For Better or Worse: Why divorce is difficult for Egyptian Women

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

Dalia, an Egyptian housekeeper and mother of two, considers the past few years of her life a miserable period as she suffered through the often humiliating experience of getting a court to grant her a divorce.

"It took four-and-a-half years," she said. "I've spent thousands of pounds to finally get divorced ... its aged me."

Radwa, a kindergarten teacher at Misr 2000 School, had a similarly turbulent experience. "It actually took me two years to finally get a divorce. And I went through a lot of trouble," she said.
Dalia and Radwa are just two examples of what is quickly becoming Egypt's growing divorce problem.

The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), which monitors socio-economic trends in the country, estimates that the divorce rate in Egypt tops 40 percent. "A couple files for divorce every six minutes in Egypt, with a third of marriages breaking up in the first year," CAPMAS was quoted by the AFP.

"Courts across Egypt rule on more than 270 divorces every day."

But the figures don't tell the whole story; the rates would be much higher if women did not face often insurmountable obstacles in winning a divorce ruling in court.

A March 1, 2000 law was meant to equip Egyptian women with the legal means to divorce their husbands. This law replaced the 1929 personal status law, which stated that a woman can only file for divorce in cases of physical or psychological abuse, which must be proven in court.

With the new, ratified law, a woman - theoretically - will be able to divorce her husband, with or without his consent. She will also be able to call on the Egyptian government to cut or reduce her former husband's wages if he refuses to provide for her or her family. She will be also be able to draw funds from a special state bank account if her husband skips on his court date or disappears.

What looks good on paper often doesn't translate well in the courts, however.

Women successfully achieving a divorce in Egypt are rare and the proceedings difficult in this patriarchal Middle Eastern society where the law tends to favor the males, says Hanan Kholoussy, an Assistant Professor of History and Middle East Studies, in her book For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt.

Dalia says that the she endured such discrimination, putting her life on hold while she pursued a divorce in court.
"Each day my ex-husband said something against me and the court kept asking me to prove things with documentation and it was endless," Dalia says.
Associate Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department Helen Rizzo says that the rules placed by Egyptian society on women are used to encourage women to "preserve their families," even when the reason is "not underlined by logic."

However, with men, it is much easier to obtain a divorce because they are not usually obliged to go through any counseling and are not labeled social outcasts. in a way, they are endowed with the right to ask for divorce, unlike women who are always pressured into protecting their children and family reputation.
Rizzo says that even after the year 2000's reforms, which did give women an opportunity to get out of a marriage when "in a bad situation," many still had to go through counseling to make sure that divorce was what they were really looking for.

But for many desperate women, the 2000 law offered hope, no matter how faint the glimmer.

In the first six weeks that the law was passed, more than 300 women used it to initiate divorce proceedings. According to the Washington Post more than 290,000 people get divorced in Egypt each year.

In Cairo, where about one-fifth of Egypt's more than 85 million people live, more than 16,000 women file for divorce annually.

The 2000 Family Law, established in the hope of making divorce easier on the family and giving women more rights "is, theoretically, extremely easy," says Mohammed Abdel Fattah, a Cairo divorce lawyer.

The woman or her lawyer fill out a form and requests a divorce. In the form, the wife states her reasons for requesting the divorce and submits it to family court.

After submitting the papers, the wife meets with both a psychologist and a sociologist and explains her reasons for seeking a divorce. A witness is in attendance to offer testimony.

Meanwhile, her husband attends separate sessions with the aforementioned experts with a witness in tow and offers his counterargument.

"In Islam women file for divorce, while all men need to do is say or write down the phrase ‘I divorce you'," says Saed Al Deeb, a Cairo divorce lawyer. "This whole process would ideally take from a year to two, as opposed to long years prior to 2000."

But the process does take longer if a judge rejects the wife's reasons for divorce - a prospect that Abdel Fattah says "unfortunately happens quite frequently".

"Women are not necessarily given the respect they deserve, or even the benefit of the doubt. Male judges sympathize with the husbands, especially when they give the long, sad story of how their wives don't appreciate them."

If a woman does not have proof to support her claims her request is most likely rejected by the court. For instance, if the woman says her husband does not financially support her or the home, she must provide all documentation, bills and witness accounts supporting her claim.

If the wife states that she has been beaten, but after checkups and hearing witness testimony, it is revealed she wasn't, the judge rejects the divorce.

This process of determining divorce eligibility takes two years.

If her claim is rejected, the wife fills another form and submits other reasons for the divorce, and goes through the whole process again.

If the judge agrees to the divorce, the wife must return everything the husband gave her during the course of their marriage.

Reasons for divorce in Egypt vary. Reports published in local media cite economic hardship, inflation and high unemployment rates. (CAPMAS reported that the unemployment rates among the youth (ages 18 to 24) had increased to 23 per cent in 2009.)

Other reasons behind women filing a divorce include infidelity, inadequate housing, marrying another woman without the wife's acceptance, domestic violence, lack of both financial and emotional support, and domestic abuse.

Habiba Kamel, a children's rights lawyer, had decided to file for divorce against her husband because he chose to get married to a younger woman without consulting her.

"He did not take into consideration the 18 years I lived with him," she said.

Modern women' who are likely to have more extensive educational backgrounds and careers are less likely to stay married, reports the Daily News Egypt.

Women go into marriages thinking they are to be treated equal or in some cases where they earn more than their male counterparts, ‘higher' than men.

The women are then less likely to accept the man's authority in the marriage and that, in turn "makes the man feel weak, and her more powerful."

"After our divorce my husband asked to come back but I refused, now I am back as a lawyer able to do everything I want, I go to work, meet friends, life is perfect. I don't need a man in my life," Kamel said.