Egypt's women excited over new divorce law

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The Independent Online

The past seven years of marriage have left 24-year-old Neemat Abdel Latif a broken woman. Standing in a dusty corridor of Cairo's biggest family court, she recounts, with expressionless eyes, how her 38-year-old husband has married two other women behind her back. She is desperate to escape her polygamous marriage, and now - at last - she has hope.

The past seven years of marriage have left 24-year-old Neemat Abdel Latif a broken woman. Standing in a dusty corridor of Cairo's biggest family court, she recounts, with expressionless eyes, how her 38-year-old husband has married two other women behind her back. She is desperate to escape her polygamous marriage, and now - at last - she has hope.

Neemat is filing for divorce under ground-breaking legal amendments introduced last year which make it possible, for the first time, for women to end their marriages without having to prove to a male judge that they have been mistreated. They must, however, waive their financial rights and return the bride-price paid at the time of marriage. Women activists had hoped for a much more radical reform of family laws which "treat women as the property of men", according to Nehad Abu Komsan, the head of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights. Even so, the legislation provoked a huge controversy in Egypt and the country's male-dominated parliament balked at also approving proposals that would allow women the right to travel without their husbands' permission.

But in November Egyptian women were able to celebrate another step forward. The country's constitutional court ruled that an interior ministry decree that allowed men to prevent their wives from travelling was unconstitutional. A prominent lawyer who campaigns for legal improvements for women, Mona Zulficar, described it as another "great victory" for women. She said: "That decree was often used abusively against them." Women activists now hope that the tide may be beginning to turn slowly in their favour.

A climate of religious conservatism that swept the entire region in the 1980s was a significant setback to their cause. As pressure mounted for women to dress modestly, a quota giving them 10 per cent of seats in the Egyptian parliament was voted out. But they are now back on Egypt's political agenda. The government has set up a high-powered 30-member national council for women, and President Mubarak has called for women to play a greater role in public life. In November, the council co-hosted what was billed as the first ever "Arab women's summit", attended by the wives of many Arab leaders who discussed everything from violence against women to negative stereotyping and discriminatory legislation. Egyptian activists say their next battle will be to fight to change the law that prevents Egyptian women who marry foreigners from passing on their nationality to their children. But the male outcry over the new divorce legislation was profoundly dispiriting to many women. One MP had suggested it would lead to an increase in the murders of women because men would not accept seeing their wives walk out on them. Such views, as well as the financial penalties, may explain why only a relative trickle of women have filed for the new type of divorce.

Egypt remains a deeply conservative society particularly in rural areas where female circumcision, the murder of women deemed to have brought dishonour on their families and domestic violence remain relatively common. "If a woman is being battered by her husband and she goes to the police, the policeman will think that what he has done is all right," says feminist Hoda Badran. "Unfortunately, women have also internalised attitudes against themselves. They sit in mosques and hear preachers telling them they're inferior and they socialise their sons as being superior."

Enter a new weapon in the battle to change gender-stereotypes: an Egyptian version of the popular American children's show, Sesame Street. Funded by American aid and supported by Egypt's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, its main character is a fluorescent pink girl muppet, Khokha, who dreams of being a pilot or architect. "We're trying to show girls doing things that are usually associated with boys, like learning to fly," says programme producer, Amr Koura. "And at the same time we're showing boys baking cakes so there's a bit of gender switching, but we're doing it in a very subtle way."

The aim is to inspire girls in a country where, in rural areas, many still drop out of school as young as eight or nine. But some conservatives remain steadfastly resistant to any change in women's status. "Women should work in the home and accept the decision of nature," argues judge Muhammad Murgan. Many women activists were embittered that President Mubarak's ruling NDP party selected only 11 women among the 444 candidates it fielded for parliamentary elections in October and November.

"Our demands at the start of the second millennium are no different than they were back in the 1950s," says Hoda Badran, a member of the women's council. "We're fighting for seats in parliament, female literacy and a change in family laws that discriminate against us. There's a long road ahead."

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