maha al aswad


islamic law

Get Your Hands Off Women

Get your hands off women[i]

When the sparks of the Egyptian Revolution started to fly, friends of mine abroad interested in human rights and justice started to express their concerns openly about where the situation in Egypt was taking us. In the wake of most revolutions in the modern world, women have always ended up getting the short end of the stick. It is as though revolutions are historical records of chauvinist tales brimming with heroic feats that men alone have accomplished. Eventually, the moment of truth comes when those men gather together. Barring women from their closed council, they issue orders from on high and decide what rights women may or may not receive.

My Egyptian female friends and I disregarded their worrisome comments. After all, we were down in the streets and the squares. We never felt, not even for a second, a difference between our role as female revolutionaries and that of our male counterparts: the mission was one, the way was one, and the goal was one.

Our friends abroad were right, though not because the Revolution itself had taken power and discriminated women; rather because the elements that ended up taking power after the Revolution are two of the most powerful types of Fascism the world has known: military fascism and religious fascism. Sadly, the Revolution did not govern; those who know nothing about the Revolution’s principles have taken power. In the simplest terms, what ended up happening was a re-birth of the old regime. The military (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF) took control the day Mubarak resigned. Thereafter, the first signs of discrimination started to appear. The first hint of things to come is enshrined in the constitutional amendments proposed concerning the Article stipulating the conditions for presidential elections of the Egyptian Republic. Initially, the bill clearly indicated that men alone would be able to run. Although it was later modified, it still reflected public opinion on the role of women in public affairs in the ‘New Egypt’. Following this disconcerting pattern, the case of forced virginity tests of female protestors happened, what might as well be called misogynist inquisition-like trials. In effect, this event confirmed the historical, chauvinist conception of women: women are only bodies, whose honor – as far as society is concerned – is predicated on their reproductive organs; from these several centimeters of flesh they can be either pardoned or condemned to death.

Elections came as a definitive alternative to revolutionaries’ incapacity to organize themselves and present a strong alternative for the military in running the transitional period. Most groups within the revolutionary vanguard refused to participate in parliamentary elections and those from the revolutionary front that did participate are out of question in terms of their patriotism and belief in the revolution principles, the most important of which being the equality for all Egyptians before the law.

Be that as it may, life is not a bowl of cherries. The Revolution failed to get enough votes and the revolutionaries remain under-represented in the People’s Assembly. The Islamists won the majority. Remaining parliamentary seats won by non-Islamists do not necessarily represent revolutionary opinion. If one follows the current course of affairs, it is obvious that the principles called for and carried by the revolution are and will be absent from most debates, decisions, and laws passed in Egypt’s Parliament.

The First Signs Appear


Take, for example, Muhammad Umda, a respectable Member of Parliament (MP) in the People’s Assembly. Umda is not affiliated with the Islamists, which is quite surprising, as we shall see. A former member of the Wafd Party, Umda ran for Parliament as an independent. Yet it is Mr. Umda who spoke in Parliament, not only in the name of his constituents – both men and women – from Aswan, but also in the name of the Egyptian people and demanded the repeal of Article 20. Known as the Article of al-khul’, the right of a woman to seek divorce according to Islamic law, Article 20 (Law no. 1, year 2000) pertains to the some of the judicial conditions and litigatory proceedings in personal affairs (i.e. family court).

According to a report published in the paper Shorouk dated Saturday, March 17, Umda declared that Article 20, “allows women to end their marital lives independently, without oversight or the slightest consideration for the rights of family and society.” In fact, when I read this sentence I broke out in hysterical laughter, a hardy guffaw for the sake of Schadenfreude.

Up until 2000, the husband was the only partner with the right “to end his marital life independently, without oversight or the slightest consideration of the rights of family and society.” All he had to do is say three simple words: I divorce you. That is it. Just these three magical words anytime, anywhere, for whatever reason he deemed fit. Yet no one asked themselves over the decades why husbands alone should enjoyed this right. Egyptian women, themselves packed like sardines into the hallways and corridors of family courts, did not demand for their rights; Egyptian mothers did not even appeal for the rights of their children who are taken away from them by court order.

For women seeking divorce, the average length of divorce proceedings lasts between 3-8 years. It is quite difficult for a woman seeking a divorce to prove that her husband has mistreated her. After all, most abuse occurs behind closed doors. Therefore, there is seldom any witness of the purported abuse to justify a wife’s application for divorce. Article 20 – the Article al-khul’ – was passed as a means by which wives could free themselves of this endless oppression.

The mere proposition of Umda’s bill is tantamount to a serious impairment of women’s rights as citizens in Egypt. It is an attempt to deal with women as though they were second-class citizens. In an addendum to Umda’s statements printed in Shorouk, Umda is quoted as saying: “What if a wife actually applies for divorce (khul’) on the grounds that she is no longer in love and afraid of God’s divine punishment, but that in fact all she wants is to be rid of her husband just because he refuses to let her travel abroad.” The question here is: Why does the law allow a husband to have control over his wife to this degree? Isn’t marriage in its most basic understanding an equal partnership, wherein both spouses look out for each other, a relationship based on compromise, as well as care for each other’s benefit? Or has it devolved into a contract for buying a slave-girl, whose master controls her and forces her to stay with him against her will? When a husband resorts to courts to ban his wife from travelling, or forces her to do something, or invokes his right as her guardian, in that moment the notion of a mutual partnership and compromise dissipates. Life thereafter becomes impossible. The most appropriate solution is for them both to separate honorably.

In another statement, Umda is quoted as having said the following: “What if a wife decided to leave her husband and kids to run off with a rich man who has seduced her?” Here, I stop at the word “seduce”. This is the same stone-age mentality that looks at women as creatures in need of being placed under the custodianship or watchful eye of some man even after she has reached the age of maturity.  According to this logic, the custodianship of a woman is transferred from the family to the husband precisely because she is a naïve creature, incapable of understanding what is good for her welfare. The logical conclusion to this argument is that she needs someone to make decisions for her. But even an unscrupulous person could easily sell her to a rich man.

Simply put, if the wife resolves to end the marriage for whatever reason she deems fit, and decides that life is no longer tolerable with her husband, the husband can still rely on the law to force her to stay in this unbearable situation. This state of affairs is paramount to the decline of individual honor and the rise of a husband’s authoritarian power. Sadly, this situation is in fact enshrined in Egypt’s legal code. According to Egyptian law, a husband has the right to marry more than once and end a marriage whenever he pleases.

Perhaps we can excuse Umda for his position. After all, based on his statements it seems that he bought a wife according to a marriage contract and, by extension, anything bought can easily be re-bought or sold! But the situation itself is still incredible. Umda, as he stood on the floor of the People’s Assembly and made his statements, effectively flirted with the Islamist Parliamentarians. In 2012, well after Egypt’s dignified Revolution had run its course, Umda argued that men should have custodianship over women. This is not surprising in light of additional information, however.  For example, in other news it is reported that MP Umda is trying to gather enough signatures from his fellows MPs to run for President of the Republic; Umda has thanked the leaders of the Salafist Nour Party for giving their members the unfettered freedom to chose whom they want for President.

The dawn of the ‘modern state’ ushered in the legal state, the latter being a governmental system that treats its citizens – both male and female – equally. No one is to have custodianship over anyone else who has reached the legally recognized adult age. Under such a state, different levels whereby one can or cannot receive his/her full rights should not exist. Unfortunately, most people reject, if not outright seek to avoid, attempts to build such a state in Egypt after our honorable Revolution. These people want to send Egypt back into the Dark Ages, without a chance of return.

[i] I wrote this article in Arabic – posted on . It was translated to English by Scott Chahanovich, a freelance translator and cultural journalist – posted on

Time To Think Ahead: Women In the Egyptian Constitution

لقراءة هذا الموضوع باللغة العربية، اضغط هنا.

The 1971 constitution is (or should I say was?!) viewing women from a pure patriarchal perspective.  Although several articles prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, etc but they remain just a theory.

Article 1 is about citizenship, but women never enjoyed full citizenship rights in Egypt, they are always treated as second rank citizens. Article 40 is also about equality before the law, yet what does equality mean here when lots of laws are discriminatory against women, including articles in the penal code on punishment of adultery and passion crimes. Furthermore, in prostitution cases, men are being held as witnesses then released, while women are being charged and prosecuted.  There is also an article in the penal code that allows judges to issue a linient sentence for those who committed honor killings, and so they are not treated as perpetrators of murder.  Also women and men are not equal when it comes to the right of divorce. Men can divorce their wives with a simple word, while women have to resort to courts.

Although article 8 has affirmed the principle of equal opportunities for all Egyptian citizens, but we find women are still subjected to discrimination. There are certain jobs they are not allowed to occupy, like judiciary and public prosecution. Women are not allowed to occupy positions in State Council.  On Monday February 15th, 2010, in State Council’s General Assembly meeting, 334 MALE judges voted against the appointment of females to judicial posts. Conservative judges’ arguments, are always related to Islam. The constitution unfortunately allows for religion to be a main factor in discrimination against women. For example article 2 of the Egyptian constitution [ Islam as being the state religion] and article 11. [The State shall guarantee coordination between woman’s duties towards her family and her work in the society, considering her equal to man in the political, social, cultural and economic spheres without detriment to the rules of Islamic jurisprudence (Sharia)]. Who decides the principles of Sharia? Those conservative judges did, and so did other sheiks. They claimed to know what exactly Islamic jurisprudence is and for them it says that women are not capable of and shouldn’t be allowed to hold certain positions. One of the prominent judges actually stated that women’s primary role is in their homes taking care of their children and husbands.  Perhaps we should be less surprised, considering that article 10 in the constitution emphasizes the traditional role of women as mothers. It brings that that the state shall guarantee the protection of motherhood and childhood! I wished to see an article that openly emphasizes that women and men are equal when it comes to labor rights and that they are both partners in the development of this country!

Women judges were "appointed" by a presidential decree in 2007
Women judges were “appointed” by a presidential decree in 2007

Even ordinary Egyptians who keep listening to this discriminative discourse all the way, on the radio and TV, in mosques, in schools and universities, started to believe that Islam limits the participation of women in certain positions! Even if this is true, even if Islam is discriminatory against women, this shouldn’t be allowed in a state that believes in citizenship, according to article 1 in its constitution!  The constitution in its current form is disastrous and if this is not avoided in the new constitution, we will still be stuck in reverse.

Add to that article 62, which allows having quota for women in the parliament. Quota has done nothing to women but segregation! Under the former regime, – I am not sure if I should call it former already!!- this quota was used to guarantee a bigger representation for the NDP, the ruling party,  in the parliament! All quota MPs after the 2010 elections were NDP members! The quota law was also very weird. It is a first in history ( correct me if I am wrong) to formulate a quota law that adds new seats to the parliament ordinary seats. The Egyptian parliament has 444 seats for 222 constituencies, in addition to other 10 appointed MPs. The quota law didn’t define women’s seats from those 444 seats, it added whole new 60 seats. The total number of MPs turned out to be 504 + 10 appointed MPs. If the main reason to have quota is for people to know and trust women leadership and their ‘ability’ to represent them in the parliament (the thing I think doesn’t need to be proved!!), then why weren’t the seats taken from the original 444 seats?  It gives the impression that women are even more segregated and require a special treatment to the extent of adding new seats, because they can’t take part in the parliament with its ordinary formation.

Egyptian people's assembly
Egyptian peoples assembly

Even in a democratic society, quota reinforces gender roles! There is no such thing as gender differences, but quota is reinforcing this. I know CEDAW is in favor of quota, but I think we should tackle the problem of under-representation of women in our country with a different approach. If you are not different, don’t go and ask for a law that shows you are different and need a special treatment! Actually this law makes the society angry with the whole women’s rights movement. Call for equality by taking to streets and having a voice! By building grass root women leaders, not by imposing it on society by law!

The newly passed constitutional amendments

Women lining up to vote in the referendum over the constitutional amendments 2011
Women lining up to vote in the referendum over the constitutional amendments 2011

The process of amending the constitution generally was wrong. We made a revolution. Revolutions make constitutions fall along with all the regime! Maybe the problem is that the regime didn’t fully fall. What happened is a big joke. Before the referendum, we took to streets and distributed fliers and talked with people not only to convince them that the amendments are discriminative and violate the principle of citizenship rights and equality between all Egyptians, but also to say that the whole referendum thing is not correct. As the Higher Council for Armed Forces, I don’t have to go and ask the people if they still want the constitution from which they suffered for the past 40 years!

The amendments had some odd criteria for presidency candidates, including that candidates shouldn’t be married to foreigners. English language is a bless, unless you add the words male/female to the sentence, you’ll never know whether it is a male or a female one is talking about. It is a gender-sensitive language by default, where this is not the case in Arabic. The formulation of the amended article suggests that only a male can run for president in Egypt, because he shouldn’t be married to a “foreign wife”. Article 75 in the 1971 constitution, was way better before amendment, at least it used a gender-neutral language!

Unfortunately the amendments passed, which is dangerous to the revolution as a whole, not to certain groups who were discriminated against like women and Egyptians married to foreigners.
The committee drafting the amendments didn’t have one woman as a member. I personally think that the exclusion of women from the so-called constitutional and legal experts’ elite circle, the ones who the state always refer to for drafting new legislations, was for long the main reason for discriminative legislations. The honorable committee members didn’t even think that an Egyptian woman can run for president! They didn’t offer an explanation or an excuse for that! I can imagine what they were to say if any of them had the courtesy to justify it.  I can picture them saying that the article with its current formulation was meant to be general and that the default in Arabic language is the male pronoun (which I think is nonsense). Maybe practically speaking, this won’t affect women on the short run, because there might not be a woman candidate on the scene that can run for president for the upcoming elections. But on the long run, it affects the whole view to women as human beings with full citizenship. There will be a new constitution shortly after the upcoming parliamentary elections. Following that, a lot of work on law reform needs to be done. If the new constitution and the law reform processes didn’t take place on the basis of equality between men and women, it will be a huge problem. We are building our new state and we don’t want it to end up being another Iran.

Building a new state while committing the same mistakes is not doing any good for the society. What we need to have as a society- and not just the women ’s rights movement- is to have a clear alternative and a clear vision of what the women’s position in the new state will be, starting from the constitution: women as mothers and wives or women as citizens in this country. It is our historical opportunity and we shouldn’t waste it! Egyptian women and men made the January revolution, with no difference whatsoever in the roles they played.  Being treated as equal in all aspects of life in the new Egypt is not negotiable.

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