CAIRO: “In 2004-2005 over 755,000 cases were heard before the Family Courts. There is a divorce every six minutes in Egypt and we have over one million homeless children on our streets, said renowned journalist Hosn Shah, explaining the need to change the age-long family law to reflect today’s reality.
The Network on Women’s Rights Organization (NWRO) says that the existing hundred-year-old legislation has been rendered obsolete by changes in Egyptian society, particularly in matters pertaining to the roles and status of women. Men, according to the network, also suffer under such outdated laws.
NWRO organized a roundtable discussion on Monday in which participants voiced their suggestions to reform Egypt’s Family Law. NWRO, which was formed two years ago, is campaigning for the promulgation of a new Family Law.
“The Personal Status Law was enacted at a time when women did not receive even basic education and were not employed in paid work, NWRO says in a position paper.
“There is a real need to put in place a new Family Law in order to confront familial problems which have emerged in Egyptian society and to which a solution does not exist in hundred-year-old laws, it continues.NWRO says that this gap between legislation and the reality has led to suffering by both men and women.
“At the moment Egyptian women are subject to a personal status law which makes them prone to groundless divorce at any moment, to becoming second wives at any time, to physical abuse in front of their children and difficulties in proving this abuse in court, and to the risk of being thrown out of their home when legal custody of their children ends, the position paper says.
According to NWRO, men also suffer under the law and, after divorce, fathers are forced to see their children during meetings in unnatural circumstances and surroundings which threaten their bond with their children.
The discussion was chaired by Shah, who pointed to increasing incidences of problems within Egyptian families as evidence that a new law is needed.
“The essence of Islamic law is justice and family unity. We as Egyptian women want sharia, but laws which have been issued in recent years have changed nothing – with the exception of the law issued in 2000 which gives women the right to a khola’,
The khola’ gave women the right to divorce their husbands.
“Egyptian family law is based on fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] ideas which are one thousand years behind modern reality, she continued.
Shah criticized a situation that she said has led to Egyptian women lagging behind their female counterparts in other Arab countries.
NWRO’s position paper points to Morocco and Oman, which have a minimum age for marriage of 18, while an Algerian draft law and the Moroccan moudawana (family law) state that men may only marry a second wife where the first wife is informed and approves. In addition, a judge must approve the union, after establishing that the man is able to financially support two families.
The Kuwaiti Personal Status Law allows women to stipulate specific conditions in the marriage contract, while in Morocco the law gives children born out of unregistered marriages the right to acknowledgement of their paternity.
“Egyptian law must be amended to bring it in line with other Arab countries, Shah commented. “Egyptian women want equality with the Arab women they previously led.
The Shoura Council had recently approved a new child law, the articles of which give women and children some of their lost rights, including raising the age of marriage to 18 and granting mothers the right to issue birth certificates to their newborn under the women’s name if the father is “unknown.
The law is expected to see a number of heated debates when it is discussed at the People’s Assembly. Conservative and Islamic hardliners at the parliament have already expressed their objection to many clauses, either for its contradiction of Islam or Egypt’s age-long traditions.
Islamic law expert and member of the Islamic Research Center Abdel Moaty Bayoumi criticized the “huge gap between modern reality and the implementation of sharia in Egypt.
He pointed to the dispute surrounding whether sharia allows women to hold judicial positions, pointing to the fact that women are allowed to hold the presidency of a country as conclusive evidence that they may.
Bayoumi agreed with Shah that Egyptian personal status law is based on outmoded attitudes and traditions, and said that fiqh must evolve in line with changes in society.
“Sharia gives women a higher legal status than any Arab modawana, but there is a difference between sharia and fiqh, he said.
“Fiqh is different to sharia. Fiqh reflects a society’s modern culture and ideas, he explained.Bayoumi underlined that Islam does not encourage polygamy.
“The Quranic verse on polygamy was intended to solve the problem of orphans: polygamy is not rooted in Islam.
In reference to the paternity rights of children born outside the context of officially-registered marriages, Bayoumi said that sharia clearly provides for the right of such children to take their father’s name.
Abdallah El-Naggar, also a member of the Islamic Research Center, seconded this.
“Egyptian law doesn’t recognize the rights of illegitimate children – supposedly in order to punish the father for zena [fornication] – but the correct punishment should be that the father be made responsible for the child, he said.
El-Naggar criticized fiqh interpretations of Islamic law tenets, saying that existing personal status legislation must change in order to reflect changes in society.
“No sharia rule remains fixed for all time: a duty can become haram [religiously prohibited] and what is forbidden can become a duty with the passage of time, he added.
“We’re committing a crime against Islam through the stupid way in which we deal with fiqh, El-Naggar said.
El-Naggar recounted a time he listened to a female student’s defense of a thesis on the rules regarding the beating of wives in Islam. “The student spoke for half an hour about when and how a wife may be beaten while her family and her husband listened.
“At the end of her presentation I asked her ‘but what would you do if your husband beat you? Would you tolerate it?’ All of the woman’s family shook their heads. I asked her why she had written 40 pages about something which she herself would not put up with in reality. The beating of women is haram, El-Naggar said.
Both Bayoumi and El-Naggar supported the right of women to include clauses (for example against polygamy) in marriage contracts, one of the proposals put forward by NWRO.
Both said that there was no conflict between the stipulation of such conditions and sharia.
NWRO also suggests that the marriage age for men and women be raised to 18, the right of men to take second wives be subject to the approval of the first wife and judges and that ‘orfy’ marriages be banned.
With regards to divorce, they suggest that where a husband fails to respond within 15 days to court notices that his wife has registered for a khola’ divorce, the matter should be resolved on the basis of her statements alone.
They also suggest that when a husband divorces his wife after 15 years of marriage on a groundless basis and there are no children involved, he should be legally obliged to provide a home for her.