Women's rights in the Islamic world
Arab Christian women take a stand against church paternalism

Churches in the Middle East – Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, Maronite – typically share the conservative values of their Islamic surroundings. Yet the resistance of Arab Christian women to church paternalism is growing. Claudia Mende reports

Religious communities in the Middle East and in North Africa still exercise enormous control over the lives of their members. This is because the state has allocated them jurisdiction over matters concerning marriage, divorce, custody rights, and inheritance. As such, Islamic or church dignitaries decide upon important questions in the lives of individuals.

Christians require the blessing of their church in order to marry, as civil marriages are not yet recognised in the region (with the exception of Tunisia). When a marriage fails, the difficulties begin. Middles Eastern churches usually only allow for divorce in cases of adultery or the conversion of one of the partners to Islam.

In practice, this means that it is almost impossible for Arab Christians to legally divorce. Even those who have somehow succeeded and have obtained a divorce certificate face further hurdles if they want to re-marry. Re-marriage is impossible without express permission from the church.

Karima Kamal, a prominent Egyptian journalist, was one of the first to address this issue, writing about the plight of couples who can no longer live together and yet are forced to stay together for years.

Narrow-minded when it comes to divorce

Kamal is a member of the Coptic Christian minority, which makes up around ten percent of the Egyptian population, and was responsible for reporting on social issues for the Al Masry al Youm daily newspaper. She has since retired. "The Coptic Church has shown itself to be too narrow-minded when it comes to the issue of divorce," she says.

"The rules for divorce are in need of urgent change." In 2016, a Coptic synod did rule that divorce is possible not only in cases of adultery or a change of faith, but also following a period of separation of at least three years (five years for couples with children). However, this is no longer enough for many Copts.

Karima Kamal (photo: Claudia Mende)
One of the first Christian women ever to take up the subject of divorce was the prominent Egyptian journalist Karima Kamal, who wrote about the plight of couples who can no longer live together and yet are forced to stay together for years

Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, they have been exerting pressure on their church. Groups such as "Copts 38" and "Right for Life" have been publically campaigning for civil marriage. There have been protest actions in churches, as well as public "divorce parties" by former couples, who, after years of wrangling, could finally rejoice after receiving official permission to end their relationship.

Extremely lengthy and expensive procedure

In Jordan, only three percent of the population are Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox. Last year, the Jordanian Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) championed this issue, receiving a broad positive response. At events held in a number of cities across the country, women had the opportunity to discuss church law and its impact on their lives.

Many women came to vent their frustration, says lawyer Lina Khader. On behalf of human rights organisations such as "Sisterhood is Global" and "Mizan Law Group", she represents Christian women who have separated from their partners and want to pursue their case before an ecclesiastical court.

"This is a huge issue for us in Jordan," says Khader. Proceedings before ecclesiastical courts are drawn out affairs, opaque even for lawyers, and too expensive for all parties concerned, criticises the lawyer. Divorce proceedings can result in court and lawyers' fees totalling around 10,000 euros.

In a country like Jordan, where a teacher doesn’t even earn 500 euros a month, this amounts to a small fortune. The judges are almost always men, who have been appointed by the respective church hierarchy. And they lack an understanding of the living conditions of women.

In light of the growing number of those seeking divorce, the ecclesiastical courts are sometimes prepared to grant grounds other than adultery or apostasy, claims the lawyer. Yet case outcomes depend entirely on the discretion of individual judges.

Custody rights a problem

Things become very difficult when it comes to custody rights for the children. In such cases, the churches tend to adhere to the traditional Islamic view that fathers should make the crucial decisions in matters of upbringing and education. Khader has experienced the haggling that goes on before ecclesiastical courts about who gains custody of the children.

Nonetheless, there has been movement on the part of the hierarchy. In 2019, Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, announced a reform of divorce procedures and improvements are also to be discussed with churches affiliated with Rome. However, no official decisions have yet been taken.

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