Should the groom remain forever indebted to his in-laws for items they bought for the couple's home at the time of a marriage? It is a debate that has been raging in Egypt for the past week, and one that looks unlikely to die down despite the highest court giving its view on Sunday.
After a week-long controversy that split the Egyptian population in half on social media, the country’s highest administrative court announced its constitutional position on a common marriage practice in Egypt, the main point of contention of the recent national debate.
Customarily, newly married husbands in Egypt sign a document listing household items bought for the couple by their wives or their in-laws.
Colloquially known as "al qaema" — Arabic for “the list” — the document is an acknowledgement by the husband that he is liable to return these items, or their cash value, to his in-laws if asked.
While not legally binding, it is often the basis for legal action.
Items on the list typically include furniture, appliances and other home necessities. The maximum penalty for defaulting on the qaema — a crime known as "squandering possessions of the marriage home" ― is three years in prison. Typically, these sentences are less severe, unless the case is particularly egregious.
While announcing its rejection of an appeal filed by a husband who had petitioned the court to waive his legal duty to pay for items on his qaema, Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court took the opportunity to weigh in on the national debate and outline where the qaema stands with the country’s judiciary.
The accused had been charged with stealing and claiming the items for himself.
The court underscored that the qaema is not technically a legal practice, but rather a longstanding traditional accord whose parameters can vary based on the nature of the individual agreements reached by the families of the couple.
The supreme court said in its statement that while defaulting on the qaema is a crime of “a familial nature that diminishes a man’s masculine stature”, it is not dishonourable in the court’s eyes.
Although its definition may vary under Egyptian law, honour is an important cornerstone of Islamic law, the foundation of the country’s constitution. Dishonourable crimes are often punished more severely in Egypt.
Public opinion on the qaema has been divided since the issue was highlighted by a lower court ruling last week in favour of a man charged with squandering items on his qaema.
Social media channels in Egypt were awash with opinions, with millions calling for the practice to be abolished because they feel it inserts external influence into a marriage, which should solely concern husband and wife.
Many young men said it was unfair for them to bear the financial responsibilities of marriage alone when many of them do not have a steady income. They felt the practice of qaema was more difficult today to follow than it was for their parents, because of how different Egypt’s economy had become.
“Your two options today as a man in a marriage are to pay for everything yourself and end up on the street, or sign a qaema and end up in jail,” Mohamed Hosny said on Twitter.
But others saw the qaema as an insurance policy for women, whose rights are often ignored in Egypt’s deeply patriarchal society. They said it ensures that men who decide to get married are serious about it. This opinion was also the view of the conservative commentators — who advocate for keeping the man as the leader and sole provider of the family.
The country’s highest Islamic advisory body, Dar Al Iftaa, supported this view of the qaema in a statement issued on July 27, as did the supreme court’s ruling, which said it was "a means of protection and a guarantee of the material rights of women that achieves social security, enhances a woman’s social status. The items on the qaema are considered the complete property of the wife”.
Rights activists say the practice shows the disparity between men and women in Egypt, that women would need such a document to ensure they are not left with nothing should their marriage end. So while they want to do away with the qaema, they also want changes to the country’s personal status laws to give women more agency in their homes and over their children’s lives.
“All of this must be changed by a just personal status law that guarantees women their rights and the sharing of wealth upon divorce, social and material wealth,” lawyer Lamia Lotfy said.
The controversy inevitably puts a spotlight on Egypt’s high divorce rate. While some commentators feel that families need to exert more control over newly married couples to ensure they stay together, others say it is such interference that is driving many of the country’s married couples to seek divorce.
Nehad Aboel Komsan, a women’s rights lawyer, said the qaema is an evolution of the dowry custom practised in Egypt in the 19th century.
The custom mandated that men must prepare the marriage home and also provide their wives with a sum of money that they could either keep for their own use or contribute to the marriage home.
In the early 20th century, with poverty levels rising, the agreement changed to include the caveat that the wife must spend the dowry on preparing the marriage home, so that she carried some of the financial burden, Ms Aboel Komsan said on Instagram.
The latter half of the 20th century brought even worse economic conditions, so that grooms needed their in-laws to help finance the cost of setting up home, with the qaema being the proof of the debt.
“Family relations need to be reformulated in a new way in accordance with the correct religious ideals, morals and patriotism. The new way must also protect the right of every husband over his wife,” the supreme court said.
“Be kind to each other, don’t harm your wives, because that has a good effect on your offspring," the ruling said.