The Renewed Fight to Prevent Domestic Violence in Egypt
In February of 2021, Egyptian media leaked a draft personal status law that led to an uproar from Egyptian women. This coincides with a spike in domestic violence and divorce cases. Activists are proposing alternatives that can create long-lasting change.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as families were locked down in their homes, another “shadow pandemic” was spreading. Research shows that women suffered from an increase in economic, physical, and emotional violence. In 2021, the Observatory of Crimes of Violence Against Women recorded 813 cases of violent crimes compared to 415 the previous year. Recent statistics published by the National Council for Women in Egypt show that the rate of violence is as high as 86 percent. Divorce rates reached 220,000 in 2020, with voices increasingly pointing out the link between violence and divorce. By 2021, Egypt recorded a new divorce case every two minutes.
We have seen increases in domestic violence globally. As the pandemic ravaged the outside world, violence that happens behind closed doors was increasing every day. A wave of legal advocacy efforts is currently underway in Egypt, led by women’s rights groups trying to solve the “intractable” problem of domestic violence. However, they are clashing with a regime that fundamentally aims to act as the moral guardian of Egypt.
Increasing divorce rates show that violence in the home does not just affect women, but also the stability of the family unit, and therefore, of the state itself.
The regime has reacted to the problem through the lens of stability: Increasing divorce rates show that violence in the home does not just affect women, but also the stability of the family unit, and therefore, of the state itself. This has led to a rare window for cooperation between women’s rights groups and the regime.
The “100 year setback”
On February 23, 2021, local Egyptian media leaked a draft of the revised Personal Status Law (PSL), issued by the Egyptian Cabinet. The draft law adds a series of new regulations around issues of marriage, divorce, child custody, and guardianship. This includes allowing a man to freely initiate divorce and remarry, compared to women who face more scrutiny and complications; the father is selected as the natural guardian of children, while the mother cannot even register the birth.
While the regime might think that such regulations will lower high divorce rates, they instead limit women’s rights and create increasing strain in cases of domestic violence. As such, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights dubbed the document as a “regressive, conservative” law. On March 8, 2021, the Women and Memory Forum started a social media trend with the hashtag “Guardianship_is_my_right,” where women shared their individual, emotional stories. The forum stated the draft law is a “pejorative philosophy against Egyptian women [that] blows away a 100-year long struggle by Egypt’s feminist movement.”
In March of 2022, three leading women’s rights groups - the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), the Women and Memory Forum, and the Guardianship is My Right campaign - devised the “Just Family Law,” a legislative alternative to the 2021 draft PSL. The Just Family Law aims to challenge not only the leaked PSL, but also a legacy of legislation that Rutgers University Professor Nermin Allam said, “creates a culture of impunity for the perpetrator.”
For example, according to Professor Allam, the Penal Code of 1998 stipulates that domestic violence offenses are punishable, “only if they are beyond the accepted limits of discipline, decided by the judge, and if the injuries are apparent.” Further, Article 60 pardons the perpetrator “if he acted with good intention.”
Thus, the Just Family Law aims to be holistic, and define marriage as “shared responsibility” rather than as an “arrangement of enjoyment or of property,” Professor Allam explained. It would also favor the mother in child custody cases and provide her with equal rights to the husband in cases of divorce, ultimately supporting her if she faces violence at home.
The balancing act for feminists
Women’s rights groups and feminists such as Azza Soliman have been advocating for women’s rights in the family long before COVID. However, many of these activists are already fighting their own legal battles - cases that, as Professor Mohamed Abdou at the American University of Cairo, and a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Cornell, pointed out, are “de-moralizing” and “fabricated.”
These women, Professor Abdou explained, face a balancing act. “They’re trying to draw a very soft line between ‘let’s secularize, let’s liberalize… but let’s do it in a way that is also Islamic, so it appeals to the masses, to the state that we’re trying to negotiate with… so that it all doesn’t fall apart.” He further noted that Sharia Law is not monolithic, but contingent on interpretation and jurisprudence.
The committee was tasked with creating a new draft law in just four months; so far, there have been no updates on a new law, and the allotted four months have long since passed.
However, thanks to their continuous efforts, a judicial committee was formed in June 2022 to redraft the 2021 law. It consisted of eight male judges and two female judges from family courts. The committee was tasked with creating a new draft law in just four months; so far, there have been no updates on a new law, and the allotted four months have long since passed. We have not seen updates because organizers are also strategically prioritizing other advocacy efforts, with their most recent attention focused on the release of Alaa Abd el-Fatta, a British-Egyptian writer.
The regime as the “moral guardian”
The regime, for its part, has its own balancing act. Professor Alexandra Blackman at Cornell University, who focuses on political regimes and religious institutions, explained the multiplicity of concerns facing the regime: “Right now, they [the regime] have three things they're trying to focus on: How do we not upset women's groups? How do we not upset religious authorities? But how do we reduce divorce rates and promote the stability of the family unit?”
Professor Abdou builds on this point. “The regime and Al-Azhar are butting heads over how the legality of Sharia should function: according to an Islamic utopia, or according to the regime’s desire to adopt a secular, civic, but also militarized and patriarchal view of the family.” Indeed, in 2018, Al-Azhar, the leading University for Islamic learning in the world, launched their own campaign titled “Live Together Kindly” to prevent divorce and even established a unit to resolve family disagreements via phone and field visits.
The regime is primarily concerned with taking back control as the moral guardian of Egypt. Women’s rights groups are rightfully skeptical of the regime’s state-sponsored feminism and its overtures on protecting women’s rights.
However, its desire to stabilize the family unit by decreasing high divorce rates has created a rare opening for women’s groups to appeal to the regime. In other words, activists are offering the regime an alternative: by working with feminists, as opposed to turning towards regressive policies, it can at once improve divorce trends and domestic violence rates while fulfilling its own need to act as a “moral guardian.”
As a result, new domestic violence bills are being proposed. In February 2022, a proposed amendment to Article 242 of Penal Code No. 58 of 1937 would stipulate harsher punishment for domestic abuse and violence. If approved, a husband can face three to five years of prison time, compared to the standard one-year sentence.
While this is not necessarily what women’s rights groups had in mind... such proposals indicate increasing conversation around domestic violence and family law.
Another bill emphasizes the importance of a stable relationship between spouses by creating a mandatory psychology exam before marriage to reduce family crimes. While this is not necessarily what women’s rights groups had in mind to protect women against violence, such proposals indicate increasing conversation around domestic violence and family law.
The power of the grassroots
While the tenets of the Just Family Law legislation will likely not be passed to the extent activists hope, the campaign led by women’s groups has led to civil discourse over domestic violence and policy reforms. When the regime looked towards parochial policies to solve the family crisis, feminists brought in a different set of solutions.
Grassroots efforts – often over a long period of time – can produce change. For example, the campaign for the elimination of female genital mutilation (FGM) lasted five years and led to the June 2008 adoption of Egypt’s comprehensive human rights legislation under Law 126. In the law, the minimum age of marriage was raised from 16 to 18, and FGM was criminalized and subject to fines and imprisonment. The 2011 outbreak of sexual violence amidst the Arab uprising led activists to launch “Operation Anti Sexual Harassment,” which successfully prevented multiple instances of violence by rescuing women and escorting them to safe houses during protests.
Experts agree that more rounds of contestations are needed to truly see reform take place. As Professor Allam expressed, “The work of independent feminist groups on the ground should not be seen as simply complementary, but it should rather be seen as something that is integral and can help us engrain gender equality in Egyptian society.”
Ultimately, personal status law determines whether a woman has liberty within her own marriage. This has inherent consequences on how a woman can navigate the already traumatizing world of domestic violence, in all its forms. While new proposed laws have not produced immediate change, the discussions they have sparked show that women’s rights groups will continue to push forward with the promise of a different future for Egyptian women.
The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.
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