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‘Biased’ Changes to Egypt’s Divorce Laws Over Custody Prompt Outcry

An amendment that would give custody of children to their father if their mother remarries has sparked outrage among Egyptian women and their advocates, who claim it highlights systemic gender biases in family laws.

Written by Lorena Ríos Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A proposed amendment to Egypt’s family law that gives child custody to the father if the mother remarries is being slammed by critics as a patriarchal tool to discourage women from seeking divorce. AP/Amr Nabil

Hanna’s husband put her through years of psychological and physical abuse before she managed to divorce him. The Egyptian single mother, now 27, was living with her family in the U.S. when her husband Amir raped her. She pressed charges and he spent a month in prison, but he was then released when her family convinced her to drop the charges. After she returned to Egypt to file for a divorce, Amir followed her back to the country and abducted their only son Kareem, then three years old, and kept him hidden in a beach town in Sinai for three months. When Hanna got her son back and continued to push for the divorce, Amir put a knife to her throat.

Eventually, in 2014, a judge granted Hanna a divorce, but said that because Amir hadn’t given his consent for the divorce, she had to give up all of her financial rights. Hanna decided she could live with those terms because, even if they had to struggle for money, she and her son could finally feel safe.

But a new bill proposed by Egypt’s parliament threatens to take even that sense of security away from her and thousands of other divorced mothers. In December 2016, a group of parliamentarians called for an amendment to the country’s Personal Status Laws, or family laws, which would grant divorced fathers more time with their children and also change custody rights if a woman remarries. The move has provoked an outcry from citizens and activists who say it further punishes Egyptian women, who many claim already hold second-class status.

“Being a woman in Egypt is a disaster,” says Hanna.

Since 2011, when mass protests centered on Cairo’s Tahrir Square led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, the country has seen three presidents, a new constitution and some advancement in women’s rights. The government has increased its efforts to criminalize sexual harassment, for example – a significant move in a country where more than 99 percent of women say they have experienced some form of harassment. But many of the laws regarding women remain resistant to change.

The main reason for that, says Nada Nashat, advocacy coordinator at the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), is Egyptian law’s deep religious roots. The group provides social and legal services to women and raises awareness of law and human rights principles among legal bodies and NGOs. “The first problem we face when we talk about amending these laws is they are based on Sharia law,” says Nashat. According to Nashat, the country’s family laws haven’t been amended since 1920.

Egypt’s divorce law has long been criticized by women’s rights advocates. Current laws say that if a man no longer wants to be married to his wife, he can divorce her instantly and irrevocably simply by uttering or writing the word “talaq” three times. This is the most common form of divorce in Egypt – the law requires only that the divorce be documented within 30 days of the declaration. “However, a woman has to file a case in the court to be granted a divorce, which is a long process that can take years,” says Nashat.

Women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce can employ the Khula law, which Egypt passed in 2000. It allows for divorce even if only one party consents, but a woman who takes that route has to pay compensation to her husband. For women who want to escape a violent relationship, Sharia law again proves to be an obstacle, since many interpret the law as giving a husband the right to physically discipline his wife. According to research carried out by Monika Lindbekk, a Norwegian lawyer studying Egyptian divorce law, judges tend to grant divorce for harm only in cases where a third party gives eyewitness testimony of the beatings. “Emotional violence is hard for judges to assess,” says Nashat. “Filing for divorce based on harm can take up to four years.”

Current legislation also makes it harder for women to rebuild their lives after divorce. While divorce rates are increasing in Egypt, many women never remarry because they are afraid their children might be taken away from them, says Nashat. Divorced mothers are entitled to custody of their children until the children turn 15, when they can then choose which parent they want to live with. If the woman remarries, custody of her children is handed to her mother. Divorced fathers have visitation rights for three hours a week.

Under the proposed amendment, if a divorced woman remarries, custody goes not to her mother, but to her ex-husband, as long as he can provide a female caretaker – his new wife, for example. And visitation rights for the non-custodial parent would increase to entire weekends and up to a month in the summer holidays.

“The amendment takes into account what is best for children,” says Soheir El-Hady, one of the parliamentarians behind the amendment. “It’s the father’s right to visit that we want to change, so that children can get to know their father’s family better.” The M.P.s say swapping custody from the woman’s family to her ex-husband’s if the woman remarries is about protecting children from potential abuse by their mother’s new husband.

But critics see the potential changes as yet more tools to disempower Egyptian women. “The proposed amendment is driven by a conservative and patriarchal view that denies women the right to divorce and the right to remarry,” says a spokesperson (who asked not to be identified) for the group Nazra for Feminist Studies. “Or that sees these women as bad and thus wants to punish them by taking away custody if they think about divorce and remarriage.”

With her pink-streaked pixie cut and her loud, electric energy, Hanna makes an impact simply walking down the street in Cairo – especially when she smokes, in defiance of Egypt’s strict social codes. Every day she experiences the harassment that has become a common occurrence for the country’s women: She’s been the target of vulgar cat calls, she’s been spat at and she once had to dive away from a man who tried to hit her with his car. “This is not harassment; it is violence,” she says. “We [women] are surviving, we are fighting for our lives.”

Hanna is angry about the proposed family law amendment, for which parliament has yet to schedule renewed talks and about the treatment of Egyptian women in general. But as she looks for a more stable job to be able to care for her son, who is now five, she says she isn’t afraid to keep breaking taboos. “We need feminism in Egypt,” she says. “Someone needs to fight.”

Hanna’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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