Truth can be stranger than fiction in the effort to curtail women’s rights in Egypt

A new controversy has broken out regarding women’s rights in Egypt. It all started when al- Arabiya reported that the National Council for Women (NCW) appealed to the Egyptian parliament, requesting that two highly controversial laws, both affecting women’s status, not be approved. According to the report, the first law would lower the minimum age of marriage to 14; the other would allow a husband to engage in intercourse with his wife’s corps a few hours after her death. Al- Arabiya’s original report was based on an article by Egyptian columnist Amro Abdul Samea in the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, and has since been picked up by many other media outlets. The web went into a frenzy over the shocking possibility that, if the ‘farewell intercourse law’ were approved, Egyptian men would be granted a legal right to have sex with their dead wives up to 6 hours after their death (not surprisingly, the implication that Egyptian women would be granted the same right in regards to their dead husbands was of little comfort).

Then came the scepticism. The Christian Science Monitor and “Egyptian sources” quoted by the Huffington Post in an update to their item about the ‘farewell intercourse law’ (linking to an “aspiring journalist’s'” twitter page), claimed that the story is fake since it is based solely on one source, Abdul Samea, considered a former Mubarak supporter who, it was argued, might be seeking to make the Muslim Brotherhood look bad. And so, instead of dealing with the pressing issue of women’s rights in post-Mubarak Egypt and anti-women legislation, the story was diverted into an online debate over whether or not the ‘farewell intercourse law’ is just a rumour.

According to al-Arabiya, the controversy over the ‘right’ of husbands (and wives) to engage in intercourse with their dead partners started in May 2011 when a Moroccan cleric, Zamzami Abdul Bari, declared in a fatwa that a marriage is valid even after death. This idea might have been picked up by Egyptian politicians. The head of NCW, Dr. Mervat al-Talawi, reportedly sent a letter to Egyptian People’s Assembly Speaker, Dr. Saad al-Katatni in which she urged the parliament to avoid such controversial legislation which would hinder women’s rights and limit their education and employment opportunities under alleged religious interpretations. Abdul Samea wrote in his article that by sending a message to the Speaker, “Talawi tried to underline in her message that marginalizing and undermining the status of women in future development plans would undoubtedly negatively affect the country’s human development, simply because women represent half the population.”

After the publication of Abdul Samea’s article, Egyptian journalist and TV anchor Jaber al-Qarmouty criticized the idea of “permitting a husband to have sex with his wife after her death under a so-called ‘Farewell Intercourse’ draft law” on his daily TV show. He stated that “This is very serious. Could the panel that will draft the Egyptian constitution possibly discuss such issues? Did Abdul Samea see by his own eyes the text of the message sent by Talawi to Katatni? This is unbelievable. It is a catastrophe to give the husband such a right! Has the Islamic trend reached that far? Is there really a draft law in this regard? Are there people thinking in this manner?”

The interest this law had generated seems to have more to do with its shock factor and juiciness than with any kind of serious debate about the challenges women in Egypt are now facing. Since Mubarak was toppled, women’s rights in Egypt have been deteriorating on numerous fronts: firstly through harassment and violence towards female protesters, secondly, through humiliation and abuse by security forces, including subjecting women to ‘virginity tests,’ and most recently via attempts by the Egyptian parliament – dominated by Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi al-Nour party (with very few female representatives) – to further limit women’s legal rights. One of the most obvious examples of such attempts is the attack on the Khula (Islamic right to divorce) which was implemented during Mubarak’s rule (Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, promoted women’s rights issues while her husband was in office), over a decade ago. The law allows women to end abusive marriages without obstruction from their partner, saving them years of legal battles (under traditional Islamic law, a man can divorce his wife without her consent, but a wife cannot generally divorce her husband without his consent). Yet the Islamist members of Parliament seek to cancel Khula since they claim such laws aim “to destroy families.”

An Egypt in which girls can be forced into marriage at the age of fourteen, where there are no legal consequences for a husband that beats his wife “with good intentions,” as Egyptian writer and activist Mona Eltahawy reveals in a very moving and powerful new article (“Why Do They Hate Us?”, Foreign Policy), and where women have to fight in courts for years to obtain a divorce, is probably not the Egypt the women from Tahrir square were dreaming about as they marched in the streets.

We don’t want to believe the item about the ‘farewell intercourse law’ is true, it is too outrageous, too appalling. But the sad truth is that if we look at the greater picture – it is but a drop in the bucket. The shallow debate over the reliability of one news item should not blind us or turn our attention away from the reality faced by women in Egypt. In post- revolution Egypt aspirations for greater equality slip away as women remain underrepresented and hardly-ever heard from in the new parliament (and some women in parliament are as anti-woman’s rights as the worst of the men – see this story about female Muslim Brotherhood MP Azza al-Jarf who wants to make female genital mutilation compulsory), while harassed and abused in public spaces with even their existing rights under constant attack. As Elahawy concludes in her article: “There was a time when being an Islamist was the most vulnerable political position in Egypt and Tunisia. Understand that now it very well might be Woman. As it always has been.”

Or Avi-Guy