Egypt’s divorce system discriminates against women and undermines their right to end a marriage. In October, the government established family courts but, like no-fault divorce introduced four years earlier, these have failed to tackle ongoing discrimination against women. The 62-page report, “Divorced from Justice: Women’s Unequal Access to Divorce in Egypt,” documents serious human rights abuses stemming from discriminatory family laws that have resulted in a divorce system that affords separate and unequal treatment to men and women.
Men in Egypt have a unilateral and unconditional right to divorce. They never need to enter a courtroom to end their marriages. Women, on the other hand, must resort to the courts to divorce their spouses, where they confront countless social, legal and bureaucratic obstacles. Women who seek divorce in Egypt have two options: fault-based or no-fault divorce. In order to initiate a fault-based divorce, which can provide full financial rights, a woman must show evidence of harm inflicted by her spouse during the course of their marriage. Even physical abuse often needs to be supported by eyewitness testimony. Since 2000, Egyptian women have had the option of filing for no-fault divorce (khula). But to do so, they must agree to forfeit their financial rights and repay the dowry given to them by their husbands upon marriage.
Adopted as a way to speed up the divorce process, no-fault divorce still requires women to petition the court to terminate their marriages. “An Egyptian woman seeking a divorce finds herself between a rock and a hard place,” said LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “If she files for a fault-based divorce, she has to endure years of legal uncertainty. To obtain a faster no-fault divorce, she must sign away all her financial rights.” Regardless of which type of divorce a woman chooses, male officials largely still control every step of the process.
Egypt has only one female judge on the bench, and the prosecutors who provide advisory opinions in divorce cases are overwhelming male. In divorce cases, women themselves are left with little decision-making power. In contrast, Egyptian law affords many protections for men. Women seeking a divorce, unlike men, must submit to compulsory mediation. If a woman leaves her husband without his consent, he can files charges under Egypt’s “obedience laws” that can result in her loss of alimony upon divorce.
The near-insurmountable obstacles confronting women in the divorce process drive many women to relinquish their rights in an attempt to persuade their husbands to divorce them. The consequences of this two-tiered system are often financially and emotionally devastating for women. In some cases, they can be physically dangerous as well. The failure of the Egyptian government to ensure equal property rights upon divorce, for example, discourages many women from leaving violent marriages. Rania Omar (not her real name), 47, told Human Rights Watch about how her husband would savagely beat her: “Sometimes he was good to me. But when there was no work, he was disgusted with life. He would take it out on me. I endured it. Where could I go? I have five children.” “Egypt’s discriminatory divorce system condemns an untold number of women to violent marriages,” said Jefferson. “The fact that women have no easy way out allows some husbands to abuse their wives with virtual impunity.” Since 2000, the government has made efforts to address women’s unequal access to divorce. Nonetheless, these reforms have not fundamentally altered the unequal divorce equation in Egypt.
While the introduction of no-fault divorce has clearly helped some women divorce more easily, women still have to relinquish many of their rights if they choose this option. Interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch reveal that, because of the need to forfeit their rights to any marital assets and any future support, this option is limited to women with significant financial resources or those who are truly desperate for a divorce. May Ibrahim (not her real name), 40, is married to an alcoholic who is abusive when intoxicated. She described the reasons for opting for no-fault divorce: “I’m asking for khula because although I could get everything a regular divorce, it takes too long. I know that I won’t be able to get anything in the end anyway.” In October, the Egyptian government established specialized family courts to streamline the divorce process by consolidating all disputes into a single case heard by one court.
While a step forward in some respects, these new courts are implementing the same discriminatory laws and practices as the previous system. “The family courts may streamline the divorce process,” Jefferson said. “Now the Egyptian government should take substantive steps to end the discrimination that still plagues women who seek divorce.”