Friday Prayers for Egypt: Divorce and Authority

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You know best the worth of a woman. You know what is timeless, you know what is cultural.

Help Egypt to know as you do, and act accordingly.

Troubled by rising divorce rates, the president pushed for reform. Hoping a standardized process might curb rash decisions, he asked administrative witness and registration be made mandatory.

But the top religious authority ruled against it. Islamic law permits a woman to be divorced orally, with no witnesses. Registration is advisable that the woman might know her rights. But even at the moment of divorce, neither her consent nor presence are required.

God, you know if this ruling accords with Islam as you intend it. But all agree on the importance of family. Preserve and strengthen this core unit of society. Protect and enable the woman within it.

What is her best role, God? What are her firm rights? Where lie her responsibilities?

Likely unrelated but unmistakably poignant, not long thereafter the president appointed Egypt’s first female governor.

God, you know if this authority accords with Islam as you intend it. To date there has been no noticeable religious criticism. But her governorate is known for Muslim interpretation that limits the public leadership of women.

Bless her in her role, her rights, and her responsibilities.

Bless the president as he seeks to honor women and challenge religious conservatism.

Bless religious conservatives, as they seek to honor you and women according to conscience.

Bless Egypt, that she would find your way amid interpretations.

And bless the Egyptian woman, wherever she is to be found.



Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Mervat al-Tellawi: Women’s Rights in the Constitution

Mervat al-Tellawi
Mervat al-Tellawi

From my recent article in Arab West Report, continuing a series of interviews with members of the constitutional committee. Mervat al-Tallawi is the head of the National Council for Women. She described that strengthening of articles concerning women’s rights was not difficult, setting right the Islamist tinge from 2012. But Tellawi felt these protections were not enough, given the realities of Egyptian society:

So the text of Article 11 makes clear that women have the right to serve in high government and judicial positions, which actually did meet quite a bit of opposition in the committee – from a surprising source. The Salafī representative objected in clear and straightforward manner, as expected, and the Azhar did not speak either in favor or against. But otherwise liberal members protested, naming Diā’ Rashwān of the journalist syndicate specifically, the head of the lawyers’ syndicate (Sāmih Ashūr), the head of the doctors’ syndicate (Khayrī ‘Abd al-Dā’im), and the head of a university (not specified, either Jābir Nassār of Cairo University or Ahmad Muhammadīn of Suez Canal University). She anticipated religious representatives might oppose her efforts, but was taken aback by these educated and liberal figures.

Article 11 also spoke against violence against women, which was passed unopposed. But it also called for ‘appropriate representation’ for women in parliament, which also proved controversial. Originally, Tallāwī asked for ‘just and balanced’ to be the phrasing on this issue, but Sayyid Badawī of the Wafd Party objected, saying this meant she wanted fifty percent. No, she replied, but if specification is needed let us officially propose a one-third parliament representation for women. The others mentioned above joined in what became a three hour fight, the end result of which was the wording of ‘appropriate’. This only postpones the battle, Tallāwī stated, until the drafting of the electoral law which will define what appropriate means, but there are several acceptable modalities. Perhaps the law will oblige parties to place women high on their voting lists; perhaps each governorate will assign three seats to be contested by women only. Other options can be discussed.

Tellawi also addressed the much overlooked, but vital sphere of local governance, and ensured women would have a place therein:

If social conservatives, though, had objection to appropriate women’s representation in the parliament, they did not object to a full quota in the local councils. Article 180 stipulates women must receive one quarter of elected positions, with one quarter to youth, and half to workers and farmers, with undefined appropriate representation for Copts and the handicapped. The only issue raised against the women’s representation here was if there were a sufficient number of women capable of serving administratively. Without a doubt, Tallāwī assured, giving specific names and stating the National Council for Women had 20,000 rural women who helped communicate between the council and illiterate women in the villages. But people are not aware of this, and men tend to only see men as qualified. But the members of the committee did not treat this issue with the same importance given to parliament.

She comments also on the controversial articles concerning the military and civil governance versus civil government. Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Women’s Rights through the Printed Word: Extending Liberal Values to Ordinary Women

Tahani al-Gibali
Tahani al-Gibali

From my recent article on Egypt Source:

If liberal values are going to spread in Egyptian society, politics is not the answer. Women are.

“The normal woman has a job, goes to market, and raises her family, but she is not part of a political party,” said Youssef Habib, editor-in-chief of the newly launched women’s magazine Lu’lu’a, or Pearl.

“Most Egyptian women think they are simply a servant in the home,” he continued. “We say no, you are a partner, and you are very important.”

Part of the research for this article included attending a festive gala with prominent Egyptian female personalities, and included the stinging quip below:

The name Lu’lu’a is drawn in comparison with the Egyptian woman. Like the sand in the shell which endures great pressure, she emerges beautiful. This point was made by Fatima Naout, the social and political commentator and self-described godmother of the magazine who is a hero of the liberal cause.

Naout headlined a gala affair hosted by Lu’lu’a to celebrate the launch of the magazine’s first bimonthly edition. Honored guests included luminaries such as Tahani al-Gibali, Lamis Gaber, and Farida al-Shobashi, in addition to Samira Qilada, mother of a January 25 martyred daughter.

Angham al-Gammal, a female co-founder of the magazine with Habib and Latif, also insists the magazine is non-political and does not belong to any particular trend. However true in intention, as Naout spoke of Maryam, Qilada’s daughter, she betrayed the sympathies of almost all in attendance.

“The martyrs have already taken their reward. They have gone to the place of beauty, justice, truth, and light,” she said, “a place where there are no Muslim Brothers.”

But the magazine is also a social initiative with a strong, though controversial message:

Latif hopes to take the subjects of the magazine directly to marginalized communities in at least one meeting per month. As such, he described Lu’lu’a as an initiative more than a simple business venture. Their team recently held an awareness meeting with over 150 teachers and 500 students from four private girls-only high schools. They discussed the importance of self-esteem and education, and the dangers of sexual harassment and early marriage.

Early marriage, in fact, is the cover story for issue one, and received the condemnation of Gaber, whose journalistic commentary includes calling the hijab a devaluation of women.

“If you want to silence a people,” she addressed the gathering, “silence the women, marry them early, and a whole generation will emerge ignorant.”

But lest a conservative public receive this message as godless, the editors assert they have a religious vision as well:

The magazine also seeks to accord with Egyptian religiosity, unwilling to cede the discourse on women to Islamists.

“Our core vision,” said Latif, “is that God created the woman and her value comes from him.”

From the conclusion, holding up the magazine as an example of Egyptian liberals trying to touch the people, whereas political leaders are often seen as elite:

Indeed, the revolution changed Egypt, but more is needed to transform the people. If liberal politics falter here, liberal Egyptians must extend the message themselves – socially.

Please click here to read the whole article at Egypt Source.


Current Events

Unveiled Women’s Rights Pioneer Removed from Curriculum

More from the Education Ministry:

The picture of a women’s rights pioneer was deleted from a high school textbook because she was not wearing a hijab, prompting fierce condemnation from political parties, human rights organizations, feminist groups and a number of public figures.

Doriya Shafiq is one of the pioneers of the women’s liberation movement in Egypt from the first half of the 20th century. She campaigned for the rights of Egyptian women to vote and stand as candidates to be included in the 1956 Constitution.

Aside from campaigning against the British presence in Egypt, Shafiq also was a researcher and founded literary journals. She was granted a PhD in philosophy from the Sorbonne in France in 1940, after writing a thesis titled “Women in Islam, which claimed that women have twice the rights under Islam than they do under any other legislation.

Little snippets of news like this do not tell the whole story, of course. Is the curriculum changed frequently? Had this woman been included forever or only added recently? How are other women leaders treated? Was this the only unveiled women or are there several others still featured?

All the same, it is very important to follow changes to the educational curriculum. Despite the rancor it sometimes causes, I am glad American education is determined at the state level. But if this was the system here, what would the result be in traditional governorates? What authority should the central government have to shape the minds of young people?

Related Posts:

Arab West Report Books Middle East Published Articles

My First Report

One of the primary activities of my organization here in Egypt is the translation of articles from the Arabic press into English. We select between twenty to forty articles every week, with an emphasis on religious issues, but not to the exclusion of other factors which also affect Arab-West relations. We also publish our own reports within the weekly selection, which can be analysis of the news, critique of media reporting, or simply a selection of interesting voices which lend toward a broader understanding of the Arab World in general, and of Egypt in particular.

 I am not involved in this process on a regular basis. We have a team of native speaking Arabs who provide the translation, and English speaking foreigners who work on the editing. We also have a variety of interns from around the world, including Egypt, who can write reports such as those described above. Although my work lies elsewhere, on occasion I also will have opportunity to contribute.

 I have provided here a link to my first report. The work I do will not always be put on display, but when it is appropriate I will also provide reference here in the blog. I am glad that some of my work will also help readers here get a better glimpse of Egyptian society, as well as our small participation in it.

 My report summarizes a lecture given by Jihan Sadat, the wife of the former president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Muslim extremists, in no small part due to his signature on the Camp David Accords establishing peace with Israel. Here is the text below:

On October 11, 2009 Her Excellency Dr. Mrs. Jehan Sadat presented a lecture to the Women’s Association of Cairo at the Oriental Hall of the American University of Cairo. Mrs. Sadat served as First Lady of Egypt from 1970 until her husband’s assassination at the hands of Muslim extremists on October 6, 1981. Mrs. Sadat began her lecture by noting the incongruity of this day as paying honor to two disparate concepts:  a celebration of her husband as a man of peace, and a celebration of war as the means to liberate Sinai from Israeli occupation. Though a principled man of peace his whole life, Mrs. Sadat spoke of the October War, launched on October 6, 1973 by her husband, as a necessary step in achieving peace by demonstrating the strength of Egypt. Having won popular acclaim in Egypt and throughout the Arab World, however, Sadat returned to his peaceful constitution, pursuing a policy of rapprochement with Israel in effort to secure peace in the region. In 1978 Sadat visited Jerusalem and addressed the Knesset, fully aware of the implications of his decision. Furthermore, Mrs. Sadat states, he knew upon signing the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1979 that he could pay for this initiative with his life. Nevertheless, he pressed forward, and though his ideas were rejected entirely by his Arab brothers at the time, leading to Egyptian isolation from the Arab League, today his views are accepted by many, and imitated by some. Mrs. Sadat declares that her husband’s methods are not the only way to achieve peace, but they are the only ways which have worked. 

Mrs. Sadat spoke also of her own struggle, stating that she could have fallen into despair and brokenness following her husband’s assassination. She described him as a good husband and father; they traveled everywhere together and considered one another as partners. Yet despite her state, she knew that her husband would be disappointed if she surrendered to her grief, so she has decided to embrace life, looking forward to the day they will be together again, but yet laboring to keep his legacy alive. This she achieves through involvement as a Senior Fellow at the University of Maryland through an endowment for the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development. She also has written a new book, My Hope for Peace, published in March of this year, to promote her and her husband’s efforts for a better world, focusing on principles for peace, and also on the subject of women’s rights. 

From the Belfour Declaration in 1917 to the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, continuing through the 1973 October War and its aftermath, Mrs. Sadat declared that her husband recognized the bloodshed, displacement, and hatred which characterized Arab-Israeli relations, resulting in no clear winning side. Though he had achieved success in the war, his faith pushed him to desire more, believing peace was more important than military victory. In pursuit of this goal he developed five principles which guided his conduct during negotiations and the pursuit of peace.

  • All people desire to live in peace
  • Realistic and pragmatic admission of the animosity between conflicting sides
  • Direct and continual involvement of leadership to drive the engine of peacemaking
  • The necessity of forgiveness
  • The brotherhood of Arabs and Jews

 In commenting on the current possibility for peace, Mrs. Sadat expressed hope. Jordan has followed Egypt in signing a peace accord with Israel, and though recent Israeli policy toward the Palestinians has been belligerent, she believes that Palestinians should be able to coexist with Israel. They should have their own state as well, with Israeli assurances of being able to live in peace. Finally, she praised President Mubarak for his continuation of her husband’s policies, working tirelessly to keep the two sides in negotiation. 

Mrs. Sadat also spoke passionately on the subject of women’s rights, highlighting the visit of President Obama to Cairo and his statement that our daughters can contribute to society as much as our sons. She believed that President Obama and her husband would have been good friends. Though her husband shared her convictions on women’s rights, Mrs. Sadat laughed that she continually nagged him about it. “Yes, yes,” he replied, “but I have also to build schools and hospitals; I will get to it eventually.” He did, and the ‘Jehan Laws’, as they are known, helped women achieve greater rights in terms of alimony and child custody following a divorce. Mrs. Sadat declared that women’s rights are not an issue for Islam, rather, it is an issue concerning how certain people practice Islam, and that this is true for any religion. A recent survey conducted by John Esposito of Georgetown University interviewed over forty thousand Muslims in over forty countries, and highlighted that Muslim women around the world want the right to work, to vote, and to serve in government, but are concerned far more about extremism and corruption than they are about issues of dress code. Mrs. Sadat said that religion and rights are not mutually exclusive, and praised the history of feminism in Egypt, urging the current generation to keep their story alive, but noting that their message has been woven into the tapestry of Egyptian culture. She also issued special praise for Mrs. Mubarak for her devotion to the cause of women’s rights, noting that more than ever before Egyptian women are going to school and becoming doctors, ministers, and professionals of all varieties. 

Mrs. Sadat closed her remarks by expressing her personal hope that she has made a difference with her life. She hopes that women get their rights, not because they struggle for them, but because they deserve them. She prays for peace everywhere, not just in Egypt, but also in Sudan, in the Middle East, and wherever there is violent conflict. She hopes to leave behind a better world for her three daughters, eight granddaughters, and four great granddaughters. She has lived a full and worthy life, and though she looks forward to standing again side by side with her husband, she will not retire while so many issues, including her husband’s legacy, stand in need of promotion.

Concerning a direct question about the pursuit of peace and reconciliation in the local context, Mrs. Sadat acknowledged that it is not beneficial to go to a village woman and tell her to change her behavior, giving the example of family planning. It is in the interest of the woman and her family to have many children, since they will be put to work to gain income, though underage labor is against Egyptian law. If instead she can be given a job, this will reduce the necessity for her children to work, creating strides in children’s rights, and will encourage her to have less children, thus achieving the desired change. She also commented that mothers, in addition to the educational system, play a vital role in educating children about peace, helping others, and proper human interaction. For the local context especially, economic projects and education are vital in the dissemination of the message of peace. 

Extrapolating, then, from the principles of President Sadat, Mrs. Sadat’s lecture provided guidance on the pursuit of local peace. In areas of sectarian conflict, first, it is important to remember that at base, all parties wish ultimately to live in peace. The conflict may have been started by misunderstanding or common affront, but as the complications escalate, it is easy to forget this principle. Second, it requires the realistic understanding that each side has hardened against the other, and the pragmatic planning to overcome mutual antagonism. This is where Mrs. Sadat’s comments about a project are especially poignant; a well designed project will bring people together, starting from the recognition they have not begun that way. 

Third, peace and reconciliation is best achieved through the active participation of recognized leadership. Chances of success are few unless local leaders can be convinced to partake, for they have the clout to maintain momentum when individual incidents threaten to derail the process. Outside leadership may be even more powerful. Fourth, forgiveness is absolutely necessary, though this is a message that can only be preached, not enforced. Proponents of peace outside the process must keep forgiveness at the center of their discourse, lest anyone slip into the ease of its neglect in the details of negotiation. Finally, in a similar way, all must hold on to the centrality of the concept of Muslims and Christians as brothers, that this be maintained as an article of faith. Keeping these principles in mind will help guide local peace efforts in the manner they guided President Sadat’s efforts in the international arena. If realized in her own country, it will fulfill Mrs. Sadat’s hopes to have made a difference, to keep her husband’s legacy alive, and to see resolution of her own prayers for peace.

 (click here to read on AWR)

click here to purchase from Amazon: My Hope for Peace