Divorcing Old Traditions

Amended marriage laws give Egyptian women a refreshing breath of independence

Making itself a standout amongst nations in Islamic worlds, Egypt amended its divorce laws last Wednesday and began to lift the veil of repression that has relegated women in Egypt to second-class status for centuries. Not only will a woman now be able to divorce her husband without his consent, she will also be able to garnish his wages if he is recalcitrant in providing support. A state fund has also been established to assist those whose husbands cannot be found. Perhaps as noteworthy as the reforms, though, is Egypt's proof that granting equal rights to women does not require sacrificing religious beliefs.

Civil law in Egypt is grounded in the Shariah, the Islamic legal code. An extensive text whose passages can be read in conflicting ways, the Shariah has been subject to reinterpretation throughout its history. It is in this malleability that the best hope for securing equal rights for women lies. Egyptian activists are quick to point out that the divorce amendments did not come at the expense of religious law, but were successful precisely because they were justified in the context of religious teachings. Indeed, a crux of the reform movement was its ability to stave off the objections of religious hard-liners by appealing to passages in the Shariah that discuss the inherent equality of men and women.

Such an approach is not without its drawbacks, however. The reforms only passed with the concession that women, upon divorce, must return to their husbands any property they received at marriage--a proviso that was justified by the prophet Muhammad's decision to allow a woman to leave her marriage if she returned a garden she had been given by her husband. Moreover, men will retain the right to appeal a divorce indefinitely. Yet while such compromises may be undesirable from an purely egalitarian standpoint, it would be apt for those with a vested interest in change to realize that religious interpretation may currently be the most successful vehicle for reform in Islamic nations. Incremental reforms, over time, give way to large scale changes, and while accepting justice through installments is never desirable, it may be the most expedient way to guarantee women equal rights.


While the Egyptian government ought to be commended for its reforms, now is the time for activists to redouble their efforts. For example, without an expansion of opportunity in the workplace, this newfound independence will be virtually meaningless. Furthermore, while laws are easily amended, attitudes are not. Granting women a true position of equality in Islamic societies will depend as much on changing the spirit of the latter as it does it does on changing the letter of the former.

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