Amina asked her husband of three years for a divorce in Cairo in 2012. He refused.
What followed was a process Amina, 35, described as time-consuming, unfair, and humiliating.
“My ex and I sat down with the patriarchs of our families and a ma’zun [religious notary] who tried to convince me not to go through with the divorce,” said Amina, who asked that her last name be withheld for fear of reprisal. “I endured several of these meetings where these men weren’t listening to me. I had to waive my financial rights from my then-husband just so he can agree to divorce me. He also demanded that I give him back every gift he ever got me.”
Azza Soliman, Egyptian human rights lawyer and founder of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, has represented countless women in divorce cases.
“Divorced women are entitled to the mu’akhar, or a deferred portion of the dowry paid to the wife upon divorce or the husband’s death, ‘idda, or maintenance payments while the divorce is being finalized, and mut’a, which usually goes on for about two years,” Soliman said. “They’re also entitled to the furniture in the marital home. If there are children involved, then the woman also has the right to stay in the apartment with her children until they turn 15 years old. But when a woman dares to initiate her own divorce, she has to be willing to sacrifice all that.”
Divorce legislation falls under a portion of the Egyptian constitution called “Personal Status Laws.” In Egypt and according to Shariah law, a man may unilaterally divorce his wife by uttering the words “you are divorced” three times. To finalize the divorce, the man simply has 30 days to register it with a ma’zun, or religious notary. As a result, Egyptian women can be divorced against their will.
Although Egypt ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the country’s divorce laws are weighted against women. According to the 2018 Global Gender Gap Index, put out by the World Economic Forum, Egypt ranks 135 out of 149 countries.
In 2017, President Abdelfattah El-Sisi attempted to reform divorce laws in Egypt so that men would have to go to a court to obtain a divorce. The proposal was unanimously rejected by the highest religious power in Egypt, the Council of Senior Clerics at Al-Azhar, who claim that this practice has been undisputed since the seventh century.
“Talaaq, or divorce, is the right of the husband and doesn’t take place unless it is done by him,” said Abu Yusuf Khaleefah, the imam of Nur Allah Mosque in Corona, Queens who studied Islam in Egypt. “Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said divorce is the right of the one who consummates the marriage. The woman has to seek to be released from her husband and he is the one who releases her. If he refuses, she can take the matter to the courts for them to force the release.”
Khaleefah is referring to the Tatliq (fault-based divorce) and Khula’ (no fault-based divorce), two methods that allow a woman to initiate divorce in the event that her husband refuses to grant her one. “Khula’,” which was incorporated into the Egyptian constitution in 2000, literally translates to “forcibly removing something” in Arabic; in this case it’s a woman forcibly removing a husband.
“When Khula’ was first introduced, it was like a magical tool for Egyptian women,” said Soliman. “Women who had suffered abuse for years and were forced to become part of polygamist marriages finally had a way out. But Khula’ takes much more energy and time than a traditional divorce, and I’ve seen many women suffer as a result.”
Under Tatliq, a woman has to prove that her husband has some major fault that prevents her from being with him, such as mental illness, inability to support her, incarceration, or abuse. The woman must obtain legal counsel and provide official documents and two witnesses to prove to a judge and a jury, most of whom are men, that she has suffered at the hands of her husband. As with all court cases in Egypt, the testimony of a woman is literally worth half that of a man, so the witnesses must either be two men, four women, or one man and two women. This type of divorce often takes a long time to accomplish.
“The idea that I needed witnesses to prove that my ex had been abusive towards me is ridiculous,” said Amina. “Abuse is cowardly by nature, it only happens in private.”
Amina was married at the age of 26 in 2009. A year into her marriage, she realized that her ex-husband was unpredictable and had a terrible temper.
“One day, he was yelling at me with such intensity that it scared me, so I locked myself in the bedroom to get away from him,” said Amina. “He ended up breaking the door down and charging at me. I knew it wouldn’t be safe for me to stay with him after that.”
Soliman has assisted many women who had similar experiences.
“If a woman comes to me and tells me she has been abused by her husband, I immediately start seeking proof,” said Soliman. “For example, a medical report proving that my client was hit or that her husband is mentally ill. And this is why women suffer so much, because they’re tasked with securing proof that justifies their own safety and freedom.”
Khula’, on the other hand, – what Amina opted for to speed the process – doesn’t require women to provide any evidence to establish why they should be granted a divorce.
In the case of Khula’, a woman must stand in front of the court and admit that although there is nothing actually wrong with her husband, she is seeking a divorce because she can’t trust herself to stay true to the sanctity of marriage. To put it simply, a woman must admit that she is no longer attracted to her husband and might one day consider cheating on him.
Other than this admission, which Amina described as humiliating, women also have to give up all the financial rights the law usually entitles them to. While Khula’ takes less time than Tatliq, women without a good financial standing are more hesitant to pursue this kind of divorce.
In both cases, the judge is given considerable power to decide whether to grant the divorce. For example, a judge may argue that a woman’s request for divorce is inadmissible if she had tolerated her husband’s abuse for several years.
“Many of these laws and practices stem from the belief that women don’t have the same ability to make critical decisions or practice faith as men do,” said Soliman. “This is why a man can end his marriage easily while the woman can’t. The law paints women as untrustworthy and emotional while men are somehow the defenders of faith.”
While divorce is a complicated matter for women to initiate, it’s even more complicated for mothers.
In a divorce, the mother retains custody of the children, but should she remarry, custody is passed down to her mother. If the woman’s mother is dead or unavailable, custody is granted to the mother-in-law, and then to either the sister of the mother or the father. Custody is passed down to the father as a last resort.
“Mothers are punished for remarrying, while fathers never have to worry about it,” said Soliman. “Worse, fathers are last to assume responsibility of the child they helped create. It’s contradictory because in one instance we’re trusting the woman to have custody and love and protect her children, then if she attempts to remarry we revert back to the idea that she’s untrustworthy and lacks sense.”
According to Khaleefah, the Queens imam, this law is rooted in Hadeeth, or the teachings of Prophet Muhammad.
“The mother has more right to custody as long as she doesn’t remarry based on the authentic Hadeeth,” said Khaleefah. “The purpose of custody is the protection of the child and so it’s best if the child goes elsewhere if the mother remarries.”
Amina didn’t have any children with her first husband. But her sister, Sondos – who was granted a divorce after going to court for a no-fault based Khula’ – has a daughter. Sondos has been single ever since, too afraid to remarry and lose custody of her daughter.
Amina was remarried in 2015 but was also subject to a similar punishment.
“The ma’zun who married us put the name of my ex, the year we got married, and how long we were married for, in my new marriage certificate,” said Amina. “Why do I have to live the rest of my life with my ex’s name in my marriage certificate? When will the shaming end?”
This is not a practice that Egyptian men are subjected to.
Women’s rights organizations have advocated for the reform of gender-biased divorce legislation in Egypt for decades. Since it was founded in 2000, Egypt’s National Council for Women has attempted to target the personal status laws to no avail.
Last month at a panel for the 63rd annual Commission on the Status of Women, Minister and President of Egypt’s National Council for Women, Maya Morsy, said that a revised version of the personal status laws was in the works. She refused a request for comment regarding what the change would be.
Soliman, on the other hand, doesn’t believe this issue is prioritized by Egyptian government.
“There are people who say these laws are rooted in Sharia, or Islamic law, and we cannot change them,” said Soliman. “But then how do you explain Muslim-majority countries such as Tunisia and Morocco who have adopted human-rights-friendly interpretations in their laws?”
In Tunisia, both men and women need to turn to court to obtain a divorce. In 2003, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI hired a commission to look into divorce laws, which led to more rights for women and the creation of new types of divorce, including “irreconcilable differences.”
“In a nutshell, our law is telling us that if we want to leave our husbands, we must suffer tremendously,” said Amina. “A woman will find herself in a situation where she is overpowered by men. And it can all lead to humiliation, abuse, poverty, and judgment.”
Soliman and the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance are looking to draft and release a set of proposed civil laws for all Egyptians with the aim of eradicating bias on the basis of gender.
“The whole law has to change,” said Soliman. “The way we view women has to change. Sharia is being used as an excuse and a tool to keep women down. But religion is meant to help people, not oppress them.”