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How women in Egypt are defeating the government's archaic legislation

Egyptian women and activists hold slogans which read in Arabic 'Together men and women, we will write our constitution' as they demonstrate in front of the presidential palace in Cairo on 4 October 2012 [GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images]
Egyptian women and activists hold slogans which read in Arabic 'Together men and women, we will write our constitution' as they demonstrate in front of the presidential palace in Cairo on 4 October 2012 [GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images]

In February the Egyptian government tried to sell its draft personal status law on a clause that would see men who did not inform their first wife they were marrying a second, fined up to EGP 50,000.

On the surface it seemed a fairly reasonable suggestion, a closer look showed it was simply PR. The levy, approximately $2,000, was to be paid by the husband to the government.

"What is the relationship between the government and the harm that was committed to the wife?" asks Committee for Justice advocacy officer Shaimaa Aboelkhir: "The fine should be for the wife, not the government."

When details of the draft law, which is a rework of an existing personal status bill, were published on Youm7 earlier this year, the article had to be removed due to the number of complaints.

Some 300 organisations advocating for women's rights renounced the amendments, pointing out that this was yet another attempt by the government to marginalise civil society since they were excluded from the drafting process.

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The clauses were analysed and pulled apart by feminists, Islamic scholars, ordinary citizens and a large number of men, all of whom rejected it.

"The law perpetuates the culture of discrimination on the basis of gender and insults and diminishes Egyptian women," says Aboelkhir.

The draft bill has been presented to the House of Representatives and is pending approval. If it is passed, any male within the family of a woman would have the right to annul her marriage within one year if she married without his consent.

"Even if she loves this man and wants to live with him, she is completely deprived of her will and has no right to decide what her life or partner is," says Aboelkhir.

Egyptian protesters hold up placards and shout slogans during a demonstration in Cairo against sexual harassment on 12 February, 2013 [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

Egyptian protesters hold up placards and shout slogans during a demonstration in Cairo against sexual harassment on 12 February, 2013 [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

Journalist Sara Mohani says that because of this clause she is afraid to get married: "As a woman who is still single, this law fills me with dread and fear to marry, and it would make me think 100 times before I take that step. This law treats me as incompetent – I cannot marry myself even though I have passed the legal age and became an adult."

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"It also gives the males in my family the right to choose my husband and take this right away from me," she continues. "Any male in my family can annul the marriage contract under the excuse that it is unequal. I think a lot about not getting married in Egypt or never getting married because of that law."

Aboelkhir says that the draft law "virtually eliminates" women from legal and official decisions related to her children, and strips her of the power to make decisions over their healthcare, education and travel.

If she is divorced a woman must seek her former husband's approval before she travels outside Egypt with their children, though he does not need the mother's approval if he has custody of the child.

"That law treats women as if they are only a means to conceive children," says Sara. The Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights has said that even Saudi Arabia's laws for women are more progressive and that it reduces women to "baby making machines."

Doaa, an Egyptian translator, who is a second wife and in the process of filing for divorce, says that the law appears to give women the necessary rights upon divorce, but at the same time takes away her financial rights if she is the one who initiates it.

"She shouldn't give up all her rights if she asks for divorce," says Doaa. "It's unfair. I am very concerned because whenever they say that the law will provide justice to women, the opposite always happens."

Doaa says that when she agreed to become a second wife, her husband's first wife came to visit her at work but that she wouldn't accept it if her husband requested her permission to marry again.

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"If he did it, I would ask for divorce. It's his right to marry another woman but it's my right to ask for divorce as well. His first wife accepted it, but I wouldn't accept it."

Beyond the status of women, the draft law also exacerbates sectarian discrimination, says Aboelkhir, because nothing is mentioned about marriage and divorce for non-Muslims. "This perpetuates the domination of religious institutions over the civil life of non-Muslim citizens," she says.

Of the 23 state entities that took part in preparing the personal status law, one of them was the National Council for Women. Despite claiming to advocate for women in one of the most repressive regimes in the world, the council is not independent of the state.

"The council members are chosen and appointed by the state security services and they are nominated for the presidency, which makes decisions for its members," explains Aboelkhir. "Thus, the council works within the framework drawn by the state that looks at women very conservatively and violates their rights in laws and daily practices."

Egyptian protesters take part in a march against sexual harassment at Talat Harb Square, on February 12, 2013 in central Cairo, Egypt. A few hundred Egyptian men and women gathered at the Egyptian capital's Talat Harb Square on Tuesday to demonstrate against the continuing problem of sexual harassment of Egyptian and foreign women during demonstrations across Egypt. (Photo by Ed Giles/Getty Images).

Despite sometimes playing an important role, for example for victims who have been harassed, Aboelkhir believes that the council has failed all women, especially the opposition. "The council did not offer them anything and sided with the state and its repressive policy of arresting many women just because they have opposing positions on the state or its policy."

Earlier this month, thousands took to social media under the Arabic hashtag #guardianshipismyright to post testimonies about how the current personal status law has stopped them making decisions for themselves or their children without the approval of a male guardian.

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"The campaign on social media was very important and it is the reason this project so far has been stopped," says Aboelkhir. "After the campaign many parties rushed to deny their responsibility for formulating or preparing it, and until now the committee that developed this draft law that brings society back to the stone ages has not been disclosed."

In response to the backlash the last month in Egypt has seen a desperate attempt by the government to reassure the public through the state-run press that they plan to treat men and women as equal. Workshops have been held that claim to work through problems that have been raised in response to the law, whilst Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi himself has said that he will not sign anything that is considered unfair to women.

But women's rights defenders are not convinced by a government that has boasted of forming an inclusive government with female ministers and at the same time sentenced several young women to prison on charges of "debauchery" and "violating family values" for having a social media presence.

It is also an alarming indication that authorities are not listening to the issues raised in Egypt's #MeToo movement, which erupted last year following years of frustration with how women are treated, with a particular focus on sexual harassment and the government's failure to prosecute perpetrators but to shame the victims instead.

Such an archaic law as this will not stop women demanding their rights, says Aboelkhir, for it is within the grassroots movements and outside the state institutions that women defend what they are entitled to: "Women's courage is the main reason for any woman's success, not the state's 'will' to protect women."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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