Egypt women start a revolution in divorce laws

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The Independent Online

Islamic-based divorce laws that have long discriminated against Egyptian women are expected to be reformed.

Islamic-based divorce laws that have long discriminated against Egyptian women are expected to be reformed.

A controversial new Bill, to be put before the overwhelmingly male parliament today, would go some way towards balancing rules that give men the automatic right to divorce but demand that women produce convincing evidence of ill treatment. Under the Bill women could, for the first time, initiate divorce on the basis of straightforward incompatibility. It would also allow them to go to court if their husbands prevent them from travelling abroad.

But Egyptian men, who can divorce their wives simply by uttering "I divorce thee" three times, have reacted with shock and anger to the prospect of seeing their marital supremacy eroded. Many argue that Egyptian women are too irrational to be allowed to initiate divorce and that they would misuse the right.

The proposed changes, which are backed by President Hosni Mubarak's government, have triggered a furious national debate that has revealed the depths of the country's conservatism. Cartoons in the national newspapers yesterday depicted women with moustaches and men in shackles pushing prams.

"Women have their unique physiological nature, different from any other living being," said Ahmed Abu Hijji, an MP from the traditionally conservative south. "At certain times every month, they become short-tempered and changeable and they might try to divorce just because of that. It's a very dangerous thing."

Women activists hope the new law will help change such chauvinist attitudes and begin to revolutionise sexual relations but are concerned about an important catch. To obtain the divorce, the woman would have to pay back the dowry her husband gave at the time of the marriage, and forgo alimony payments. "Poor women will not be able to afford it," said Hoda Badran, a feminist. "These changes will largely benefit wealthy women who are the only ones likely to travel abroad or be able to buy their way out of a marriage."

The Bill has the support of Egypt's highest Muslim authorities but many men argue that it is un-Islamic and a recipe for the destruction of the Egyptian family. One MP said his constituents would rather go to jail than implement the changes, and argued they would lead to an increase in violence against women. "I believe there will be lots of women murdered because a man won't tolerate a woman leaving them, and might suspect she has been having an affair," he said.

Parliament gave the Bill preliminary approval last Sunday and today MPs will start going through it clause by clause before a final vote. If passed, it will be a significant step in what women activists say is a long struggle ahead.

"When a man knows a woman can take action against him, he'll be obliged to respect her more and not abuse her," said Iqbal Barakat, the editor of the women's weekly al-Hawa.