Family Courts

More Rights for Women in Egypt and Morocco

Newly instated family courts in Egypt and Morocco are intended to resolve conflicts between married couples, preferably by reaching a mutual agreement between the spouses. Nelly Youssef reports

photo: Rama al-Nimr
For many women in desolate situations, family court offers a last ray of hope

​​In her search for justice, Zeinab, an Egyptian woman, spent seven long years in the hallways and courtrooms of the Egyptian justice system. She demanded the right to divorce her husband and wanted him to pay child support.

Already in the first weeks of her marriage, her life had become a living hell. Her husband denigrated her and refused to give her enough money for maintaining the household. He forced her, for example, to work additionally in another household as a maid to earn her keep for herself and her child.

But the wheels of justice turn slowly in Egypt, including in civil court, and the seven years of waiting for a decision on her case had worn her out. Now, however, such cases are being handled by new courts designed to settle domestic disputes—and soon after they were established, Zeinab turned to the family courts for help.

For Zeinab and many other Egyptian women in similar situations, the new courts are a last ray of hope. Their cases are notoriously referred to as "limbo": de facto their marriages are over, but they are not yet officially divorced.

All cases that have been in Egyptian courts longer than twelve years without being resolved are simply dropped. The divorce applications of women like Zeinab make up twenty percent of all such terminated court cases.

After Parliament passed a special law establishing domestic relations courts in March 2004, the courts began their work in October of the same year. The new law was drafted by lawyers, members of the National Council for Women and the Al Azhar University, and intellectuals and artists.

Conflict resolution

By establishing courts that are specialized in resolving civil conflicts related to divorce, custody, lineage, child-rearing, inheritance and property, as well as other family-related domestic issues, the intent is to resolve these conflicts faster and more easily.

In addition to family courts, there are also conflict resolution centers committed to solving problems outside of court and with the mutual agreement of both parties.

These conflict resolution centers, usually headed by women, are outposts of the family courts that provide counseling. Psychologists, sociologists and lawyers are trained in the centers over the course of six months, working in conjunction with the Egyptian justice ministry and in collaboration with well-known psychologists and sociologists.

The juries for the family courts consist of three lawyers; at least one of them must be a woman.

Immediately after a case is brought to family court, staff members from the conflict resolution centers meet with the two parties in the conflict.

They listen to the issues and advise both parties about the different aspects of their case, for example the legal routes they may take and the resulting consequences. They offer clients advice and information with the goal of resolving the conflict peacefully and to the benefit of the whole family.

Within fifteen days after a case has been filed, an amicable agreement must be found. This time limit, however, may be extended another fifteen days if both parties agree. If the two parties find an agreement, the center presents them with a contract that becomes legally binding with their signatures.

If, however, no amicable agreement can be found—which was the case, for example, with Zeinab—and if the woman demands that her case be heard, then it is sent on to the family court with the conflict resolution center’s report to be settled there according to family law.

Once in the family court, the case is heard not after several years, but within a few months. This expedited course is made possible in part because fewer cases reach court, and only after an attempt was made to resolve the conflict out of court.

The Egyptian government’s initiative to establish family courts came after a steep rise in the number of divorces in recent years. Around seven million Egyptians turn to the courts each years to resolve domestic conflicts. According to a study by the National Council for Women, however, at least seventy percent of these cases could have been resolved out of court.

"Reconciliation is better"

The confliction resolution centers have so far been able to reach agreements between the parties in more than 300 family cases, resolving issues such as divorce, child support and alimony, and parental visitation rights.

One of these cases was that of a woman named Imam, who broke out in tears in front of the staff at a center in the Cairo quarter of Shabra. She demanded a divorce from her husband because she said he treated her badly.

After four hours, however, the couple was reconciled. The husband expressed regret and promised to change his behavior toward his wife. He signed an agreement to this effect, which represents not only a moral commitment, but also a legal obligation.

According to women’s rights activist and lawyer Muna Zou Al Fakar, the family courts are a manifestation of progress in the Egyptian legal system. They have taken over tasks previously handled in other courts, which had been overwhelmed due to the recent developments in Egyptian society.

Coping with problems in the family courts

The Egyptian family courts have had to struggle with many problems since their inception, however. Their staff lack basic necessities such as office equipment and supplies, and communication channels are insufficient.

Other problems stem from the fact that a great number of cases previously handled in other courts were suddenly referred to the new family courts. More than 200,000 cases landed there.

The family courts are also subject to harsh critique. Muhammad Masir, lecturer in Islamic law at the Al Azhar University, says that the courts represent little other than a bow to international pressure. They are not commensurable with sharia, given that a religious authority is lacking, and this is against Islamic law.

In addition, he says, the quick decisions made in the new courts are ultimately double-edged. On the one hand, they help prevent the phenomenon of women being stuck in pro forma marriages, but on the other hand they encourage families to split up, given that divorce will increase with the presence of the courts.

Many Arabic governments have been trying since early in 2004 to respond to social changes by reforming family law, for example in Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. But so far the family courts are an experiment unique to Egypt and Morocco.

Nelly Youssef

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Christina M. White

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