Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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Egypt: New signs of progress for women in Egypt by Mona Zulficar

On October 2, 2004, the new Family Courts Law, passed in March 2004, has come into effect and 224 Family Courts have opened their doors for the first time.
The Family Courts represent the first specialized courts in Egypt and the Arab World that provide family members with new types of services.

These courts do not only issue judgments and orders, but look into the social realities of the families in distress and attempt, through conciliation or mediation, to help resolve the disputes between the husband and wife amicably. An office for Settlement of Family Disputes is set up in each Family Court for this purpose. Such office is staffed with legal experts, sociologists, psychologists and other experts in family matters. Moreover, the new law has established, for the first time, a specialized execution department in each court, in an attempt to accelerate enforcement of judgments. Complementing this law, a family insurance law was passed on the same day, providing resources to enable Nasser Social Bank to enforce financial maintenance and alimony judgments in favor of mothers and children, and then have recourse against defaulting husbands.

It is hoped that the new Family Courts will provide new opportunities for appointment of women judges. In December 2003, President Mubarak had appointed the first woman judge to the Supreme Constitutional Court, ending a debate that has been going on for decades between the women’s movement in Egypt and the traditionally conservative judiciary. The judiciary in Egypt, who have the exclusive power to appoint judges, with the exception of judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court, have been resisting such appointment in spite of the court cases filed by women since the early 1950’s consistently challenging the decision to deny them such opportunity. Consistent judgments since the early 1950’s have confirmed that there was no legal, constitutional or Sharia Law impediment to appointing women judges, but that the right time has not come yet. President Mubarak had to interfere to signal that the right time is long overdue. This decision should open the door for the judiciary to appoint women as district attorneys which is the first step to become judges in Ordinary Courts, Administrative Courts and the newly established Family Courts.

In June 2004, an amendment to the Nationality Law was passed to eliminate discrimination against Egyptian mothers married to foreigners, providing a happy end to a long struggle by the Women’s movement, supported by the National Council for Women. While the Egyptian father gave nationality to his children automatically, the Egyptian mother did not have the same right. The Nationality Law, as now amended, provides for absolute equality between Egyptian men and women in giving their children Egyptian nationality.

Moreover, on December 15, 2002, the Supreme Constitutional Court had issued an important judgment confirming that the law governing women’s equal right to divorce “Khul” is constitutional. This again ended a two-year struggle by supporters of traditional patriarchal culture to reverse the progressive changes introduced in March 2000, by Law No. 1 of 2000. This revolutionary Law, gave women an equal right of divorce and put an end to the traumatic suffering of around one million women each year involved in divorce cases which lasted seven years in average and sometimes ended with denial of divorce. Within two years of implementation of the new Law, sixty challenges to the constitutionality of the right of “Khul” were referred to the Supreme Constitutional Court. Such challenges claimed that the “Khul” or equal right to divorce violated the principles of “Sharia”. The decision of December 15th represents a victory not only for the women’s movement in Egypt but also for the supporters of rational and liberal interpretation of Islam.

Law 1 for 2000 provides a unique model of conciliation between the universality of human rights, including women’s rights, and the specificity of cultural and religious values. The example given by Law 1 of 2000 in Egypt demonstrates that human rights values could be expressed through indigenous languages and different cultures without derogating from the underlying universal principles.

Signals of a new era for women in Egypt are loud and clear. This reflects political recognition of the importance of women’s role in development in the context of social and cultural reform complementing the economic reform program launched since 1991. It is also a reflection of the growing importance of human rights as an important element in the political reform in Egypt, which is gaining momentum at the present time.