Islamists threaten to roll back legal gains for women

Ahmed Abubaker, a 35-year-old teacher has little interest in politics and barely followed the developments of the Egyptian revolution. But this recent divorcee has now taken up protesting.

Al-Masry Al-Youm found him just recently at a demonstration in front of the Ministry of Justice. Abubaker is joining likeminded divorced fathers who are calling for a change to laws regulating custody over their children. They believe that the current custody system, along with other provisions in the personal status law, is against Islamic Sharia law.

“Two months ago I couldn’t see [his six-year-old daughter] Maram for a whole month. My ex-wife’s father told me that the security situation was deteriorating and [the family] couldn't risk letting the girl go far from home,” said Abubaker at the protest.

The problem he raised is not only due to the absence of police from the streets of the working-class area in Omraniya where he and ex-wife’s family live, but also the result of the law regulating the divorced father’s right to see his children.

The debate over custody laws, which is usually accompanied by arguments that Sharia supports the claims of divorced fathers, comes within a context in which Islamist groups wants to curtail women’s rights. Islamists argue that women’s legal gains in recent years are a product of Hosni Mubarak’s pro-Western regime. Women’s rights advocates, however, believe that the improved status of women is an outcome of social activism, which managed to push women’s issues to the fore.

Women’s gains under threat

In 2005, Egypt’s parliament, then dominated by the former ruling National Democratic Party, passed legal amendments by which children should remain in their mother's custody until age 15, up from 10 for boys and 12 for girls.

The law states that fathers have the right to see their children only three hours a week. Other members of the father’s family, such as grandparents, don’t have the right to see the children unless accompanied by the father in the three-hour visitation. Fathers also don’t have the right to house their children without the mother’s agreement.

Abubaker joined a Facebook page calling for changes to the custody laws. Other fathers who stage regular protests in front of the Ministry of Justice have joined newly established groups, such as the “The Front for Saving the Family” and “The Coalition for Saving the Egyptian Family”.

They staged small marches in front of the cabinet building, the Ministry of Justice and the state radio and television building. Fathers in governorates around Egypt formed local branches for the group.

Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated websites have been active in covering these developments, which they describe as being “calls for the application of Sharia.”

Family court judge Abdullah Albaga said in a TV interview in April that the new age rules for custody contravene Sharia, and called for the cancellation of the amendments, along with others, such as an amendment from 2000 giving woman easy access to divorce though the courts.

In the last decade, Egyptian women managed to erase some of the egregious gender inequities enshrined in the laws regulating personal status issues, such as reforming child custody laws, ensuring that women have the right to add conditions to marriage contracts, and providing women with the right to get a divorce through courts, known as khola, which are based on Islamic law.

Before 2000, when new legal provisions for divorce were introduced, it was nearly impossible for women to get divorced without the consent of their husbands. Divorce cases could linger in the courts for up to a decade, and even then, women would often not be granted the divorces they requested.

Karim Younis, another father who is calling for the change, tells Al-Masry Al-Youm that the divorced fathers have met with Ministry of Justice officials, who said their demands are legitimate.

For feminists and secular political activists, these movements are dangerous, since they’re based on specific and rigid interpretations of Sharia.

“What you surveyed from groups and marches against the custody law are indicators that there has been a major setback in the position of women since the revolution,” says Karima Kemal, a journalist and commentator.

“Conservative thinking is on the rise along with the rise of the Islamic groups. They see all the developments that took place concerning the status of women as Western and aimed at destroying the family.”

Feminist activist Lamiyaa Lotfy agrees.

“We know that the custody law is unfair. Having only three hours a week to see your child is unfair. That members of the father’s family don’t have the right to see the child is also unfair. But the problem is people don’t want [just] amendments; they want to take away all the rights we fought for, alleging that they are anti-Sharia,” she says.

A Western import?

Perhaps the biggest impediment to improving the legal status of women is the argument that such changes are being forced on Egypt by the West and were pushed by former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, who is widely hated.

Elham Eidarous, a political activist, says this argument is used “to distract people from seeing the efforts exerted by women’s NGOs in order to push for the changes. Suzanne Mubarak wasn’t a feminist actually," says Eidarous. "If the state pushed for positive legislation to improve the status of women, this happened because of local as well as international pressure.”

Women’s rights advocates may face crucial challenges with the election of the next parliament, which many expect will be dominated by Islamists. Some women’s activists fear that an Islamist-dominated parliament would strip women of the rights they have gained.

“Women’s activists should build strategic relationships with civil political parties that support women’s rights, " said Eidarous. "Women’s NGOs shouldn’t be the only force defending women’s rights. Organizing women from grassroots and forming coalitions are the strategy. Women’s issues after the revolution should get rid of any remains of elitism.”

One example of how to defend women’s rights by gathering women from the grassroots is the Coalition of Custodian Women group, which has staged various protests in recent months, mainly in Cairo.

“What we are seeing now is that ordinary women are speaking about their rights," says Lotfy. "If you have a march that alleges that the custody law is anti-Sharia and Western-based, you have on the opposite side the Custodian Women, who staged similar marches in the street, saying that they won't give up their rights over their children. In this case, you can’t describe those women as being Western.”

Another new development is the degree to which Coptic women are making their voices heard.

“That’s the radical change," says Kemal. "Coptic women are also speaking out, either pressing the Church to change its position to give them licenses for divorce or by pressing the state to push for a new legislation that allows civil marriage.”

The silencing of women

Women’s rights advocates say that regression on personal status issues is part of a larger problem of marginalizing women. After an unprecedented showing during protests over the last six months, Egypt women are now being told that they cannot take high political and executive posts.

“The rise of the Islamist movement after the revolution poses significant threats to gains made by Egypt’s women in many aspects related to political representation, as well as, and especially in the legal context, regulating the personal status law,” says Kemal.

The committee that drafted the constitutional amendments in March didn’t include any women, and Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s cabinet has only one female minister. During the last governors reshuffle, no female governors were appointed.

Minister of Local Development Mohsen al-Nomany said last month that women are currently incapable of filling governorships due to the deteriorating security situation.

On Wednesday, a coalition of feminist organizations sent a letter to Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmy calling on the government to ensure that women will be represented in the committee that drafts the new constitution. The letter indicates that any future constitution must have anti-discrimination provisions.

However, Lotfy argues that at this very moment, Egyptians must not evaluate the situation of women in isolation.

“Women aren’t represented in a fair way in the political scene. That’s true, but who from the marginalized people is Egypt are being fairly represented? Youth are still marginalized, disabled people are badly discriminated against and people from Sinai can’t claim any significant posts.

"It’s not only women who are unfairly represented. The old way of thinking still dominates,” Lotfy says.

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