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VI. Condemning Women to a Life of Violence

Women’s lack of equal access to divorce has acute consequences for victims of domestic violence. Unequal access to divorce prevents women from extricating themselves from violent relationships and may make them more vulnerable to abuse in the first place. The fact that women have no easy way of ending their marriages empowers some men to abuse women with almost no chance that they would ever be prosecuted for a crime or suffer any adverse consequences whatsoever. By fostering a system of unequal divorce, Egypt’s divorce laws ultimately facilitate violence against women.

Egyptian women are afforded little escape from their abusive spouses. In fact, Egypt’s Criminal Code condones acts of violence committed in “good faith,”150 which is often used to justify domestic violence for “disciplinary reasons.” The few shelters the Egyptian government operates for victims of domestic violence and those seeking to escape troubled marriages raise serious concerns about their true protective mandate. Shelter staff sometimes refuse to admit women brought in by the police, and see their mandate as one of reconciliation rather than the provision of refuge.  Moreover, the overwhelming majority of women Human Rights Watch interviewed did not know that these shelters existed. The combined effects of unequal access to divorce, laws permitting spousal abuse, the lack of any mechanism to protect women from further violence, and the inadequate and often unknown nature of shelters ultimately condemns many Egyptian women to violent marriages.  

Discriminatory Divorce Laws and Violence against Women

Women need to be treated with respect. Men don’t have a right to beat them. Marriage is supposed to be merciful. A woman doesn’t get married to be thrown around.

— Manal Hassan, Sohag, June 24, 2004

Egyptian women’s unequal access to divorce has essentially condemned many women to violent and potentially life-threatening marriages. The actual and perceived difficulties of initiating divorce prevent many Egyptian women from leaving abusive spouses. Many women Human Rights Watch interviewed suffered through lengthy periods of domestic violence because divorce seemed to be an untenable option.  Societal and cultural restraints, a lack of information, and the fear of being impoverished with no support systems also made enduring abuse the more practical choice.

Layla Ibrahim, thirty-one, decided to go directly to the court to try to get a divorce from her abusive husband. She has never been to school. She endured physical and verbal abuse for eleven years because she did not know how to navigate the complex maze of divorce in Egypt or where to seek protection from abuse. She told Human Rights Watch:

He beat me if something was not right in the house.  That’s just what it’s like…He hit me around the face, here on the lip, he cracked this tooth [shows right upper canine]. He hit me on my cheeks and around my eyes.  And of course if I wanted to ask for help everyone would say “No, it is between you and your husband.”  I would not even be able to go to a place for help without my husband with me, they would not accept me. I even went to a court to try and find out about how to divorce, but they threw me out of there.151

Judges sometimes reject divorce requests, even those filed by victims of violence, due to a lack of documentation such as a marriage contract. Women who do not have certain documents on file have little hope of terminating their marriages. Human Rights Watch acquired a copy of a 2004 divorce judgment rejecting a petition for divorce filed by a woman on the grounds of physical abuse because she could not obtain a copy of her marriage contract. The judgment stated:  

Whereas all the facts for the case were established by the petitioner demanding that the court grant her a divorce from the respondent based on physical abuse (considering that the petitioner has been the respondent’s wife by legal contract issued on 07/23/1999 while the respondent continued to abuse his wife with insults and physical harm to the point where the petitioner sees it impossible to continue living with him), the documents used by the petitioner to prove her case were still lacking some supportive papers such as the original copy of the marriage contract.

Due to the lack of proof and supporting evidence needed to complete the file the court decides to reject the case as is. As for the necessary fees and expenses, the court charges the petitioner to pay the totality of the fees as cited in the article 1/184 of the code of civil procedure.152

The failure of the Egyptian government to ensure equal property rights upon divorce discourages many women from leaving violent marriages. Some, like Rania Omar, forty-seven, could not imagine where they would live in the event of divorce.She explained: 

Sometimes he was good to me. But when there was no work, he was disgusted at life. He would take it out on me. I endured it. Where could I go? I have five children.153

Iman Ahmad, twenty-seven, was repeatedly beaten by her husband and in-laws. She is still married because she has nowhere to go upon divorce and no means to support herself. She was hospitalized following one of the more severe beatings that took place when she was six-months pregnant. She has also been repeatedly raped by her husband. She told Human Rights Watch:

I felt trapped.  He wouldn’t let me go outside.  I felt depressed.  He always wanted to have sex but I didn’t want to.  He asked for sex a lot… He’d go to the office and before he left he’d say ‘today’s our day [for sex].’  He’d insult me…When I refused him, he’d hit me.  He’d give me a black eye.… But if I divorce him, where would I live? I won’t get anything. I won’t have a home for my children.154

The lack of financial independence that is common among many Egyptian women puts them at a greater risk for having to endure violence. For many women, divorce is tantamount to destitution because of the failure of the Egyptian government to enforce court rulings for alimony and child support or provide women with a share of marital property. Nasra Hassan, twenty-five, endured abuse for five years because her family could not support her had she divorced. Her husband became abusive two weeks after they got married.  He would take her out into the street to beat her in front of the neighbors. After one particularly brutal beating, her shoulder was dislocated.  She recalled: “My mother would say ‘endure it.’  If you get divorced, who’s going to support  you?”155

Hossam Abu-Yusif is a deputy in Egypt’s State Council.  When asked why many Egyptian women are forced to endure domestic violence, he told Human Rights Watch:

Women [in Egypt] have no financial or economic independence. She [a battered woman] will think a hundred times before she goes to the police station to file a complaint.  If she goes back [to her family’s] home, her father will not be able to absorb her financially or psychologically.156

Inadequate Shelters

We don’t send her [a victim of domestic violence] back home if she doesn’t want to go back. It’s her choice… There are places like hotels where she can go. 

— Captain Muhammad Mohsen, Masr al-Jadida police station, Cairo, June 30, 2004

The protective mechanisms established by the Egyptian government to shelter victims of violence are inadequate. Moreover, where these mechanisms exist, they are seldom advertised to those who are in desperate need of their services.  The vast majority of women Human Rights Watch interviewed were not aware of the existence of shelters in Egypt.  Women seeking divorces often fear that they will have nowhere to go, even if only for a short time, in order to organize their lives post-divorce. The inadequate advertising of shelters perpetuates the belief among many women that choosing divorce is tantamount to choosing homelessness.

The Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs operates four shelters for victims of violence in Egypt.157 Given that there are so few shelters in Egypt, one might expect them to be models of efficiency, helping as many women as possible. The opposite is true. In order to be eligible to stay in a shelter, a woman must meet a set of strict criteria set by the ministry.  Specifically, she must be a divorced or widowed woman, be younger than fifty years of age, and be experiencing some familial difficulties.158 Unmarried victims of physical or sexual violence are not eligible for shelter.  If a woman passes this initial screening, the shelter sends a social worker to the woman’s home to verify this information, thereby potentially alerting the perpetrator of the violence to the woman’s future whereabouts.  If the woman has an income, the shelter requires her to donate a quarter of it.159 Women are allowed residency in the shelter for a maximum of three months, although this period can be renewed in exceptional cases. Officials at the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs told Human Rights Watch that they do not force women to go home after three months if they do not want to, although the women need to decide at that point where they would like to go. 

Despite an acute domestic violence problem in the country, these shelters usually remain fairly empty. The head of the General Department of Women’s Affairs in the Ministry told Human Rights Watch, “Each shelter houses fifty women. They are not always full. Today there could be five people and tomorrow it could be ten.”160 Only ten women were staying at the shelter in Cairo when Human Rights visited the facility on July 3, 2004. This is undoubtedly in part due to the stigma associated with women living outside of the marital home. However, the under-occupancy of the shelters can also be traced to the fact that many women have no idea such shelters exist.  The existence of these shelters is not widely publicized in Egypt as a matter of policy. Officials at the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs expressed concern that by making the availability of shelters widely known, “many women will come and leave their homes for other reasons [aside from domestic violence],” implying that women who are not victims of abuse may try to seek refuge in these shelters. Given the rigidity of the application criteria and process, it is disturbing that these ministry officials would prioritize their fear of women abusing the system over the health, lives, and safety of battered women who may not know that a place exists in Egypt where they can seek refuge from violence. 

Human Rights Watch interviews revealed that the existence of the shelter remains unknown not only to most victims of domestic violence, but even to some  government authorities with a direct role in assisting victims, including police personnel. At a Cairo police station, Human Rights Watch met with a social worker whose primary responsibility was to assist women who complain of domestic abuse. When first asked what she would do if a battered woman came to report an assault and did not have a place to go to protect herself, the social worker could not answer the question. Finally, she told Human Rights Watch that she would have to turn away battered women who had nowhere to go.161  The social worker did not know of the existence of shelters in Egypt.  More troubling still, neither the social worker nor any of the officials present at the time asked about or expressed any interest in obtaining further information about the shelters from Human Rights Watch.   

Women who do end up being referred to a shelter sometimes are denied admittance by the shelter staff. This appears to occur because the shelter staff are reluctant to admit women who have had any contact with the authorities because of the perceived demands the authorities will place on the shelter. Underscoring this strange situation, the director of the Cairo shelter told Human Rights Watch:

Police refer these women, but I don’t take them. They are catastrophes. They may try to leave the shelter….When the police refer the woman, they may summon her again. It [the shelter] becomes a prison and we reject that…We do not have security. We can’t keep her. If I had security, I would take her.162 

Officials at the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs told Human Rights Watch that shelter staff often bring abusive husbands to shelters in an effort to mediate between the couple.163 Violating fundamental principles of confidentiality and safety, the shelter may send a notice to the alleged perpetrator of the abuse letting him know where his wife is staying.  The rationale for informing the husband, according to the director of the Cairo shelter, is to “avoid kidnapping notices” being sent to the police and to avoid being “sued by the husband.”164 This concern seems to be ill-founded given that the director herself told Human Rights Watch that shelter staff contact the police to verify that criminal charges are not pending against the applicant, at which time they register each woman at the station informing the police that the woman will be seeking refuge at the shelter.165  It is also unclear whether the women coming to the shelters have any say in the decision to send these notices to their families.

Ultimately, the shelters in Egypt are not intended to protect women while they gather the strength to rebuild their lives. Instead, they are seen as a transit point on the path to reconciliation. Sayyidda Abu al-`Ala, the director of the Cairo shelter, told Human Rights Watch, “My primary objective is to solve the problem through reconciliation – to rebuild the family that has been destroyed. I take her if she has a problem that she wants solved.”166 The emphasis placed on mediation despite potential risks to a woman’s safety is not only troubling, but it is illustrative of efforts at reconciliation initiated every time a woman seeks to end or distance herself from a marital relationship. The shelter’s attempt at mediation is only one in a long line of attempts initiated by the police and the courts.167

[150] Section 60 of Law No. 58 (1937) Promulgating the Penal Code. This law applies to any act of violence committed in “good faith.”

[151] Human Rights Watch interview with Layla Ibrahim, Cairo, June 13, 2003.

[152] On file with Human Rights Watch.

[153] Human Rights Watch interview with Rania Omar, Cairo, June 13, 2004.

[154] Human Rights Watch interview with Iman Ahmad, Cairo, June 15, 2004.

[155] Human Rights Watch interview with Nasra Hassan, Cairo, June 14, 2004.

[156] Human Rights Watch interview with Hossam Abu-Yusif, state council deputy, Cairo, June 25, 2004.

[157] The shelters are located in Cairo, Alexandria, Dahiliya, and Ben al-Sawaf.

[158] These requirements apply to all four shelters operated by the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs in Egypt. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Sa`diyya  Zaki, general manager, General Department of Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs, October 20, 2004.

[159] Human Rights Watch interview with Sayyida Abu al-`Ala, director, Cairo shelter, Cairo, July 3, 2004.

[160] Human Rights Watch interview with Sa`diyya Zaki, general manager, General Department of Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs, Cairo, June 28, 2004.

[161] Human Rights Watch interview with police social worker, Cairo, June 30, 2004.

[162] Human Rights Watch interview with Sayyida Abu al-`Ala, director, Cairo shelter, Cairo, July 3, 2004.

[163] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohamed Tawfiq Mahmud, under secretary of social affairs, Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs, June 28, 2004.

[164] Human Rights Watch interview with Sayyida Abu al-`Ala, director, Cairo shelter, Cairo, July 3, 2004.

[165] Ibid.

[166] Human Rights Watch interview with Sayyida Abu-El `Ala, director, Cairo shelter, Cairo, July 3, 2004.

[167] See section on “Compulsory Mediation.”

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