WOMEN’S rights could be rolled back 200 years in Egypt under a proposed law that would stop them signing their own marriage certificates, registering their child’s birth or travelling abroad without a man’s consent, rights activists say.
The personal status bill, which was approved by the cabinet in January, would also give fathers priority in child custody – reversing the current law which favours mothers – and allow fathers to prevent mothers travelling with their children.
‘We completely reject this shocking draft law. It takes us back 200 years,’ said Nehad Abu El Komsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, in a Facebook video statement, describing the bill as ‘repressive’ and ‘patriarchal’.
‘In Egypt, women can be ministers and sign agreements worth millions of dollars for the government but under this law they would not be able to sign their own marriage contracts.’
Sexual harassment, high rates of female genital mutilation and a surge in violence after the Arab Spring uprisings made Egypt the worst country in the Arab world to be a woman, according to a 2013 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll.
More recently, women in the socially conservative nation have become bolder, with hundreds taking to social media to debate gender inequality. Women now make up a record 27 percent of lawmakers, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
But women still face discrimination in access to divorce, child custody, and inheritance in about half a dozen personal status laws, derived from Islamic law, which date back to 1920.
The cabinet said in a statement earlier this year that the new personal status bill was ‘in line with the great social development in Egyptian society and the need to compile the dispersed laws into one.’
The cabinet spokesman was not immediately available to comment further.
Dozens of women’s rights groups and public figures signed a statement last week condemning the bill and calling for ‘real reforms’ that meet women’s demands, respect their constitutional rights and guarantee justice for all family members.
Under the bill, a male guardian – such as a father or brother – would sign the marriage certificate, rather than the bride. He could also file a case to annul a marriage within a year if he sees the couple as ill-suited or the dowry too small.
‘The new draft law represents a setback to the pre-modern state,’ said Entessar El-Saeed, executive director of the Cairo Foundation for Development and Law, an NGO.
‘Its articles are incompatible with Egypt’s constitutional obligations to protect citizenship rights, as well as … international human rights law,’ she said, adding that Egypt should stop treating women like second-class citizens.
One proposal in the bill has won approval from some women – to punish a man if he marries a second wife without notifying the first, with a sentence of up to a year in jail and a fine of 20,000 to 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,276 to $3,189).
But el-Saeed said it would be better for the man and his wives to resolve the matter in court.
‘If the first wife agrees, then the husband can marry a second wife. If not, then she gets a divorce and half of the husband’s wealth,’ she said.
The bill is being reviewed by a committee for constitutional and legislative affairs, before it is taken to parliament.