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RIGHTS-EGYPT: New Family Laws: A Success Story?

Aya Batrawy

CAIRO, Oct 15 2008 (IPS) - It was a love story of sorts and one that led to marriage. But 18 months later Nayrouz filed for divorce, making her part of a growing number of Egyptian women who are leaving their marriages. One in three marriages in this highly traditional and predominantly Muslim society fails within its first year, according to government figures.

With about 250 divorces filed daily – one every six minutes – the importance of women understanding their rights in marriage and divorce becomes increasingly essential, but recent research indicates that this is not happening. The reform of Egypt's family law system over the past eight years was the outcome of a struggle to advance and guarantee women's rights – and the question is whether the new system has achieved this.

The reform process resulted in the passage of three new family laws. The laws that were introduced in 2000 and in 2004 gave women, among other things, the right to travel internationally without the written approval of their husbands.

Law 1 of 2000 allowed women, for the first time in the Arab region, to file for a no-fault divorce called a 'khul', which enables the wife to divorce the husband without his consent, but means she walks away with no rights to financial support.

Previously only men were entitled to file for 'khul' and women seeking divorce could petition only to the family law system, which because of inefficient legal procedures and a backlog of cases, often took several years to finalise a divorce.

Law 1 also gave women the right to file for divorce from unregistered marriages (known as 'urfi' marriage). These marriages were not previously recognised by law and thus deprived women of legal rights such as spousal maintenance, alimony and inheritance.

In 2004, Law 10 introduced the system of family courts and Law 11 established the Family Insurance Fund, a mechanism through which female litigants could collect court-ordered alimony and child support.

A study conducted by the American University in Cairo, under the Pathways for Women's Empowerment project, which is funded by the UK government Department for International Development, investigates whether these legal reforms have advanced women's rights. The 2008 study titled 'Recent Reforms in Personal Status Laws and Women's Empowerment: Family Courts in Egypt,' concluded that women need to be made aware of what this new legislation means and how justice can be accessed.

The year-long study found that the ways in which the new family laws are being implemented in the new courts continue to reflect gender inequality and biases against women, and that the new legal system is limited in its ability to strengthen the legal rights of women.

For example, the law introducing family courts was aimed at making the dispute process non-adversarial and attentive to the best interests of the family – this included compulsory mediation prior to litigation. Yet all 16 lawyers interviewed considered mediation 'a waste of time' and judges too, for the most part, did not review the mediation reports.

The study found that relatives accompanied women to the mediation sessions and "became emotional, spoke for female disputants and hindered mediation". Many of the husbands interviewed said they found the wife's filing of a mediation petition a hostile act and went only because their lawyer told them it was compulsory. They then reported it was a useless undertaking.

"One judge, for instance, tried to persuade a plaintiff to reconsider her divorce claim by warning her that her young daughter would probably have a difficult life with limited prospects for marriage and respectability if her mother became a divorcee," said author of the report, Mulki Al-Sharmani.

"The lesson of this story is that the relationship between legal reforms and social change is not a simple one. Many factors affect it: flaws in the legislation, difficulties in implementation, the way judges are recruited and trained, the influence of social attitudes and cultural beliefs. All can pose challenges to the effectiveness of a new system," said Al-Sharmani.

"Those who seek to use legal reform to aid social progress and women's rights need to make sure that new laws are well-formulated, just, and well-implemented; that social and institutional conditions are favourable; and that the political and cultural environment is supportive. These are large aims in any circumstance, which so far perhaps have been met in only very few cases."

She added that even with the changes in legislation, men's right to unilateral repudiation and polygyny, for instance, continue to be unrestricted.

What is lacking in reform efforts is dialogue and awareness among NGOs, Islamic scholars, legislators and families, she said. The research concluded that there needs to be greater focus on educating new generations on equality, justice and respect for others.

In hindsight, Nayrouz, who was 26 when she got divorced, wishes she knew more about the process when she opted for 'khul'.

She met her husband while they were both students at the American University in Cairo. Their marriage was not 'salonati' – Arabic slang referring to arranged marriages. They were together for four years, and held their wedding in style at an exclusive hotel. In traditional Egyptian custom, they lived in an apartment her husband's parents bought, and with furniture that her parents paid for.

"I suffered what many women do – a complete ignorance of my rights as a woman in Egypt," she said. "There was no attention paid to these details, which would have ensured my rights. So I ended up without anything, I had nothing at all."

According to Huda Badrawi, founder of the Egyptian-based NGO Alliance for Arab Women, Egyptian laws are great on paper and offer women rights in the work force, in political participation and at home. The problem, though, remains in their interpretation, understanding and implementation, she said. Research conducted by the alliance also showed that women of all classes were not aware of their rights.

"Marriage laws have to change a lot because even the contract of marriage does not give women equal status or equal rights. Even the spirit of the contract is not acceptable. It's as if it is a commercial contract where women have to satisfy men's sexual desires and in return men have to cover her cost and the cost of her children, which is not even the philosophy of Islam," said Badrawi.

"Yet culture is not static and sometimes legislation can change cultural attitudes towards women."

Amy Mowafi, author of 'Femail: The Trials and Tribulations of Being a Good Egyptian Girl', said that no matter how poor or affluent a woman in Egypt is there remains a great pressure from family and society for her to be married and to stay married. While the laws were now more than ever titling to a more equal scale, society is still behind the curve, she said.

"No one thinks 'let me open a law book and see what my rights are'. It really depends on what the people around you make you feel are your rights."

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