Where I come from, divorce is not as common as it is in the U.S. In Egypt, divorce doesn't just include two individuals trying to get a divorce - it includes religion, reputation, and community.
Religion plays a huge role in marriage and divorce in Egypt. It’s hard to escape religion, as it is implemented in Egyptian law. Once the divorce is finalized, one is then met with the reputation that follows divorce and the treatment of the community following the new title one has earned. Let’s consider each of these factors in more detail.
Religion in Egypt plays a vital role in every aspect of life. There are two main religions in Egypt today: Islam and Coptic Orthodox Christianity. These religions see divorce very differently. However, the one thing they do have in common is how difficult they make obtaining a divorce.
Islam began in Egypt when the Arabs conquered the region in the 7th century C.E. Today, Egypt identifies itself as a Muslim country; therefore, many of its laws come straight from Islamic doctrine. The age at which one can legally get married in Egypt starts at eighteen for males and is as low as sixteen for females. If otherwise permitted by their legal guardians, the legal age for marriage can be even lower.
Marriage in Egypt is seen as a legal contract. This contract is negotiated between the bride and groom's families and covers all the bride's demands for the marriage. These negotiations are conducted by the bride's father or another male figure of the family. Some of the demands can include the woman’s right to an easy divorce without having to go to court.
Once an agreement has been reached, the bride’s father or male figure signs for her in order to complete the marriage. Therefore, marriage isn't just between two people but between two families.
If a woman decides to get a divorce and she has already discussed it in her contract, she doesn't need to go to court to provide sufficient evidence. However, she does need to go to a Ma’zun, a religious notary who is under the authority of the ministry in Egypt. Through the Ma’zun, the woman can obtain a divorce. If, however, a woman's right to a divorce is not discussed in the marital contract, she will have a very hard time trying to obtain a divorce.
If a woman is to obtain a divorce without it being discussed in her marital contract, she has two choices. The first is called "fault-based divorce," and the second is a "no-fault divorce," which was enacted in 2000 by former president Hosni Mubarak. A fault-based divorce requires a woman to provide evidence to the court to prove that her spouse is guilty of one of the following: not providing for the family, illness, mental illness, or any form of abuse. Unlike a fault divorce, a no-fault one does not require a woman to provide any evidence. However, she does forfeit her right to any money and must return everything paid for dowry.
Divorce for Muslim men, on the other hand, is very different than for women in Egypt. Men do not need to take any legal action in order to divorce their significant other. They can divorce their wives simply by saying, "You are divorced" three times, and their marriage will be terminated immediately. However, if a man says, "You are divorced" less than three times, a woman has a waiting period where the man can "return" her anytime he wishes, even if it’s against her will.
Divorce for Coptic Christians is similar. However, divorce is almost impossible for both men and women. In order for a marriage to be valid, the father figures of both the bride and groom must sign documents in the church, once again involving both family and religion in the process. Once the marriage is finalized, it is almost impossible to break it unless either party can prove illness, adultery, or physical or mental abuse. Once one wants a divorce, not only is their family involved, but a whole team of church leaders tries to assess the situation. After one can prove illness, adultery, or physical or mental abuse, they also have to prove that they have tried everything to the best of their ability to correct the issue. After strong evidence has been presented to the church and many investigations have taken place, the church then grants a divorce. The party that is found at fault can never remarry in the Coptic Church, while the other party that was not at fault is granted permission to remarry.
Once the divorce is finalized in either religion, one is then met with the reputation that follows the title of divorce. For a woman, carrying the title of a divorcee is much harder than for a man. Even if the woman suffered and the man was at fault, society still tries to find a way to blame the woman for the divorce. People also tend to make an excuse as to why that woman was not fit enough to be a wife and never stop to ask, "What if the man caused the problem?"
Divorce is not as easy as hiring a lawyer and settling what is mine and what is yours in a country like Egypt. Divorce does not only involve the two parties getting a divorce; it involves family, religion, and the court. Even after the divorce is finalized, there are still consequences to be experienced. Most of these consequences end up affecting women more than they do men.
- El Alimi, Dawoud. The Marriage Contract in Islamic Law. London: Graham and Trotman, Ltd., 1992.
- “Overview of Marriage and Divorce Laws in Egypt.” Divorced from Justice: Women’s Unequal
- Access to Divorce in Egypt. Human Rights Watch, 2004.
- Overview of Marriage and Divorce Laws in Egypt