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BRIEF COMMUNICATIONS 0T Divorced From Justice Farida Deif It will come as no surprise to many JMEWS readers that discriminatory personal status laws throughout the Middle East and North Africa have denied women countless human rights enjoyed by their counterparts in other regions. These laws govern some ofthe most private aspects ofwomen's lives (marriage, divorce, and child custody) and undermine women's standing before the law and in society at large. Governments that rely on these laws have—in favor ofmale citizens and a patriarchal social order—codified a system that treats women as perpetual legal minors under the eternal guardianship oftheir male relatives. The troubling provisions of these personal status laws are rarely conceptualized as violations of international human rights norms. Many observers have also avoided tackling these laws head on because these laws are derived from interpretations of Sharica, which some have deemed immutable. Criticizing their weaknesses (or simply highlighting them) is potentially a religiously-explosive endeavor. However, the detrimental impact that many of these laws have on women's lives is indisputable and obliges us to advocate for reform. In that light, Human Rights Watch, a US-based international human rights organization, released a report in December 2004 condemning key aspects ofEgypt's divorce system as a violation ofthe right to equality before the law, nondiscrimination, and equality in marriage and divorce as JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EAST WOMEN'S STUDIES VoL 1, No. 3 (Fall 2005). C 2005 FARIDA DEIF 109 enshrined in international human rights law. The report, "Divorced from Justice: Women's Unequal Access to Divorce in Egypt," documented the painful experiences ofEgyptian women seeking to end their marriages in Egyptian courts. The report relied on over one hundred interviews with Egyptian women with pending or finalized divorce cases, lawyers, women 's rights activists, and government officials throughout the country. This commentary is intended to provide a brief overview of the report s main findings. THE JUDICIAL JUNGLE OF DIVORCE IN EGYPT The Egyptian government, like many others in the region, has essentially created two widely disparate systems for divorce, one for men and one for women. Egyptian men have a unilateral and unconditional right to divorce. They simply need to repudiate their wives, saying "you are divorced" three times and registering the divorce within thirty days with a religious notary (ma'zoun) to make it official. They need not set foot in a courtroom to end their marriages. Egyptian women, on the other hand, must resort to Egypt's notoriously backlogged and inefficient courts, where they confront a judicial process fraught with countless difficulties , delays, and legal uncertainties. In order to begin divorce proceedings in Egypt, women are required to obtain legal counsel, provide evidence ofharm, often through eyewitness testimony, and submit to court-ordered mediation. These obstacles are often put in place in the name of "preserving the family," implying that only divorces initiated by a woman "destroy the family." When women seek divorce, a number of government officials are involved in the process, including judges, lawyers for both parties, public prosecutors (who provide the judge with an advisory opinion on the case), and arbitrators involved in compulsory mediation between the couple. Compulsory mediation for women, and only women, is rooted in biased notions of a woman's inability to make rational decisions about important life choices without external interference. In fact, Egyptian government officials generally endorse this view, with one public prosecutor in Cairo stating that mediation was necessary because "a woman may be hasty in filing for a divorce and may not have a strong keenness in keeping the family together. The court has to play this role and inter- 110 œ JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EAST WOMEN'S STUDIES vene. Men are more wise and rational than women. A woman's emotions can overcome her rationality." Obtaining a divorce can also take years, as men manipulate the many defenses and tactics Egyptian law reserves only for them. For example , a married Egyptian man may file an obedience (ta'a) complaint against his spouse ifshe leaves the marital home without his permission. If a wife refuses to return to the "house of obedience" (bayt al-tä'a) and does not file an...


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