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Egyptian women count the cost of ‘pain killer’ divorce

In Egypt a controversial new divorce law has just been passed. Some hope women will now be free to divorce. Others point out that poor women may not be able to afford them.

The Egyptian Parliament has finally granted women the right to seek divorce on the grounds of incompatibility – but there is a catch. Women must forfeit their right to alimony and return any dowry. And that means many may not be able to afford the new divorce option.

Parliament – bowing to the conservative Islamist view that women's equality undermines male authority in the family – also rejected a clause that would allow women to obtain a passport or travel abroad without their husbands' permission.

The new Personal Status Law (PSL), which governs family life for the majority Muslim population and was voted through in January, mandates that a court-appointed arbitrator will determine if man and wife are incompatible. A woman must then publicly declare her hatred for her husband and state that she fears she can no longer fulfil her conjugal duties "as laid down by God."

Until now, women have had to spend years waiting for judges to decide on divorce, alimony and child support. Even when judges ruled in their favour, women had the difficult and dangerous task of personally collecting support payments from hostile or uncooperative former partners.

Under the new law, the National Nasser Bank will pay women who do not opt for a 'no-fault' divorce based on incompatibility – and it will pursue deadbeat husbands and fathers. 'No fault' means just that – neither party is guilty and they decide to part on account of what is often called "irreconcilable differences."

Over one million Egyptian women file divorce petitions annually, according to official statistics, and before the enactment of the new divorce law most had to provide independent corroboration that their husbands physically abused them.

Maha Mohessin, a 26-year old university lecturer, has been trying for three years to divorce her violent and verbally abusive husband. "The problem is that I have to convince the judge that he beats me and insults me in public," she says.

While welcomed by women's rights groups as a significant – if partial – victory in their struggle to reform the 75-year-old PSL, some critics worry that the exchange of alimony for a no fault divorce will only benefit wealthy women who can afford to forego financial support from ex-husbands.

"It is more of a pain killer than a cure," admits legal rights activist Tahani El-Gebali. She worries that some, if not many, men will pressure their wives into accepting this option rather than seeking a regular divorce with proper financial entitlements.

However, campaigners for the new legislation say it will nevertheless help redress the inequities between the sexes, and give women living with abusive husbands a quick and legal escape route.

Many hope it will pave the way for the reintroduction of a more radical campaign to amend the marriage contract, which ran aground due to religious opposition. The shelved campaign would give engaged couples the opportunity to lay down the details of their partnership in private.

Activist Hoda El-Sadda believes that what may be ultimately needed is a PSL formulated within the bounds of liberal readings of Islam.

Muslim men have always had the right to divorce their wives by merely reciting – without witnesses – the words: "Go, you are divorced." Women have a similar right (Al-A'isma) to unilateral divorce without having to go through the courts, but only if it is written into their marriage contract.

The problem is that, with the exception of a tiny minority of educated women from the affluent suburbs of Cairo and Alexandria, few women know of this right, let alone have the courage to ask for it on their wedding day. Many wrongly believe that Al-A'isma cancels a man's right to unilateral divorce.

Muslim registrars are not bound by law to ask brides if they want it written into the marriage contract, and even if they are aware of Al-A'isma, most couples are unwilling to offend future in-laws by requesting it.

"I know we could have included my own right to divorce, but we agreed not to," explains recently-married Dalia Mahmoud. "It's not that we are against the idea, but it would have made me look like a bad woman before my in-laws and made my husband look like a weak man before his family and friends."

In the poor Cairo suburb of Imbaba where conservative Islamists hold sway, a Ma'zun (marriage registrar) says that in 15 years he has not married a single couple where the woman has stipulated her right to divorce. "No man who deserves to be called a man can accept this," he claims.

Attempts to reform the divorce law challenge the widely-held belief that woman can only be accepted within the framework of marriage – subservient, sexually submissive and obedient to their husbands. Inadequate personal laws are one side of the coin. On the other lies all manner of violence against women, campaigners say.

A 1997 survey by two nongovernmental organisations, the El-Nadim Centre for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and the New Woman Research and Study Centre, found that 70 percent of the men interviewed felt justified in beating their wives – for trivial reasons, or because their wives were reluctant to have sex with them.

An extreme example of male control of women in Egypt is female genital mutilation (FGM). Although FGM is not a religious practice, some Islamic clergy justify it to curb female sexual desire and preserve virginity until marriage.

If a woman has not undergone FGM, a man can insist on it before marriage, according to rights activist Aziza Kamil. Despite legislation outlawing the practice, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights believes over 90 percent of women, both Muslim and Christian, have been subjected to FGM which can cause agonising pain, shock and infection. It can also lead to obstructed childbirth, killing both mother and infant.

Men may also refuse to allow their wives to use contraceptives, although repeated pregnancies place women's health at great risk. Researchers say women often neglect serious reproductive health problems due to fear of their husbands and a general sense of powerlessness in the marriage.

Campaigners warn that the longer the matter of amending the PSL is left pending, the more likely it is that a woman who marries in 2000 – whether a company director or a poor market trader – will be subjected to the laws and social pressure that surrounded her great-grandmother's marriage in 1925.

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Panos London

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