When divorced doesn’t mean divorced in Egyptian

Discrepancies between colloquial and literary Arabic may have far-reaching legal ramifications in Egypt.

December 20, 2010 19:50
3 minute read.

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Egypt may have the highest divorce rate in the Arab world, but that might be moot if a new ruling by the country’s senior jurists goes into effect.

Sheikh 'Ali Goma'a, Grand Mufti of Egypt, found in a recent study that the Egyptian mispronunciation of the Arabic word for "divorced" may nullify the action, meaning the couple was still legally married.

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The fatwa, or Islamic legal opinion, by Egypt's senior jurist has cast doubt on the validity of divorces in the country and caused an uproar among citizens and religious experts.

Under Islamic law, a man may divorce his wife by saying Taliq (divorced) three times. However, in the Egyptian dialect, the letter Q is pronounced as an A (like in the word 'and'), so that the word for divorced sounds different than it should in colloquial Arabic.

"In divorce, the intention is what counts, not the pronunciation of the word," Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, former Mufti of Jerusalem, told The Media Line. "If the man's intention was to divorce the woman, than she is divorced."

Dr. Ibrahim Najm, an advisor to the Egyptian Mufti, refused to comment on Goma'a's ruling. He told the Egyptian daily Al-Yom Al-Sabi' that the issue was being reviewed by scholars in Dar Al-Ifta, the official Egyptian institution charged with issuing religious opinions.

If upheld, Goma'a's ruling may have a dramatic effect on Egyptian society. According to Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the divorce rate in Egypt has increased by 8.4% in 2008 compared to the previous year. The divorce rate for Egyptians aged 18-29 is now 40%, the highest in the Arab world.

Goma'a's ruling sparked a flurry of comments on Egyptian blogs and Internet forums. Arab newspapers were less than neutral when reporting the story, resorting to a direct attack on Goma'a.

"It is well-known that divorce applies when pronounced with intention," London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi wrote. "So why did Dr. 'Ali Goma'a contradict the ruling of scholars and resort to an ancient opinion when issuing the Fatwa at this time?"

Azza Suleiman, director of the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance (CEWLA), said that a divorce occurs in Egypt every six minutes, with 250,000 women annually resorting to the courts to request a divorce.       

But Dr. Walid Kazziha, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, said Goma'as opinion would not change much.

"This is a liberal interpretation of Sharia law," he told The Media Line. "It is well known that if a man, in a fit of rage, tells his wife that she's divorced this does not apply. People tell their wives they're divorced all the time and don't mean it."

According to a new Egyptian law, divorce only comes into effect when the court notifies the woman of it officially, Kazziha said. He added that now women can initiate divorce in a Sharia court, provided certain conditions such as physical abuse are proven.

"In the past, a woman would have to go to court and make a case to force the husband to divorce her," he said.

Kazziha added that the divorce rate has increased recently in Egypt as a result of the economic downturn, effecting primarily lower and middle class citizens.

"Men can't make ends meet, so many of them leave the countryside for the cities and disappear from their woman's life."  

Sabri, the Mufti of Jerusalem, said he believed that Egyptian scholars would eventually overrule Goma'a opinion.

"I don't think they will absolve the man of his divorce," he said. "We [in Jerusalem], never faced this problem, but in Egypt -- due to their huge population and plethora of problems -- jurists are more confused." 

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