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I. Summary

I told him “divorce me and leave, at least that way when I go to beg from people on the street, they’ll know I have no one.” He said “‘no, I’ll kill you. Leave the house if you want a divorce. Give up the house, the children, the furniture, and the clothing that you’re wearing… I will not give you anything…You will go to your family’s house and they’ll bring you back to lick my shoes.” 

—Amira Ahmad, Cairo, June 13, 2004 

Egyptian women are at a distinct disadvantage in access to divorce for no reason other than that they are women. The threat leveled against Amira Ahmad by her husband is not an idle threat:  it is backed by profoundly discriminatory laws and practices premised on women’s inferiority, particularly in matters related to the family.

The Egyptian government has created two widely disparate systems for divorce, one for men and one for women.  Egyptian men have a unilateral and unconditional right to divorce. They never need to enter a courtroom to end their marriages. Egyptian women, on the other hand, must resort to Egypt’s notoriously backlogged and inefficient courts to divorce their spouses.

In the courts, women face procedural and evidentiary hurdles to divorce that are inherently discriminatory. Men, who can divorce their spouses at will with an oral  renunciation later registered by a religious notary, can simply sidestep these procedures. Obtaining a divorce can also take years as men manipulate the many defenses and tactics Egyptian law reserves only for them. As a result, many Egyptian women, like Amira Ahmad, avoid the courts and are left with two equally distressing options: either remain in an unwanted marriage and possibly endure physical and psychological abuse, or beg their husbands to divorce them, giving up everything they own and cherish in return. The consequences of this two-tiered system are often financially and emotionally devastating for women.  In some cases, they can be life-threatening.

Egypt’s discriminatory divorce system is among the starkest examples of Egypt’s oppressive personal status laws. These personal status laws–common in the region–govern marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance and advance a model of the family based on the superiority of men to women. Laws and practices as applied violate the rights of Egyptian women to equality before the law, nondiscrimination, and equality in marriage and divorce, as enshrined in international human rights law. 

Egypt’s divorce laws discriminate against women in the procedures they impose and in their substantive provisions, reflecting a system of unequal access and treatment that obstructs many women from seeking divorce. The judicial process is fraught with difficulties, delays, high costs, and varying standards. In order to initiate a divorce providing full financial rights, an Egyptian woman must show evidence of harm inflicted by her spouse during the course of their marriage, often supported by eyewitness testimony. Alternatively, since 2000, Egyptian women can file for “no-fault” divorce (khula) if they agree to forfeit their financial rights and repay the dowry given to them by their husbands upon marriage. Khula, adopted as a way to afford women easier access to divorce, still requires women to petition the court to terminate their marriages. The option is most accessible to women with the financial means to renounce all financial claims, or those with limited means but who are desperate for a divorce.

The government requires all women seeking divorce, including victims of domestic violence, to submit to compulsory mediation. When men initiate divorce, the government does not require them to make an effort to reconcile. The fact that only women must submit to mediation in the name of family preservation implies that only divorces initiated by women destroy the family. Compulsory mediation for women, and only women, is also rooted in biased notions of a woman’s inability to make rational decisions about important life choices without interference.

Many Egyptian women find themselves impoverished and facing homelessness while they navigate the judicial jungle of divorce in Egypt. Egyptian women who have separated from their husbands and have filed for divorce in Egypt’s courts are deemed automatically ineligible for any form of government-sponsored financial assistance, since they are officially still married. Without a divorce certificate in hand, women are provided with no social assistance; they are deemed to be the financial responsibility of their husband and not the state. 

The legal and bureaucratic nightmare of obtaining either a fault-based or no-fault divorce does not end once a divorce is finally granted. For many Egyptian women, a divorce is tantamount to destitution because of the government’s failure to enforce court rulings for alimony and child support. The Egyptian government’s attempt to remedy this problem through the establishment of a specialized alimony and child support fund is a step in the right direction. However, the fund should not be a substitute for more aggressive enforcement of court rulings.  

Divorced women are also permanently at risk of becoming homeless because they have no stake in marital assets, and retain no ownership interest in the marital home or any other property upon divorce. Egyptian law automatically transfers the legal and physical custody of adolescent children to the father, and ties a woman’s right to live in the marital home to the period during which she has physical custody of the children. These inequalities deter many women from initiating divorce.

The issue of unequal access to divorce and the pervasive problem of domestic violence are inextricably linked. Violence against women in Egypt remains both culturally and legally permissible, and is typically accepted by the general public as a normal and legitimate form of “discipline.”  By obstructing a woman’s right to divorce through discriminatory laws and procedures, the Egyptian government is essentially condemning many women to violent and potentially life-threatening marriages. This unjust divorce system deters many women, including those in abusive relationships, from ever attempting to seek a divorce and leaves others languishing in legal limbo for years. Ultimately, the Egyptian legal system’s treatment of women perpetuates the powerlessness many Egyptian women face at home.

Government efforts to deal with women’s unequal access to divorce have failed to address the fundamentally discriminatory aspects of the divorce system. In the end, the government has settled for half-hearted solutions that grant women rights far short of equality. The introduction of no-fault divorce in 2000, while sparing women the need to specify grounds for divorce, has not fundamentally altered the unequal divorce equation in Egypt. The fact that the Egyptian government has not reformed the fault-based divorce system means that the new law has simply created another avenue whereby women may choose to give up critically important rights in exchange for a divorce. 

The establishment of specialized family courts to adjudicate all family disputes in October 2004 is intended to streamline the divorce process by consolidating all disputes into a single case heard by one court, potentially reducing delays. While a step forward in some respects, these new courts will implement the same discriminatory laws and practices as the previous system. These new courts will be a missed opportunity if they are not a starting point for further reforms to substantively amend the divorce system and grant women an equal right to divorce.

Egypt has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Both require that Egypt take appropriate measures to ensure equality for both men and women in marriage and divorce.  In its reservations to these treaties, Egypt has specified adherence to Islamic law (Shari’a) to evade its obligation to protect women’s rights, including a woman’s right to equal access to divorce. Such reservations are inconsistent with the object and purpose of the treaties, and, as such, with Egypt’s international obligations to work to modify and eliminate religious and cultural norms that foster inequality. The Egyptian government continues to use these norms as a means to justify human rights violations against women. 

The Egyptian government should take immediate steps to ensure equality in the substantive and procedural laws and policies governing divorce. It should repeal discriminatory provisions in its family and penal laws, particularly those that have helped create and perpetuate unequal and parallel systems of divorce for men and women. The United Nations and the Egyptian government, with donor support, should review and reform existing family laws to ensure that they are consistent with Egypt’s obligations under CEDAW and other international human rights instruments; that they do not discriminate on the basis of sex or gender; and that they afford women equality of access to divorce.

Human Rights Watch does not advocate for or against Shari’a per se, or any other system of religious belief or ideology; nor do we seek to judge or interpret the principles of any religion or faith. We are simply concerned about human rights violations resulting from the implementation of any legal system, in any country. 

This report is based on 112 interviews conducted in Egypt in June and July 2004 as well as prior and subsequent research. The interviews with divorcees and married women seeking divorce took place in the governorates of Cairo, Qalubiyya, Minya, and Sohag. These interviews included meetings with twenty-seven Egyptian government officials at the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Health, and the National Council for Women. Human Rights Watch also interviewed United Nations representatives, staff of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), attorneys, judges, social workers, doctors, and donor government officials.

All of the names of women whose cases are discussed have been changed to protect their privacy, unless otherwise indicated. Other identifying information has been withheld in some cases for the same reason.

index  |  next>>December 2004