Personal status bill sparks national conversation in Egypt

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi reassured citizens the new law will be ‘balanced’ following criticism from women’s rights groups and a social media backlash

epa09073796 Walaa Zohier founder of Women, Drive Scooters academy helps a trainee put on her helmet during a training session, in Cairo, Egypt, 14 March 2021. The academy is an initiative to teach women to drive scooters for multiple reasons mainly mobility freedom and to seek a sexual harassment free means of transportation.  EPA/Mohamed Hossam
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Fears that Egypt's new personal status law might deprive women of their right to control many of their own and their children’s affairs has sparked a national debate and social media campaigns for legislation that is equitable and reflective of modern times.

The bill, which is currently being discussed by parliament, has been criticised by women’s rights groups and others after it was leaked by local media last month.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the occasion of Mother’s Day this week assured citizens the law will be “balanced for everyone”.

“I want to reassure you that we want to hear from everyone through a societal dialogue that produces conclusions that allow the law to come out in good shape,” President El Sisi said.

He also thanked Al Azhar for proposing a “progressive” draft for the personal status law.

“Al Azhar proposed a draft that is balanced for women and men and, before that, protects children,” Abdelmenam Fouad, dean of Islamic studies at Al Azhar, told The National.

“It will be debated and after it is discussed, according to the constitution, it will return to the Al Azhar Council of Senior Scholars once again,” he said.

According to a draft seen by The National, under article 6 a male guardian could file a case to annul a woman's marriage contract before consummation within a year if he sees the union as unsuitable or the dowry too small.

It also reinforces the right of a man to verbal divorce under article 45 and a father’s position as natural guardian for minors in administrative and financial matters under article 103.

In practice, as is the current case, that means a mother cannot register her child’s birth, access his/her bank accounts or enrol him/her in school.

Activists and lawyers said there were positive proposals as well, including granting emergency alimony to the mother and children, outlawing child marriage, imposing penalties on men who do not inform a new wife of polygamy and prioritising the father in custody before female relatives.

This is a good step because it means there will be a new debate on a personal status law that will be balanced and respects all rights, because in its current form it doesn't respect the rights of women as equal citizens to men

Still, based on some of the more controversial clauses, the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) rejected the bill as “shocking” and “based on the most regressive and strict jurisprudential ideas”.

ECWR chairwoman Nehad Aboulkomsan appealed to President El Sisi in a video statement to “stop this law that takes Egypt 200 years backwards in women’s rights”.

She welcomed his latest comments, in the hope that community dialogue will serve as a basis for a re-evaluation of the draft.

"This is a good step because it means there will be a new debate on a personal status law that will be balanced and respects all rights, because in its current form it doesn't respect the rights of women as equal citizens to men," Ms Aboulkomsan told The National.

While women now make up a quarter of parliament and there are eight female ministers, gender equity in Egypt still lags behind. The country ranked 134th out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2020 report.

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.

The Egyptian Cabinet approved the new personal status bill in January “in line with the great social development of Egyptian society” and due to “the need to compile the dispersed laws into one legislation”, according to a Facebook statement. A spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. The law needs to be passed by parliament to come into effect.

Shortly after the draft was published, an informal group calling themselves the Egyptian Feminists Campaign started a petition calling for a “unified civil personal status law” that applies to all citizens without religious or gender or any other type of discrimination.

“Today, considering the political and social changes in the lives of Egyptian women, it is a disgrace for Egyptian laws to continue ignoring their lived realities and problems, putting them under the guardianship of men as less than fully capable persons, and creating a grave imbalance between their legal status and their actual role in society”, reads the petition, which has been signed by more than 11,600 people.

On International Women’s Day on March 8, the Women and Memory Forum (WMF) urged Egyptian women to share their stories showing the lack of jurisdiction over themselves and their children under #Guardianship_is_my_right in Arabic. The hashtag has since been used in thousands of tweets and Facebook posts.

Women have shared stories of discrimination, such as being able to deposit money in a child’s bank account, but unable to retrieve money from the same account; not having the right to enrol her children in school without the father’s permission; and not having automatic legal guardianship over her children upon the death of her husband.

“Many people do not easily understand legal language, but they can relate to daily life experiences,” said Amina Elbendary, a member of the WMF board since 2004.

“The hope, of course, is that this will also be reflected in actual official discussions of the draft law and will result in a revision of the document as a whole,” said Ms Elbendary, an associate professor and chair of Arab and Islamic civilisations at The American University in Cairo.

Nada Nashat, advocacy co-ordinator at the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (Cewla), said there are several negative aspects of the draft, as well as some positive changes.

The draft law under article 191 stipulates that a man must notify his first wife if he marries a second. Otherwise, he could face up to one year in jail and a fine of 20,000 to 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,265 to $3,165).

However, Ms Nashat said it does not set parameters for polygamy, which is allowed in Islam when the wives are treated equally and some scholars argue was a practice established under the unique historical circumstances.

“The proposal assumes polygamy is a right given to men without restrictions – and that’s a problem,” Ms Nashat said.

She also criticised the concept of women needing male guardians and “verbal divorce” for a man.

“That was OK 1,000 years ago. Now in 2021, this cannot pass, it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “We got married through a contract. Then we should get divorced through a contract.”

She said it is possible to adhere to both article 2 of the Egyptian constitution that states that the principles of Sharia are the main source of legislation and article 9 that calls for equal opportunities for all citizens without discrimination.

“Based on the fact that the constitutional articles cannot contradict each other and based also on the fact that within the Islamic scripture we can find arguments and opinions that back us up as feminists and back the equality and justice concept … this draft proposal is against the constitution,” she said.