Egypt: Women and strategies for change: an Egyptian model

Arab Reform Bulletin
Quite apart from international efforts to "rescue" women in the Middle East, female activists in Arab countries have been toiling for decades for reforms that achieve concrete gains for women.
Recently, certain efforts have borne fruit through the use of pragmatic, coalition-building strategies that take advantage of the expanded political space available in some countries.
Egypt offers a model of this approach. During the 1990s, a coalition of activists successfully lobbied parliament to enact important legislation reforming the personal status law. The 2000 Law on Reorganization of Certain Terms and Procedures of Litigation in Personal Status Matters grants women the right to divorce without the consent of their husbands if they give up some of their financial rights (this type of divorce, known as khul', is legitimated in Islamic law). The law also creates a new family court system, establishes a fund to provide child support for impoverished families, authorizes the government to garnish the wages of fathers who renege on alimony and child support, and facilitates divorce and the resolution of paternity claims in increasingly popular urfi (unregistered) marriages.

For almost a century Egyptian women have been advocating for a unilateral right to divorce and for other changes in personal status legislation. An earlier generation of women won some reforms in 1979 with the support of First Lady Jihan Al Sadat. After President Hosni Mubarak came to power in 1981, the reforms were ruled unconstitutional because of procedural irregularities employed by President Anwar Al Sadat to enact the legislation in the face of stiff Islamist opposition. A watered-down version of the legislation was passed in 1985. Women activists then pursued a back-door approach of lobbying the Ministry of Justice to revise the state-issued marriage contract to give brides the option of asserting their right to education, work, travel without their husbands' permission, and pursue a khul' divorce. After facing opposition from conservative religious forces, and realizing that family and social pressures would dissuade most women from taking advantage of such a contract, by the mid-1990s activists focused instead on building a coalition to push parliament to revise the personal status law. (Their efforts did have an impact, as the Ministry of Justice issued a new marriage contract in June 2000 with these options).

The coalition included female lawyers, civil society leaders, women's rights activists, academics, and lawmakers. They were determined to avoid the tactical mistakes of past initiatives. Most significantly, they muted the liberal rights discourse favored by many women's rights activists and instead emphasized religion as an asset. As a key member of the coalition explained, if the revised law were founded on religious principles, it would be difficult for opponents to reject it as anti-Islam. To this end, academics belonging to a new generation of post-colonial scholars built a case that patriarchal traditions and decades of secular, customary, Western, and Ottoman influences had distorted the existing law, and that reforms were needed to restore the rights that Islam truly affords to women. Their strategy derived from a transnational movement of Muslim women who use sacred texts to reinterpret Islam and women's rightful place in society. The coalition also actively solicited the support of religious authorities.

In addition, rather than viewing the government as an antagonist, the coalition forged alliances with officials in the Ministry of Justice and other parts of the executive branch. It gained the support of elements within Egypt's business community, who backed the reforms in the hope they would help to reduce the backlog of personal status cases clogging the courts. Aided by the quiet but unmistakable support of First Lady Suzanne Mubarak and President Mubarak, experienced female parliamentarians negotiated the draft law through parliament in the face of vociferous attacks by conservative parliamentarians and religious figures. To counter these voices Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Al Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, the most revered center of learning in Sunni Islam, attended the opening discussion. He reminded legislators that the Academy for Islamic Research, a deliberative body of Al Azhar's foremost scholars and jurists, had vetted and approved the reforms.

The coalition's success was not without controversy. Some activists contended that the reforms benefited elite women at the expense of the poor and that using religiously-based arguments risked diluting liberal and feminist ideals and undermining constitutional guarantees of equality. Islamist voices warned that feminists and secularists had distorted the Islamic tradition and had co-opted religious authorities who were too close to the government, thereby contributing to the demise of the Egyptian family.

Though clearly a temporary convergence of interests dependent on executive branch support, the coalition nevertheless represented a valuable learning experience for the Egyptian women's movement. It has already produced positive side effects. Shortly after the law was enacted, a prominent member of the coalition, lawyer Tehani Al Jibali, was appointed as Egypt's first female judge. Also, coalition members played a critical role in parliament's recent enactment of a law granting citizenship rights to children born to Egyptian women and foreign husbands.

The lesson of the Egyptian personal status law reform coalition is that pragmatic, tenacious, and creative activists can achieve results under certain circumstances, and strengthen parliamentary politics, civil society advocacy, legal activism, and the rule of law in the process.

by Diane Singerman
Originally published in the Arab Reform Bulletin, July 2004, Vol. 2, Issue 7
Circulated by WUNRN.

Diane Singerman is an associate professor in the Department of Government, School of Public Affairs, at American University. Her publications include Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics, and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995). For further details on the case described in this article, see "Rewriting Divorce in Egypt: Reclaiming Islam, Legal Activism, and Coalition Politics," in Remaking Muslim Politics: Pluralism, Contestation, and Democratization (Robert Hefner (ed.), Princeton University Press, forthcoming 2004).