Marriage, divorce and inheritance

Who should reform Egypt's personal status law, and how?

"Personal status" is a modern category of Middle Eastern law grounded in Islamic religious teaching. Legislative authorities dip into centuries of religious scholarship to decide which interpretations of Sharia will be enforced by the state. Understandably, how it is done is as important as who does it. By Nathan J. Brown

In Egypt today there is little room for politics on issues in which the regime has staked out clear positions or that are deemed to be connected to security. But there is still room for vigorous debate over matters that might seem mundane, but are still consequential for Egyptians, such as personal status law.

When it comes to marriage, divorce and inheritance, there has been a steady discussion connected to Egypt’s high divorce rate, women’s rights and the role of Islamic law. A number of reform proposals have been floated and parliament is poised to take them up. Those engaged in the debate are not only individuals, but also state institutions.

Al-Azhar, a vast complex of Muslim religious and educational institutions that is part of the Egyptian state, is attempting to assert its primacy, transforming a debate over substance to one over legal, religious, and political authority. The result is not only that the personal is political; the procedural has become political as well.

"Personal status" is a modern category of law in Middle Eastern states. It is generally codified and legislated by state bodies, but grounded in religious teachings. For Muslims, that means that parliaments or other legislative authorities dip into centuries of religious scholarship to decide which interpretations of Sharia, or Islamic law, will be enforced by the state. The personal stakes many have in how this is done are therefore quite high. But just as high are the political stakes about whom should be doing the interpreting.

Minor changes can have a major impact

The process of turning religious teachings into state law often sets off debates that have wide resonance. Even seemingly small or technical changes in provisions for custody, material obligations between husband and wife, rights to inheritance, or grounds for divorce potentially affect all members of society.

Muslims break their fast during Ramadan at Al Azhar mosque in Cairo, 12 May 2019 (photo: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
A subtle, but profound controversy over procedure: the question is whose interpretations of Islamic law should be written into law and whose views matter. After all, even seemingly small or technical changes to personal status law, such as provisions for custody, material obligations between husband and wife, rights to inheritance, or grounds for divorce have the potential to affect every member of society

Even a proposal to have the state discourage divorce by insisting that it take place before a state official – rather than simply be declared orally by the husband – can and has provoked complaints that the provisions for oral divorce are too firmly grounded in Islamic sources for states to ignore.

The more traditionally-minded argue that those who wish to discourage divorce or strengthen the position of women have valid tools, but that tinkering with oral divorce is not one of them. Thus it is not unusual for noisy exchanges, engaging many actors, to focus on the substance of the law.

In Egypt in 2003, for instance, a protracted national discussion centred around an ultimately successful proposal to allow women the right to demand a divorce with few restrictions, as long as they abandoned most material claims on their husbands. This was a step that had a huge impact on the nature of marriage and divorce in Egypt.

What is unfolding today, however, is a more subtle, yet more profound controversy over procedure, which addresses whose interpretations of Islamic law should be written into law and whose views matter.

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