Fifteen years down the drain
While divorce is never an enjoyable process, women in Egypt have particularly painful experiences, especially if they struggled with abusive husbands, addicts, or philanderers. The divorce experience leaves many Egyptian women either traumatised or stigmatised years after.
Om Fatma says it is difficult to talk about her divorce experience. She struggles to open up about the topic even before recalling her story.
She inhales deeply before narrating her experience, but tears well up so fast that she cannot begin to speak. The embarrassment, she says, is overwhelming for what she is about to share.
“My story is different than most divorce cases you heard about, and that’s why I’m very shy to share the details,” she sobs.
Born and raised in Al-Waraq neighbourhood in Giza and coming from a poor family of eight other siblings, Om Fatma was married when she was 18.
“I lived with him for 15 years. I was always an obedient, cooperative and caring woman. He was good too and he had a governmental job,” she says as she wipes tears from her eyes. “However, his biggest problem was other women. He was a philanderer.”
With two daughters and a son in school, Om Fatma’s husband took up tailoring along his job in the government to boost his income. He tailored women’s clothes and consequently women were his primary clients.
Whenever she helped him in the shop, she witnessed him flirting, harassing women and touching them inappropriately while taking measurements for their clothes.
“When I fought with him about it he responded: ‘This is my job, it’s what I do,’” she recalls.
“I wish he married any of them or even got a second and third wife. I would have survived, but he constantly cheated on me with several women, one after the other,” she says with disgust.
Om Fatma’s husband used to force her to go to her mother’s house so that he could bring the other women home.
“I would hear from neighbours that women were visiting my home while I was away,” she says with a quivering voice.
Om Fatma endured his infidelity over the years until everything seemed to fall apart after his last extramarital affair ended their 15-year marriage.
“She was a gold digger. He used to spend his money on her. He bought her and her children mobile phones and bought her gold,” she says. “Every night when he dressed up, threw on some cologne and set off to see her, I begged him not to go. She took away everything he worked for and saved for his children.”
When her husband’s savings ran out, he started borrowing money from neighbours and relatives. He convinced them that he would use their money in different projects and give them a return on investment. Additionally, he took a loan from the bank with his governmental job’s salary as leverage. However, the debts accumulated and people started knocking on Om Fatma’s door demanding their money.
“He couldn’t pay them and it put my children and me in danger. When he decided to pack his things and flee Cairo, I demanded him to divorce me because I refused to deal with the problem that he had created. I got the divorce and kept my children, but that was about it,” she says.
Om Fatma could not pay the rent of the apartment she lived in for over 15 years. So she was evicted. She had no income and there was no trace of her ex-husband, who left behind a reputation that provoked hatred towards her from the neighbourhood community. She received death threats for her children from people attempting to recover their money.
She has since been living with her three children in her elderly father’s flat in another district of Giza.
“I keep struggling to support my family with my father’s meagre pension. My ex-husband’s family took the tailor shop, so the breadwinner of the family became my older daughter, while my son started to work after school. Now he’s thinking of dropping out to work full time after he failed some of his classes,” she explains.
Om Fatma says she is not thinking of remarrying because she believes it will be more of a burden to her rather than a benefit. To her, the risk of reliving her previous marriage experience which financially drained her is too frightening.
Ending up alone
Nadia comes from more privileged social circumstances than Om Fatma. Although she explains her experience with divorce was also painful. Nadia is now a mother in her early 40s. Married at the age of 28, her husband seemed to have all the right qualifications. He came from a wealthy and highly educated family, had a western education and had a well-paid job.
“After marriage our differences started surfacing, but we thought by having children we could overcome them. After I gave birth to my son, the problems only exacerbated,” she narrates. “He regarded himself as only a breadwinner for the family.”
She explains: “There was no emotional support and he never helped in raising our child. I didn’t want him to do the dishes; I just wanted to feel secure, safe and cared for. But he was a provider, nothing more.”
Despite protest by her and her husband’s family, she asked for divorce. At first, her husband refused because no one in his family had ever been divorced, but eventually her persistence started the process. Although she did not file khula (wife-initiated divorce under Islamic law where she abandons all her financial rights in return for a divorce), Nadia left everything but her clothes behind.
Despite coming from the upper middle class, Nadia’s family opposed the divorce and even after she admitted her husband became violent with her, the family blamed her for what they believed was her provoking his behaviour.
“They said: ‘You have always been too blunt, show us how you’ll solve your problems on your own,’ and that’s what happened. I ended up completely on my own,” Nadia explains.
Living through the stigma
Nadia continued the divorce process without any support from her family.
“It was me against all the men sitting at the table. I was left alone intentionally to suffer as a punishment so that I run back to my husband,” she says.
She ended up renting a “horrible” apartment and searching for a job.
“The worst thing you feel at that time is how people look at you. Their facial expressions can be quite strong without even saying anything.”
To Nadia, the stigma is felt when a divorced woman tries living normally after the divorce. When renting an apartment, she was asked about “her man”. When applying for and being interviewed for jobs, she had to disclose her marital status. Additionally she lost some of her married friends and befriended new ones with similar circumstances; single or divorced.
“In our society a divorced woman is faulty and everyone perceives her in a different way. One perception is about your manners and qualities, another your strong character, a third is about your bad morals. But in all cases, the bottom line is that you’re bad and it’s your fault that you were divorced,” she explains.
Another issue Nadia faced was sexual harassment. According to her, when women are divorced, sexual harassment intensifies and becomes even bolder. “I became a meal for married men who offer to marry secretly or take me as a second wife.”
After five years Nadia spent to stabilise her life, she says she succeeded in discarding the pressure she felt in her community and became a professional and independent woman.
She remarried, but got a second divorce shortly after one year because her second husband’s family would not accept that their son married a divorced woman.
At the beginning, her husband put up with his family’s objection to the marriage, she says, but he could not withstand the opposition for long. He eventually decided to file for divorce, succumbing to his family’s pressures.
“I got my second divorce. The stigma now doubles. Even though I live in an affluent neighbourhood, the place is not the problem. You face the stigma at work and in interactions with the community. That’s why I avoid speaking about it most of the time,” she says.
“However I have to admit that within the past five years I’ve seen a change in how people are viewing divorce. Even single men who never married before are now willing to marry a divorced woman. Now it’s more common than the time I was first divorced,” Nadia says.
According to CAPMAS reports, divorce rates in the 1990s fluctuated a bit but largely maintained a constant rate of 1.2%. A decline occurred in the early 2000s, dipping to 0.9%. But during the last five years, from 2007 till 2011, the rate of divorce has been increasing noticeably, reaching its peak in 2011 with a rate of 1.9%.
Saneya Badawy is the vice president of at Hawaa El Mostaqbal Association for family and environment development, an NGO that works to raise awareness of early marriage.
“During our work with divorced women our priorities are two things: the psychological health and economic challenges that women face and making sure their children are not negatively affected especially because we work with underprivileged parts of the society, where a divorced woman suffers from a social stigma, wasmet arr,” she explains.
According to Badawy the women she works with suffer psychologically, economically and financially. They become prone to the control of the men in their families; fathers, brothers, uncles and even their ex-husbands. They fall under severe pressure due to their lack of income.
“Some women need legal assistance if they get stuck in court with their ex-husbands; we tell them their rights and responsibilities. And we try to moderate the negotiations between the two families achieving the greatest benefits for the women since their lives after divorce are altered more significantly than the men’s. The ex-husbands can marry the next day and work at more jobs, but women bear the responsibility of children and their status as being divorced reduces their chances in general, even in a remarriage,” she explains.
In her thesis Life after Divorce is not a Bed of Roses: Experience of Upper Middle Class Egyptians, Samiha El-Refaey finds that the surge in divorce rates could be traced back to “a shift from ‘traditional’ to ‘undefined’ gender roles, women’s independence through education and employment, unrealistic expectations from spouses, or simply degradation in the intrinsic value of the family as a social unit.”
El-Refaey notes that especially for upper middle class Egyptians, the social stigma of divorce is reduced.
Mona Amer, an assistant professor of psychology at the American University in Cairo, works in marriage and couples counselling. She shares her perspective on the social stigma women experience after divorce.
“We cannot assume that the stigma is still continuing. There’s not enough data to support [to support this claim]; we need to conduct more research. But from what I see especially from couples in their 20s who are getting married or getting divorced, there doesn’t seem to be much of a burden, especially if they were married for the first time for a short period of time and then remarried again without any problems.
“This is the case in the upper middle class. Yet, the level of social stigma in lower classes is not clear; we can say that the opportunity to get a divorce is probably a little less because divorce is not as acceptable,” she explains.
Breaking the stigma
According to Amer, nearly a decade ago the stigma was so severe that people could not remarry. However, there is greater awareness today about the causes of divorce; it does not have to be the fault of one person.
Historically, women were blamed entirely for divorce. “Of course, the blame continues to be more on women than men, but there is now some understanding that both of them could play part in the breakdown of marriage,” she adds.
She explains that the origins of the stigma have to do with gender roles and the concept that women must take care of the husband, and if anything goes wrong in the family it is the woman’s fault. This is coupled with living in a “patriarchal society”.
Over the years, however, a shift in gender roles is transpiring; women are becoming more financially independent, getting jobs and becoming active outside of familial life. Because of this, women are often the first to be blamed for a divorce. Powerful voices in the society such as elders, religious leaders, and the media (especially how movies and dramas depict divorced women) also contribute to the stigma.
“Everyone in the society perpetuates the problem. It’s not just the men and women, the parents and the children and parts of the extended family. Even in the same family you get varied perspectives regarding the couple getting the divorce. However, I do believe the stigma is shifting [declining] primarily due to the rising number of divorces over the years,” Amer notes.
She believes that breaking the stigma in the society is possible if women became more open about the shame and guilt they experience in their communities.
“The more people live their lives discounting the stigma, the more it will dissipate. This happens through education and raising awareness. Educating people about the equal rights and responsibilities of two people in a marriage could also contribute to the success of marital life,” she says.
Nadia agrees. “To break the cycle of the stigma women need to be empowered and educated,” she says.
“The media and the educational system have big roles to play in this. The whole culture needs to change, and change starts with women.”