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Women in Egypt mobilize to protect their marital rights

Stung by the recent repeal of a marriage and divorce law that was regarded as liberal, and threatened by the Islamic fundamentalist drive to roll back their rights, women in Egypt are mobilizing for the first time in years. They want not only to recoup losses but also to advance their cause even further.

``The repeal of the law has made us begin to think about what our rights are,'' says Samiha, a social worker. Groups of upper- and middle-class women, meeting privately, are debating their personal status in Egypt and discussing what they would consider to be a just personal status law.

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In May, the High Constitutional Court (a civilian court that rules on constitutional issues) declared void the 1979 Personal Status Law that gave wives the right to know if their husbands were going to take a second wife. This law gave a wife the right to divorce if her husband intended to marry for a second time and also gave her the right to the couple's apartment. The late President Anwar Sadat had decreed the 1979 law while Parliament was in recess.

The repeal of the 1979 law -- on the grounds that it was passed in an unconstitutional manner -- means that the previous law, passed in 1929, is now in effect. Under this law, a man may take a second wife without notifying the first, a wife can divorce only on grounds of physical or mental cruelty, and a husband can legally use force or call the police to return a ``runaway'' wife to his home.

Egyptian women face some powerful obstacles to broad change. The government has banned demonstrations and stressed that any public action by women would stir up Islamic extremists. Stymied by the current political system that limits the role of pressure groups, women for the moment lack a viable strategy.

However, President Hosni Mubarak's government, trying to tread a middle ground between secularism and fundamentalism, has proposed a new bill that Parliament plans to debate tomorrow. The new law would be more conservative than the 1979 statute, but would allow a wife to obtain a divorce within a year if she can prove that her husband's second marriage would harm her.

The inconsistency between marital law and their professional status has also sensitized women. Although they make up only 10 percent of the paid work force, Egyptian women have moved into positions of power in recent years. This process began in the 1950s when President Gamal Abdel Nasser, aiming to form a socialist society, encouraged women to enter the work force. The recent emigration of educated Egyptian men seeking higher pay in the Persian Gulf states has helped to catapult women into top positions.

Today, the head of the government-run Egyptian television network is a woman, as is the president of one of the two channels. Almost 50 percent of the nation's doctors are women. Some 15 percent of Egyptian authors and 33 percent of university faculty members are women, according to Dr. Soha Abdel Adar, a professor at the American University of Cairo's social research center.

``Women's reality is ahead of the law,'' says Nawal Saadawy, a feminist leader. Dr. Saadawy and others want to move the Personal Status Law away from Islamic principles and toward Western precepts which have influenced labor and social laws. Religious authorities have fought to keep marital law grounded in an interpretation of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

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Polygamy, Saadawy and her colleagues say, is acceptable but only under certain conditions and with the first wife's consent. Divorce should be the right of both men and women, they say, and compensation should be based on need. Saadawy would also like a clear legislation on women's right to work.

``We want to say that marriage is not possession,'' she said. ``Under the current law, a man can prevent his wife from going out to work.''

Men are powerful opponents of extended women's rights. During a recent off-hours discussion between male psychologists and social workers and their female colleagues, while the women argued against polygamy, the men defended it.

The men argued that women voluntarily went into marriages with men who were already married. They said that marriage is comfortable for women because they are taken care of and therefore, a woman must obey her husband. The men said the 1979 law had made them feel threatened.

``This was the first time we ever had a discussion like that,'' said the group's leader, Dr.Muhammad Badawi. ``Men are just beginning to realize that women have a separate psychology.''

``The repeal of the 1979 law was a good alarm,'' said Dr. Badawi.

``It showed people that if they don't fight for their rights, they can lose them.''

But feminists in Egypt are hampered by the divisive and rigid class structure that separates the upper class from the lower urban class and from the peasants. Women from different classes have different conceptions of their roles. Only upper- and middle-class women -- who have already made strides in their private lives -- are battling for women's rights. Women from the lower and peasant classes generally accept their lot and often perpetuate rigid sex roles. They seek to serve their husbands, whom they regard as status symbols and protectors.

``With us,'' says Om Gad, whose husband is a garage attendant, ``if a man cares for his wife properly, he never lets her go out or do anything. This is the real sign of his affection. . . . I feel contented with life this way.''

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