Egypt has formed a judicial committee to redraft a controversial personal status law that was shelved last year after a backlash from women’s rights proponents.
Minister of Justice Omar Marwan issued a decree on Sunday forming the 10-person committee which will re-examine the law, composed of eight male judges and two female judges, mostly from family courts.
They have been given the responsibility of presenting a new draft law within four months.
The move comes after President Abdel Fattah El Sisi met the minister on Saturday and directed the formation of the committee to draft a law “that takes into account the multiple interests of all parties concerned with its provisions and in a balanced manner”, according to a statement from the presidential representative.
Women’s rights groups, including the National Council for Women and the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR), commended the decision.
The bill sparked debate in February 2021 when it was being discussed in parliament and leaked by local media, with ECWR chairwoman Nehad Aboulkomsan arguing it would take women’s civil liberties backwards “200 years”.
On International Women’s Day on March 8 last year, the Women and Memory Forum urged Egyptian women to share their stories showing the lack of jurisdiction over themselves and their children using the social media hashtag "#Guardianship_is_my_right” in Arabic.
Women's rights in Egypt
Egypt’s personal status laws regulating issues of marriage, divorce, child custody, guardianship, inheritance and other family-related matters are largely derived from Sharia (Islamic law). Up until 1920 women could not initiate divorce and it was not until 2000 that they were given the right to initiate non-consensual divorce.
While women now make up about a quarter of parliament and there are more female ministers than ever, gender equity in Egypt still lags behind other countries in global indices that track women's rights.
The country has closed about 64 per cent of its gender gap, but ranked 129th out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2021 report. The top country Iceland has closed 89 per cent of its gender gap.
The initial draft personal status law reinforced the right of a man to verbally divorce a woman and a father’s position as natural guardian for minors in administrative and financial matters.
Activists and lawyers said there were also some positive proposals, such as granting emergency alimony to the mother and children, outlawing child marriage and imposing penalties on men who do not inform a new wife of polygamy.
Al Azhar, considered the world's leading institution on Sunni Islam, presented its own draft law last year, which has not been passed either.
National Council for Women chairwoman Maya Morsi said in a statement she has full confidence in the new committee to come up with a “balanced, fair and objective personal status law that takes into account the interests of all family members”.
“We are in dire need of a law that preserves the cohesion and stability of the Egyptian family, which is the nucleus of Egyptian society, and guarantees the rights of all parties concerned,” she said.
Ms Aboulkomsan said in an Instagram post that she is optimistic about the future of the personal status law following the committee’s formation. She also applauded the emphasis on the use of economic bodies, such as the Central Bank, the Administrative Control Authority and the Ministry of the Interior, for advisory roles as directed by President El Sisi.
“This is unprecedented and extremely important, because the personal status law is not a religious issue … but more than 80 per cent of it is procedural to determine constructive alimony,” she said.
The committee will receive suggestions regarding amendments to the personal law through email over the next 15 days.
Saudi Arabia recently passed new personal status laws, as well as amendments to other legislation related to the protection of women and children, that will come into effect this month.