CAIRO - In years past, when conservative members of Egypt’s parliament spoke out to demand reversing the rights of women or Coptic Christians, most of the country laughed it off and moved on.
However, in late March, when Mohamed El-Omda, an independent lawmaker who is deputy head of parliament’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, introduced legislation that would revoke a woman’s right to divorce, women’s activists and observers were not pushing this off to the side.
With Islamists controlling the majority of Egypt’s parliament, conservatism is on the rise, and so are attacks on women’s rights, says the Egyptian Women’s Union (EWU).
“We are taking this and other recent statements made by El-Omda and other MPs very seriously because right now we know they can actually do this if they want,” said Salma Kamal of the EWU. “It is important that pressure is put on these people to make sure they don’t destroy what little rights we women have in the country.”
The El-Omda’s aim is to rescind legislation dating from 2000 that gives women “khula,” the popular term for the right to turn to the courts to order a divorce in the event the husband refuses to grant one. Before that, Egyptian women did not have the right to divorce their spouses on their own terms.
El-Omda framed his argument principally in terms of rolling back the era of former president Hosni Mubarak.
In a memorandum accompanying the bill, he said khula had been granted to women at the behest of the National Council for Women (NCW), which was the vehicle for former first lady Suzanne Mubarak to promote her favorite causes. El-Omda said it had been designed not to protect women from their Muslim spouses, but those who married abroad. He said it was an offense to Islamic law (sharia) and an attempt to Westernize Egypt.
“It is corrupt,” El-Omda told The Media Line. “We want to end the connection to the Mubarak era and this is not Islamic for women. We, as Egyptians, want to make sure our laws and our society are part of Islam, which protects women and gives them rights.”
When asked about the criticism by women’s rights advocates, he waved it off. “These women do not understand Islam and the importance of being a wife and caregiver for the family.”
Egypt has a high rate of divorce. According to the government’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the rate among Egyptians aged 18-29 is now 40%, the highest in the Arab world and that most of the separations occur among the country’s 90% Muslim majority. The Coptic Christian Church generally prohibits divorce. The Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance estimates that 250,000 women go to courts every year seeking a divorce.
The rise of Islamists to power has heightened concerns about women’s rights, which even under the more secular Mubarak government were severely constricted by Western standards. Much of the public debate that has emerged since the revolution last year has focused on dress codes, particularly the veil. But the prospect of divorce rights being pared back is just as threatening to many women. Revoking khula would force many women to remain in unwanted marriages.
“I’m ready to go to parliament and demand an end to this kind of anti-women statements, but where are the women’s groups?” asked Heba Salem, an Ain Shams University student, who told The Media Line she is disappointed that women’s organizations have not spoken out more.
“What are they good for if they are not defending us women in the face of this injustice?” she asked. She said that if attacks on women continue, she wished that “women will rise up and start a new revolution and not stop until we are equal citizens.”
In fact, the Egyptian Women’s Union has called for “complete rejection of this proposal,” saying that the issue of “divorce law was an issue to try to solve the dilemmas facing legal implications of the [country's] flaws and the inability for women to obtain provisions for their benefit.”
El-Omda said he plans to pursue the matter even further, which has angered many women’s rights activists in the country, who say it could be the beginning of the conservatives’ push to remove women from positions of any power.
According to a source close to Speaker of Parliament Saad El-Katatni, many of the MPs do, in fact, support El-Omda’s call to revoke the legislation, but El- Katatni is in no rush to push the law through. “Right now the speaker doesn’t want to have this bill or other similar things put forward at this time because the country is not ready yet,” the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In fact, time is against those trying to defend khula and other laws protecting women’s rights. Women’s advocates argue that the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafists, led by the Al-Nour Party, may be holding off for now, but they intend to use their overwhelming strength in parliament to invoke more conservative legislation and push women aside.
El-Omda has allies in his pushback on women’s rights. The Muslim’s Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has launched an attack in recent months on laws regulating personal status and has accused Suzanne Mubarak’s NCW of implementing Western strategies to disrupt the family life.
Nearly two-thirds of parliament is Islamist and they dominate the constitutional assembly, although on Tuesday a court suspended the assembly because it had objections over how it membership was selected.
“We have seen this in the assembly to write the constitution and we are seeing it again in almost everything related to women’s issues,” said Kamal of the EWU. “Instead, we as women’s advocates must go and explain to parliament that these are not Western ideas, they are part of Islam and no man can take it away from us.”