the state exercises sovereignty,” he argued.

Over the years, Afifi said, the state has expanded its role in managing marriages and divorces. He added that the recently proposed amendments to the personal status law should be seen in this same context. He argued that supporting or challenging the proposed amendments does not change the fact that they fall within the prerogatives of the state.

Ibrahim Ghanem, a sociologist at the National Centre for Criminology and Sociological Research, said that prior to the modern state the older Islamic system allowed for intervention to take place in cases where families would be left without a breadwinner, meaning that the authorities would provide for such families without intervening in the personal choices of the individuals in question.

According to Ghanem, the area of personal status has long been a space for the intervention of the modern state, especially with the first bill on personal status affairs introduced in the 1920s. This intervention, he said, had removed the flexibility that individuals had had to manage their marriages and divorces according to the regulations of any of the four schools of Islamic Sharia law. Now, everybody had to follow the same regulations on marriage, divorce, and inheritance in line with the unified code that the state decided to adopt.  

However, Ghanem explained that after 1952 the state took further steps to underline its prerogatives, as it decided to manage all endowments, charities, and payments that were stipulated by Islamic Sharia law under the umbrellas of awkaf, zakat, saddakat and kaffarat directly. 

“Those were financial resources that helped support the social solidarity system under Islamic Sharia law,” he explained. Meanwhile, Ghanem added, the revenues from taxes and other state revenues have generally not been sufficient for an equally robust social solidarity scheme. Today, he argued, there is a need to consider how to benefit from the marginalised Sharia scheme in order to give the state enough revenues to provide emergency or long-term support for families in trouble.

Meanwhile, Ghanem argued that recent research has indicated that the concept of complementarity and compassion within a marriage has been sadly replaced with “fully-fledged power struggles” in some cases.

“We have seen through research that marriage has sometimes turned from a ‘for better or for worse’ lifetime partnership to a partnership based on profit and loss. This is why it is hard to think that the legislative approach can be in and by itself sufficient to resolve a crisis that everyone is aware of,” he said.

However, MPs working on drafting the amendments to the personal status law do not claim that they are trying to fix all aspects of marriage and divorce problems in Egypt. Instead, they hope to attend to the specific elements that can leave hundreds of thousands of women and men stuck in litigation over alimony, the right to custody, visitation rights, and even the right to a prompt divorce. 

This approach is what Mohieddin and Ghanem are concerned about because while they acknowledge its rationale, they think it falls short of what is needed to get to the heart of a situation where fewer people are getting married, more are getting married in confused contexts, and more are getting divorced with considerable legal fuss.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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