When Areej Ashraf, an Egyptian doctor, sought to apply for a school place for her son, she was told her husband had to be present, unless she could provide authorisation from him.
She informed them that he lived abroad and that getting such documentation was a lengthy bureaucratic procedure, she wrote on social media under the “Guardianship Is My Right” hashtag. She would certainly miss the application deadline. “I’m the mother of the child, but whether I’m divorced, still married or a widow, the people who drew up the law do not even recognise my existence,” she wrote.
Ashraf’s venting is one of a flood of recent testimonies from Egyptian women angered by new family legislation that fails to redress the unequal treatment of women in family affairs.
Opponents complain the draft bill, which seeks to consolidate disparate pieces of family legislation passed over the years, retains provisions treating women as legal minors, whose authority over their children and in some cases, their own lives, remains under male control. They argue these clauses are disconnected from women’s daily problems, especially following divorce, making their lives Kafkaesque.
“The logic of family laws in Egypt has always been that women are under guardianship,” said Hoda Elsadda, chair of Women and Memory, the civil society group that started the social media movement. “Women have to refer to [the man] in many situations for their lives to function normally. This is the key issue that has not been addressed in the new law.”
One divorced woman recounted being told she did not have the right to approve surgery for her seriously-ill daughter after her former husband refused to sign the consent form. Others described being unable to get passports for their children, transfer them to a different school, or manage their children’s bank accounts. “Why am I being treated as if I’m a legal minor and have no rights to deal with anything related to my son?” one woman asked in a post.
The legislation has moved forward even as Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Egypt’s president, has appeared more supportive of women in public life.
His cabinet boasts eight female ministers, the most in the country’s history. Last month he instructed that women should be allowed into the last two bastions of the judiciary that refused to hire them — the prosecution and the Council of State, the body that deals with the country’s administrative law. But the private sphere is still governed by restrictive laws derived from narrow interpretations of Islam, activists say.
Nehad Aboul Komsan, a lawyer and rights advocate, described the draft bill, which has yet to be debated in parliament, as a “worse version” of laws dating back to 1925. “Other Arab and Islamic countries have taken important steps towards enlightened readings of the rights of women, men and children [in Islam],” she said.
Egyptian feminists said some clauses are even a regression. A new provision makes it possible for close male relatives to sue for an annulment of a woman’s marriage contract by arguing “lack of compatibility” between her and her husband.
“The structure of the law and its philosophy do not respect women and denigrate them,” Aboul Komsan said. “Female ministers in Egypt can sign agreements worth billions of pounds on behalf of the state, but they can’t marry without a male guardian. Now under the new law any male member of their family can go to court to get an order within 24 hours preventing them from travelling.”
Conservative tradition and entrenched sexist habits are other hurdles. Egyptian law allows women to marry without a guardian, but in practice the clerics who officiate often refuse to finalise the contract in the absence of a male relative. Similarly, women are entitled to register their newborn babies but civil servants typically insist on the presence of the husband or one of his male relatives.
On social media, women complained about these informal barriers. Some wrote about being refused hotel rooms when travelling alone for work. Other personal tales include landlords, porters and neighbours feeling they had a right to monitor the whereabouts of women who live alone and interrogate them over visitors.
Public defenders of the status quo argue that men are the “natural guardians” of the family because they are responsible for supporting them. Alaa Mostafa, a lawyer, suggested in a debate on state television that the online campaign against the bill was the work of feminist organisations backed by foreign funds for nefarious purposes. Guardianship is given to men by religion, he said.
“Egyptian men are being persecuted by women,” he claimed. “I’m telling men that guardianship is your right.”
Sawsan Fayed, a female sociologist, said on the same show that the uproar was a “manufactured and exaggerated problem” and a form of “warfare” to undermine society.
Sisi has promised “social dialogue” over the legislation but it is unclear what aspects of it might change and who would participate in the discussion. Officials and members of the state-appointed National Council for Women have not commented.
“I’m calling on President Sisi to intervene immediately to stop a law which takes Egypt back 200 years,” said Aboul Komsan.