“As soon as I was able to support myself, I decided to end my relationship with him — you’re better off without a man who does not properly provide for his wife and children,” says Eman,* about her decision to seek a divorce. “And a man who opposes a woman working knows that the income she will get through her job will make her strong and end her dependence on him.”
Eman’s story of separation and divorce first started when she voiced her wish to work, prompted by the need to help support her family. Eman’s former husband was unable to cover the household’s expenses through his work as a taxi driver, and was both unwilling to look for another job to supplement their income and against the idea of Eman working. When she insisted, he became violent with her.
Eman moved out temporarily in an attempt to compel her husband to find other work, but he would only visit to see their daughter. Eman says he did not honor any financial responsibilities toward their child, aside from a LE50 payment that he would give her every once in a while and which would buy very little. Yet he maintained his stance against her working, and withheld child support as leverage so that she would quit her job as a cleaner and come back to him.
Eman lost hope after a year and a half and filed for divorce. Her then-husband was infuriated and stopped visiting their child, saying to her, “You want the courts? Let’s see what they will do for you then.”
For Mona Ezzat, the director of the Work and Women program at the New Woman Foundation NGO, Eman’s story is typical of many women who, through gaining an independent income, are able to pursue a way out of a failed marriage.
Eman thinks her parents did not criticize her for renting an apartment on her own because she had her own income. “If no one is providing for me, they have no right to criticize.”
Nevertheless, the decision to pursue a divorce was not an easy one for Eman, and her ex-husband’s refusal to provide support for housing only prolonged her journey through the family court, where she is suing for alimony.
Eman feels that she may not have been able to take such a firm stance if she did not have a child, asserting that she was additionally motivated by a sense of responsibility toward her. “I would endure if it was just about me, but I couldn’t leave my daughter to go hungry or sick.”
Rising divorce rates — according to Egypt’s latest census there were 199,000 divorces in 2016, an increase of 10 percent compared to the year before — can only be understood in relation to a broader changing economic and socio-economic reality, Ezzat suggests.
Part of this rise, according to Ezzat, can be attributed to the rise in underage marriage — another alarming figure in the 2017 census was that there were 118,000 cases of child marriage, constituting 40 percent of all marriages in 2016. This is linked to high divorce rates, Ezzat explains, as “a significant percentage of underage marriages are short-term unions between female minors to wealthy men from the Gulf or Egypt.” The rise in the rate of these short-term marriages is itself linked to increasing economic strain.
More broadly, however, Ezzat argues that the hike in divorce rates should not be viewed separately from what is happening in the public sphere. When the spaces in which people can express themselves are closed down and economic pressures are on the rise, Ezzat explains that this often means that the home becomes the only space for releasing anger and repression, with dire consequences for women.
Here, the economic side of domestic violence, and women’s ability to escape from it, rears its head. CAPMAS worked with the National Council for Women and the United Nations Population Fund in 2015 to conduct a survey on the economic cost of gender-based violence. The survey, released in 2016, showed that women who have no income were more likely to experience spousal violence, and that the higher a woman’s income, the less likely she is to experience emotional or physical violence.
The survey found that women who had a monthly income of less than LE300 or none at all, and who did not own any assets or property, were more likely to be subjected to one or more types of violence at the hands of their husbands.
Divorced and separated women were the most likely to report having experienced violence, as well as financial controlling behavior, by their former husbands during the marriage. The survey’s results also “reveal that women’s belief that a wife must agree with her husband’s opinion even if she is not convinced, and that it is the man who must control the home, is associated with spousal violence.”
The relationship between economic empowerment and marital violence does not always work in this way, however. Elham Eidarous, the leader of the Bread and Freedom Party, points out that husbands may feel undermined “as a man” if their wives start to earn money, and will typically seize this income, and may, as in the case of Eman, subject her to violence.
In any case, a woman’s path to financial independence is dotted with structural impediments. According to a 2017 World Economic Forum report, economic indicators reveal that among the top 10 countries with the largest employment gender gap, are six Arab countries (Qatar, Egypt, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Saudi Arabia).
The International Labor Organization attributes this gap to “adverse social norms, discriminatory laws and insufficient legal protections, gender gaps in unpaid household and care work, and unequal access to digital, financial and property assets.” The ILO report also points to the ways in which “social norms determine economic outcomes for women in several ways,” from the occupational and educational opportunities available to women, to the biases women face in the workplace that limit their pay and prospects of promotion.
Even when the state seeks to plays a role in economically empowering women, Eidarous says it goes about it in the wrong way, one that is steeped in a conservative mindset. The number of households relying on women breadwinners went up to 25 percent, according to the 2017 census. “These households are poorer than those supported by men,” Eidarous says, “because women earn lower wages and have slimmer chances at advancement.”
“Rather than try to resolve the real issue — the pay gap between men and women — the state’s plans are directed at providing women breadwinners with financial aid, and that’s because, in the eyes of the state, such a woman can only be someone who has lost her husband,” Eidarous says.
Eidarous points out that when the khula law was passed in 2000, allowing for khula, a type of divorce a Muslim woman can obtain if she pays back her marriage settlement, “most people thought that it would benefit wealthy and middle-class women. But in reality, the women who benefited from khula are mostly poor women whose marriages were no longer providing them with sufficient economic security, which is one of the main reasons women in this class marry.”
Economic empowerment helps with khula, but not with divorce through the courts, according to Eidarous. “Khula is easier for a woman who has an income, because she can forfeit her rights and rely on her own income. Divorce, on the other hand, takes longer and, sometimes, costs more, as the woman must go through the legal process in order to obtain some of her financial rights.”
Eidarous suggests that for wealthier women and those with assets, the guarantee of financial security is not a primary motivation for marriage and, thus, they have something other to lose than financial support. Therefore, economic empowerment has very little influence on their decision to separate from their husbands, however much they may be suffering or facing violence, she argues.
Ezzat places her emphasis on the multiple obstacles faced by poorer women. She argues that economic empowerment enables women to make life decisions in general, and especially in relation to divorce, because “the decision to get a divorce is usually seen as a terrible idea by the woman’s family. They don’t encourage her. Instead, they urge her to be patient and to endure.” But a poorer woman with an independent income, Ezzat states, may still not have the ability to make the decision to divorce — if she does not have family support, for example, or in cases when the family is more financially distressed than she is, or if divorce would mean a woman’s return to another man that marriage had emancipated her from (her father or brother, for example) and this is not a step she is willing to take, or because of any number of other social issues that are not detached from her economic reality.
“Violence may not be a compelling enough reason for some women to seek a divorce,” says Azza Soliman, chair of the NGO Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), “because they fear society or because they have no income or place to live.” On the other hand, she explains, if other economic alternatives are available to a woman, “this may prompt her to seek a divorce so that she is able to claim or pursue these income alternatives — which may be to go back to her father’s house, receive his pension salary if he is deceased, or even look for work.”
A woman who is separated is treated differently socially than a married woman, and this greatly affects whether divorce is seen as an option. “A woman who is married can go out and work, for instance, as a domestic worker,” Ezzat explains. “But a divorced woman working as a domestic worker, or even a vendor at the market, is likely to face more hostility and harassment.”
But if a woman who is divorced and has children decides to remarry in order to regain some form of social protection, she would risk losing her children. If a divorced mother remarries, she legally loses custody of her children to the children’s father or his closest female kin, typically his mother or sister. This legal stipulation is an embodiment of how much the state disfavors divorce — particularly divorces that are sought by women. Soliman argues that this is an injustice to Egyptian women, as the law grants men the right to remarry without limitations or restrictions, while women are deprived of that right if they wish to keep their children. Over 90 percent of divorced women surveyed by the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW) reported they had chosen not to remarry in order not to lose custody of their children.
Samira* was married to a wealthy man who physically and emotionally abused her for 10 years. From a well-to-do family, Samira had no independent income, and her husband banked on her having no options except to stay with him. He was wrong, and she ended up pursuing khula, relinquishing all financial entitlements, but also custody of her children.
She had gotten married at 24 and relocated to the UAE with her husband, after which he started to abuse and deprive her of most if her basic rights. He banned television, radio and newspapers from the house and isolated her from people.
“My only business in life was to raise the children and cook. I had no connection to the outside world. He would call me a slave. I used to save up coins, and then creep out and walk for hours in the heat to buy a newspaper,” Samira recounts.
Samira decided to ask for a divorce after having spent weeks recovering from a particularly brutal beating. When she initially asked for a divorce, her husband refused, betting that she would back down on account of her not having the resources to endure the long and costly litigation process.
He had told her that he was not willing to pay for child support. “I couldn’t provide for them. To take my children and keep them by my side would have been to compromise their future. How would I have sheltered or fed them and myself?
“I literally left with the clothes on my back,” Samira says. She left her children behind and it was a decade before she was able to see them again. “The decision I made was the only way to save all of us. What would have they gotten out of a lifeless mother who suffers humiliation on a daily basis?”
Her parents had passed away, but Samira’s sister was a lawyer and stepped in to help. She was also able to survive economically with the support of friends.
“I’m lucky to have the kind of friends that I have. One of them took me in and let me stay with her for months. Another friend provided me with a monthly aid payment of LE600 until I found a job. That was the first job I’d ever had.” Samira has changed jobs several times since, but she has been working and earning a steady income since 2006.
In his calls to end verbal divorce in 2017, a bid to reduce Egypt’s escalating divorce rate, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared that “We have to keep the nation from turning into a population of homeless children.”
“The narrative about divorce being a means of societal disintegration,” Soliman says, “and there being a need to work toward lower divorce rates is one that does not take into consideration the fact that it is not good for children to grow up in disrupted households full of violence, and that the hardships [of a failed marriage] are only endured by women.”
*Pseudonyms have been used for some interviewees for their safety.