By Rana Allam | –
CAIRO, Feb 23 2015 (IPS) – In November 2013, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey ranked Egypt as the worst of 22 Arab states with regards to women’s rights.
Several people argued that any country strictly following Islamic laws should rank lower, because Egypt and many other Arab and Muslim countries are not strict in following Islamic Sharia (religious laws), like in cutting off the hand of a thief, for example.
In Egypt, if you are a man, you can literally kill your wife and get away with it.
However, Egypt – along with most Muslim countries – incorporates a list of laws based on Islamic Sharia. Some of these are indisputable Sharia laws while others are based on individual interpretations, and both are indeed discriminatory.
Suffice to say that in the second highest ranking Arab state in the survey, Oman, women inherit 50 percent of what men do, a man can divorce his wife for any reason while a woman needs grounds to file for divorce, and there are no laws against female genital mutilation.
The starkest examples of sexist laws in Arab and Muslim countries come in the personal status laws.
Regardless of whether these laws are Islamic Sharia compliant or not, they are presented as such and thus are non-negotiable.
With the many interpretations of Islamic text, it falls on the legislators and the (so-called) Muslim scholars to enforce what laws they “understood” from the text. These laws should be revised if we are to enforce gender equality, here are some examples:
– Polygamy is legal for men only.
– A man can divorce his wife with no grounds and without going to court, while a woman has to have strong reasons for divorce, must convince a court of law of some ordeal about her marriage, and the judge may or may not grant her divorce. A new law introduced in Egypt in 2000, called Khula law where a woman can file for divorce on no grounds, but then she has to forfeit her financial rights and reimburse her husband the dowry (and any gifts) paid when contracting the marriage.
– A woman inherits half what a man inherits.
– In some Muslim countries, like the UAE, a woman’s testimony is half that of a man’s in court. In most Muslim countries, if a contract requires a certain number of witnesses, a woman is counted as “half” a man.
– There is no set minimum age for marriage in Islam, so some countries like Sudan can marry off a 10-year-old girl, and in Bahrain, a 15-year-old, however, in Libya the minimum age is 20.
– A Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman, but a Muslim woman is not granted the same right.
– In most Muslim countries, spousal rape is not recognised in the laws.
– Abortion is illegal unless there is risk to the mother’s life and even this has to be with the husband’s consent.
It is one thing to fight culture and an intimidating environment and another thing to have sexist laws, where even in a court of law, a woman has no equal rights. For women in Egypt, the general atmosphere is one of hostility and intimidation, prevalent aggressions and complete impunity with regards to violence against women.
Amnesty International titled its latest briefing on the subject “Circles of Hell: domestic, public and state violence against women in Egypt.” Women in Egypt must not only fight such culture, but must also deal with discriminatory laws.
Muslim men have a unilateral and unconditional right to divorce, while women can only divorce by court action. A man need only say the words “I divorced you” and then register the divorce.
Actually, an Egyptian Muslim man may not even tell his wife he is divorcing her, he can register the divorce (regardless of her consent or attendance), and it is the duty of the registrar to “inform” her. On top of this, there is such a thing as a “revocable divorce” which means the husband has the right to revoke the divorce at his own accord during the waiting period and without having to sign another marriage contract.
Such a waiting period is only a woman’s burden. She has to remain unmarried for three months after she gets divorced, and such waiting period is nonexistent for men.
Adding insult to injury, Egypt has an “Obedience Law”. This law stipulates that a man may file an obedience complaint against his wife if she leaves the marital home without his permission.
The woman is this case has 30 days to file an objection detailing the legal grounds for “her failure to obey”, a judge may not be convinced of course. If she fails to file such objection, and does not return home, she is considered “deviant” and is denied her financial rights upon divorce – if she was ever granted one. Naturally, such proceedings delay her divorce lawsuit, and risk a just financial settlement.
Although legislators in Egypt have always cited Islamic Sharia when enforcing such strict personal status laws, when it comes to adultery, Egyptian laws stray far from Islamic teachings and are outrageous.
The issue is such a taboo that no one even dares mentioning it. In Egypt, if you are a man, you can literally kill your wife and get away with it, if you catch her “red-handed” committing adultery.
Laws pertaining to the crime of adultery are an embodiment of sexism and discrimination:
– A married woman would be charged with adultery if she commits the crime anywhere and with anyone. A married man would only be accused of adultery if he commits the crime in his marital house; otherwise there is no crime and no punishment.
– The punishment for a married man (who committed the crime in his marital home) is imprisonment for six months, but women are given a sentence of two years in prison (regardless of where the crime took place).
– If a married man commits adultery with a married woman in her marital house, he would merely be an accessory to the crime.
– If both are unmarried, and the female is over 18, he receives no punishment, while she may face charges of prostitution.
– If a married man catches his wife red-handed in the crime, and kills her and her partner, he does not face intentional murder charges or even manslaughter, he only gets a sentence as low as 24 hours. If a wife catches her husband red-handed and kills him, she immediately faces murder charges with its maximum sentence as the judge sees fit.
Not only do we have to fight taboos, sexist culture, violence on the streets and at home, gender-bias in every police station, court of law or place of business, but we also have a long way to go to at least have equality in the eyes of the law.
Rana Allam is a former editor-in-chief of Daily News, Egypt, and commentator on women’s rights issues.
Edited by Kitty Stapp
Licensed from Inter Press Service