A cartoon recently published in an Egyptian daily shows an elderly bridegroom dragging by the hand a little girl in bridal garb clutching a teddy bear. “Okay,” he sighs, “I’ll take you to the amusement park but only after we’ve consummated our marriage.”
The joke, which is doing the rounds on Facebook, is part of an explosion of outrage in liberal circles provoked by Mohamed Saad al-Azhari, an ultraconservative Salafi cleric on the panel drafting Egypt’s new constitution. Along with some others on the panel, he wants to abolish laws setting 18 as the minimum age of marriage for girls.
Mr Azhari, who vehemently denies accusations that he advocates child marriage, also wants to remove a proposed clause banning the trafficking of women. He said he was concerned it would be used to prosecute parents who marry off their underage daughters. The text now under consideration by the panel only bans slavery and the sex trade.
To the dismay of rights activists, the Islamists who dominate the constitutional panel have also made it clear they favour diluting – or even withdrawing – Egypt’s commitment to international conventions upholding the rights of children and banning discrimination against women. Their argument is that provisions in the agreements breach Islamic law.
The tenor of the debate, coupled with the news emerging from meetings of the constitution-drafting body, has whipped up a frenzy of alarm in the press and on the airwaves. Liberals, feeling increasingly embattled, and women’s rights advocates have hit back on nightly political talk shows.
They fear an impending setback to gains women achieved in recent years under Hosni Mubarak, the ousted president, whose efforts to polish the image of his authoritarian regime in western eyes led to an improvement of women’s rights in divorce and child custody cases.
Known as “Suzanne’s laws” after the previous first lady who championed them, the legislation gave women access to a relatively quick no-fault divorce through the courts, cutting years of litigation during which a woman was neither married nor divorced, although her husband was entitled to take another wife. The laws also gave divorced women custody of their children until the age of 15 and allowed them to keep the family home for as long as they were raising children.
The rise to political dominance of Islamist parties in Egypt since the fall of Mr Mubarak 18 months ago has been accompanied by calls to review family laws. Islamists and others have charged that “Suzanne’s laws” breached Islamic law.
Neither the Muslim Brotherhood of Mohamed Morsi, the president, nor the more hardline Salafis have articulated specific plans for changes to Egypt’s family laws. But the rhetoric filling the air is deeply conservative and largely hostile to the enhancement of women’s rights.
Amany Aboul Fadl, a member of the panel from the Muslim Brotherhood, said “Suzanne’s laws” would be reviewed and those that “benefited grassroots women” would be retained. She criticised the legislation as coming from a “100 per cent feminist mentality”.
“The rights of women after divorce are exaggerated to the extent that they are unfair to men, sometimes destroying their lives,” she said. “They extend women’s custody of children so they can take the marriage apartment. Men are robbed and women take everything.”
Such talk has deepened the fears of liberal-minded Egyptians.
Manal al-Tibi, a member of the constitutional panel who resigned last week, complained at a women’s conference that when she tried to press for the constitution to spell out that the state was committed to eradicating “violence against women” her proposal was overruled by Islamists. They argued that the term would limit a man’s licence under Islamic law to use limited force to discipline a wife or a child.
“I also argued for the charter to say that the state should guarantee the bodily integrity of citizens, but it was opposed on the grounds that it could clash with social practices,” she added. “They didn’t say what these are, but it was clear they meant female circumcision.”
Female genital mutilation has been illegal in Egypt for several years, though it is a deep-rooted pre-Islamic tradition that is still widely practised. Mr Morsi said during his election campaign that circumcision was a private matter best left to families.
At a hearing held by the constitutional panel for women’s organisations last week, speaker after speaker criticised a proposed article that lays out the state’s duty to “take all measures” to entrench equality between men and women – except where it is deemed to be “in breach of the rulings of Islamic law”.
“This [exception] could be used to challenge legislation asserting gender equality on the basis that it is against certain provisions of Sharia or religion, whereas it might just be against a particularly rigid, disputed or abusive interpretation of such provision of religion,” said Mona Zulficar, a lawyer and human rights activist. “This could really hold us up and gives a wrong and unfair image of our religion.”