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After The Revolution, Egypt’s Women See Legal Gains Slip Away

A debate over child custody laws is one example that things could be changing for Egyptian women following the country’s April revolution. Women are also being kept out of the new government, where Islamist parties now have far more influence than in the

Salafis in Tahrir square on July 29 rally for the application of the Sharia (Jonathan Rashad)
Salafis in Tahrir square on July 29 rally for the application of the Sharia (Jonathan Rashad)
Ahmed Zaki Osman

CAIRO -- Ahmed Abubaker, a 35-year-old teacher, has little interest in politics, and barely followed the Egyptian pro-democracy revolution. But this recent divorcee has now taken up protesting for another cause.

Al-Masry Al-Youm found him recently at a demonstration in front of the Ministry of Justice. Abubaker is joining like-minded 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 Maram for a whole month," Abubaker said of his six-year-old daughter. "My ex-wife's father told me that the security situation was deteriorating and couldn't risk letting the girl go far from home."

The debate over custody laws often centers around arguments over whether Sharia supports the claims of divorced fathers. And now, it comes within a context in which some Islamist groups want to use their newfound political freedom 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 counter 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. Fathers also lack the right to house their children without the mother's consent.

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".

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

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.

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

"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."

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."

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."

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 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.

Last week, 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?" he says. "The old way of thinking still dominates."

Read the full version of the story in Al Masry Al Youm

Photo- Jonathan Rashad

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