The impact of empowering women

Women walk past a cafe on Tahrir Square, Cairo
Is Egypt destined to become more mother-centric? Growing maternal responsibilities come amid a concurrent rise in divorce rates and a shift towards the judicial resolution of marital disputes (image: picture-alliance/dpa/A.Gintenreiter)

Egypt's personal status law has always sparked a wide range of reactions within society, particularly when it comes to women's rights

By Nouran Sayed Ahmed

Women are often the primary plaintiffs in many personal status cases in Egypt, but encounter numerous obstacles in seeking justice. Egypt's personal status law (Law No. 1 of 2000) – which governs marriages, divorce, child custody and various alimonies – has transformed social and economic realities, in part by inadvertently increasing women's authority within the family and over children. In turn, anti-women grassroot movements within society perceive these changes as a reduction of male privileges. 

The majority of personal status litigation cases filed by women deal with post-divorce financial compensation, including alimony and child support. Despite the clear basis of these financial obligations in Islamic jurisprudence, anti-women forces argue that including specific provisions for family-related expenses in the personal status law is merely a tool that the authorities use to intervene on behalf of women. 

They claim that these provisions will facilitate the seizure of men's savings, particularly in the case of divorce, and curtail men's authority in determining affordable child support payments, which are mandated until the child reaches legal adulthood at 21 and increase in line with inflation rates. Moreover, groups of divorced fathers see post-divorce financial obligations as an extension of what they perceive as women's encroachment on men's employment opportunities.

Male defendants in personal status cases see the law as a threat, in part because failure to comply with rulings and to issue payments or disclose income can result in imprisonment. Yet in reality, court rulings regarding alimony, child support and other financial entitlements for women often lack effective enforcement mechanisms. Passing legislation to strengthen enforcement in these cases could be a challenge, given the potential opposition from anti-women forces and their allies.

Division of wealth according to "toil and endeavour"

However, there are promising signs for Egyptian women in their quest for financial justice. First, calls are circulating within Egyptian society to enshrine the division of wealth between spouses according to the principle of "toil and endeavour" – the idea that divorced and widowed women who contributed to their spouses' accumulated wealth are entitled to a just portion of it. Demands are growing from feminist forces to codify this principle into law, which could alleviate the economic burden of divorce on women. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar has also championed this principle as grounded in Islamic jurisprudence and as a safeguard to ensure women's rights.

Another significant opportunity for women arises from the Egyptian government's efforts to crack down on the informal sector and compel its workers to integrate into the formal economy, aiming to boost state tax revenues. 

Should this economic initiative succeed, it will inadvertently strengthen the capacity of personal status courts to estimate wealth more accurately and prevent male litigants from exploiting the informal economy to evade financial compensation for their spouses. 

The anticipated fiscal policy could help reduce the economic burden on female breadwinners, compensating for the ineffective provisions of existing laws, thus potentially reducing the financial gender gap.

The inadequacy of enforcement mechanisms often compels women to work to support their families. On top of this burden, women automatically assume the custody of children, according to both Egyptian law and Islamic Sharia, and shoulder the responsibility of childcare. 

Following a request for court intervention, both the Egyptian Personal Status Law of 2000 and amendments to the Egyptian Child Law allowed mothers to participate alongside fathers in making decisions about their children's education. Simultaneously, there is an increasing number of cases where fathers entirely relinquish educational decision-making to their former partners, in exchange for waiving financial support and compensation.

These growing maternal responsibilities, whether intended or unintended, and whether positive or negative, come amidst a concurrent rise in divorce rates and a shift towards judicial resolution of marital disputes. It would not be unwarranted to wonder if Egyptian society is poised to become more mother-centric in the coming years. 

Nouran Sayed Ahmed

© sada | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2024

Nouran Sayed Ahmed is an Egyptian writer interested in law, religion and the politics of sports in Egypt. She is a researcher affiliated with the Henry Luce Foundation project on The Global Politics of "Moderate Islam".