CAIRO: For Mervet Mahmoud Awees, her unwavering commitment to family provided little in return. Married some 20 years ago, Awees’s husband would abandon her and her five children, often for days at a time. When he did return, he would frequently beat her, occasionally in public. He’d even go so far as to sometimes stab her with a knife. When she finally got up the nerve to file for a divorce, Awees’s suffering would only continue. Legal fees added up to a staggering LE 1500, a sum the impoverished woman could not dream of meeting, even with the help of family and friends. She had two choices: she could stay with her husband and tolerate the pain and suffering, or she could leave him, labeling her in the eyes of the Egyptian government as an abandoned woman. For Awees and the thousands of women like her, this state of abandonment under Egyptian law causes for them to lose most of the financial privileges that come with marriage. Egyptian Law No. 25, article 1, part 1 (on maintenance and waiting period) reads, “maintenance shall not be due to the wife if she apostatizes or if she refrains by choice from submitting herself without justification or is forced to refrain by circumstances which are not the fault of her husband, or if she leaves the matrimonial home without the permission of her husband. The legal jargon does not reflect reality. Women over the child-bearing age are tossed out onto the street because they are deemed useless by overpowering husbands. Elderly women are abandoned by men who replace them with younger wives. Children watch helplessly as their mothers are regularly beaten. Egypt still upholds what is known as “obedience laws, or ta’a. This belief, rooted from traditional Islamic interpretation, states that a husband has the obligation to provide his wife with the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter in return for her obedience. It further upholds that a woman should obtain permission from her husband prior to leaving the home (bayt al-ta’a), or before doing virtually anything. If she leaves without permission, the husband can file a complaint, summoning his wife home within 30 days. Should a woman fail to return and later files for divorce, she is considered a deviant and denied all alimony and financial rights. Until 1967, police officers in Egypt were permitted to use physical force to return a woman to her marital home and into the custody of her husband. While police are no longer allowed to use force on these women, men are still routinely filing obedience notices. No protection is granted to a woman who is neither a widow nor divorcee. To receive any form of social security from the government, abandoned women must prove they are unaware of the estranged husband’s whereabouts. Nonetheless, despite the abandoned woman’s legitimate role as the female headship or household provider, she is not entitled to any of the financial and social privileges that the state offers men. “Even if you are still married, and you know where he is but he doesn’t pay you alimony, the government says you are not our responsibility, you are his responsibility, explains Iman Bibars, president of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW) which recently released a report entitled “Women Without Shelter. “We found out [women] have no access to credit, no access to training programs, no access to work because they are uneducated and untrained, and microcredit programs were not available unless you had a guarantee and a guarantor, which if you’re a poor female head of household, you cannot do that. Women can legally gain custody of children if they are under 12-years of age. If a woman does gain custody of her “husband’s children, she has no entitlement to the marital home upon divorce. The husband is only required by law to provide adequate accommodation. Activists argue against the legal between child custody and the right to keeping the marital home, saying it treats women as though they are servants, not providers of life.
“As long as you are serving your kids, you can stay in the house, notes Bibars. “Once they are not servable anymore, you get kicked out. There is no dignity in this. “The Egyptian legal system views it as an exchange, adds Farid Dief, researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “The husband financially provides for you, and you in return must be obedient to him. If you are no longer obedient to him then you no longer have the right to financial maintenance. The average cost for renting a small room in some of Egypt’s poorest suburbs is LE 150, according to Bibars; the monthly pension given by the government is LE 50. It is often socially unacceptable for women to live on their own in rural communities, and many of them cannot afford to. In response, ADEW has proposed three recommendations to alleviate the burden of women left abandoned and without shelter. According to the teachings of the Grand Mufti of Egypt, women are entitled to financial compensation in exchange for their roles as givers of life and caretakers. Advocacy groups like ADEW also argue that women are entitled to government pension, given her responsibility to raise children. To do so, Bibars suggests, the husband or the government should assume the responsibility of contributing money to this fund, specifically through insurance companies, which the woman collects when she is either divorced or reaches a certain age. A similar program is currently in place in Germany.
“People tell us we are turning marriage into a material relationship, our argument was, marriage in Egypt is mainly a financial transaction, Bibars insists. “You sit with the parents and they lobby for who buys the chandelier, who buys the carpet. This break marriages The second recommendation proposed by ADEW is to offer 10 percent of public housing to women without shelter. Activists insist that this is the least the state can do for those responsible for repopulating the nation. “She has served in reproducing the army, the workers, the population of Egypt, says Bibars. “If we are not there serving them and taking care of their kids, there will be no workers, no lawyers, no presidents, and no ministers. So our role as mothers serves to reproduce the population. Finally, ADEW proposes that the government rename the type of alimony said to be linked to sexual pleasure. Bibars suggests the government call it “end of severance payment. “The personal severance law Morocco is the best, notes Bibars. “Here is an Arab country which has the right idea. What we try to do in our public hearings, we try to show the human face. This affects a lot of women in all classes. Our advocacy reaches out to people in parliament to get things done.