Efforts on Family Law Reform and Islamic Feminism in Egypt

Author: Aslı Karaca

December 19, 2020

In this discussion, I will refer to the efforts of women and the family law reforms, an area where Islamic feminism actually comes to life in Egypt. In countries where family law is historically based on religion, we see that both feminism and Islamic feminism had great difficulty. Although many jurisdictions have been secularized in most Muslim-majority countries, family laws are still regulated by religious references. Therefore, it becomes very difficult to update the family laws that are protected by official religious institutions and by unofficial Islamic movements.

For Egyptian Muslims, family laws based on Islamic shariah [el-kavanin el-ahval el-şahsiyye] allow male polygamy and allow men to divorce women unilaterally. Along with these, the issues of women’s right to divorce, alimony, custody and the man being the guardian of the family and the obedience of women have been discussed among Egyptian women for centuries. Man being the guardian of the family is generally applied as women’s inability to perform some actions without the permission of a male “guardian”. Thus, family laws refer to women’s rights in both private and public areas. While studying these laws, we can see whether women have the authority and power to produce Islamic fiqh and jurisprudence as well as discuss them, let alone produce them.

Unwritten marriage and divorce rules in Egypt were enacted in 1920 and 1929. With these laws, while the legal duty of the man was assigned as taking care of his wife and children financially, the legal duty of the woman was coded as obedience to the man. The right of the man to verbally divorce the woman unilaterally, men’s right to polygamy and the right to divorce based on damage to women, which all have a place in Islamic jurisprudence, had been legalized. The notion of “damage” generally included the physical violence of the man that exceeds the limits, the failure of the man to fulfill his financial responsibility, an incurable serious physical or mental illness, or the man going missing.

A reform that we can call as pro-women were realized in 1979 for the first time in Egypt. This reform obliged men to inform his other wives when he got married to another woman. There was not such a necessity before. Secondly, a woman who got stuck in such a situation was automatically granted the right to divorce. In other words, the definition of the notion of damage was expanded. In addition, women were given the right to travel without their husbands’ permission. The age of marriage was raised to 18 from 16. However, during this period where Islamic movements gained strength in Egypt, the clause “Islamic shariah principles are the main source of the constitution.” was added to the constitution by President Sadat. Based on this article, the judges redemised the new law to the Constitutional Court on the grounds that it violated shariah. Because according to them, polygamy of men, which is a religious and legal right could not be defined as damage to women.

Finally in 1985, the Constitutional Court had invalidated this law for procedural reasons. Many women protested this decision, and a new law was passed two months later. This law protected the divorce right of the woman whose husband had married another woman, but this time the woman got obliged to prove the material or moral damage she had suffered. The ambiguity of the definition of damage in this law gave judges a great discretion among cases. In general, the 1979 law declared void and the 1985 law in force did not limit men’s polygamy, it only gave the former wife (s) a new reason for divorce. This law also regulated the man’s unilateral right to divorce. While there was no requirement for men to go to court and state a reason for divorce prior to the law, the new law obliged the man to notify his former wife and register it with the registrar within thirty days. The new law imposed fines and imprisonment for those who did not obey these rules, but it did not invalidate divorces that did not comply with these rules. In addition, men are still free to return to their wives within the three-month period called iddet (waiting period to remarry after divorce) and the divorcees are not granted the right to refuse reunification.

However, the year 2000 had been a turning point for Egyptian women. Women had obtained the unilateral right of divorce without the consent of their husbands and without giving a reason. This reform which was made in the period of Hosni Mubarak, was realized with the notion of “hul” ‘(خلع), that was based on Islamic jurisprudence and on an hadith. However, according to the divorce conditions of “hul”, the woman had to renounce all her financial rights. Women were obliged to say: “I hate living with my husband and I’m afraid of not staying within the limits of God because of this hatred.” at the hearing. However, there still had been problems in the implementation of this law. For example, the divorce cases in which the women sued for damages could take up to 5-10 years. During this time, the women’s life would be suspended, while the men could remarry and have children.

For that matter, women had started to prefer divorcing with “hul”, which sometimes even ended in a shorter time, even if they have legitimate reasons. The conservative segment criticized this law since it had been adopted. They questioned whether the enactment of the law was democratic as well as it being Islamist or not. There had been even lawyers who claimed that women who were divorced this way violated the obedience rules because they did not get the permission of their husbands.

“Poking A Hole Through The Wall”: Islamic Feminist Studies

In this section, I will include two groups that contribute to Islamic feminism in Egypt. The first group is women who work in feminist women’s organizations, who do not define themselves in terms of Islam, but who study fiqh and produce Islamic discourses for the reform of the law. The other group is women who define themselves as Islamic feminists and who produce Islamic feminist knowledge by conducting religious-historical readings and who generally are academics.

The main starting point of these women can be summarized as emphasizing on the difference between fiqh and shariah. According to them: “What is unjust is not shariah but fiqh, Islamic shariah is just and holy, but fiqh is manipulated by the hand of man, that is, it is not inviolable.” After the enactment of the “hul” law in 2000, some defender of women’s rights began to use Islamic language more. One of these women was Azza Suleiman, one of Egypt’s most famous legal expert feminists and the founder of Egyptian Women’s Legal Aid Center. Azza Suleiman states that Islamic fiqh and international agreements are tools to pursue the case, and since 2002 she has been in dialogue with religious functuaries on family law reform. The center had organized meetings and trainings with al-Azhar ulama, mosque imams and local notables throughout the country -in Cairo, Alexandria and Southern Egypt- in 2008 and 2009. Suleiman argued that the family law should be unified for Egyptian Christians and Muslims. She was accused of causing interfaith conflict with her work on this.

Azza Suleiman is one of the women who dared to appear on TV on this issue. Being visible is very important in Islamic feminism because women step into a “holy” area with these discussions. In 2011, the head of the Family Court of Appeals Abdullah al-Baga who claims, that the divorce with “hul” is invalid without the consent of the husband and Azza Suleiman came face-to-face on a television program. Suleiman was able to respond harshly to her opponent with religious references. But when we look at the second group, i.e the academician Islamic feminists, we can see them working especially before the revolution and mostly behind closed doors.

Another example from the first category is the activist, academician and poet Marwa Sharafaddin. She had gathered a study group among women’s non-governmental organizations for family law in 2006. These non-governmental organizations identify three main references: contemporary Egyptian realities, conventions on human rights and an enlightened Islamic discourse. Sharafaddin says that these non-governmental organizations were not able to reach a consensus on what an enlightened Islamic discourse is. She states that they could not fully advocate for equating inheritance or banning polygamy altogether on issues such as women’s inheritance rights and men’s polygamy, which are clearly stated by Quranic verses. At the same time, they did not want to give up the financial responsibility of the man, which emerges from the situation where the man is the protector of the family.

Among the Islamic feminists, it is necessary to take a look at the studies of the academician Omaima Abou-Bakr. Abou-Bakr, one of the founders of the Women and Memory Forum which was established in 1995, is one of the most prominent names of Islamic feminism not only in Egypt but also in the world. Abou-Bakr has begun to institutionalize her Islamic feminist work after the revolution. After the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011, we can see Islamic feminism gaining both organizational and discursive strength. While Islamic feminists used to work individually and academically, after the revolution they started to sink to the public’s level by different institutions. In 2012, Women and Memory Forum organized a conference on Islamic feminism under the coordination of Abou-Bakr. Representatives of Al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood were also invited to the conference for building dialogue. However, the presence of one of the Al-Azhar sheiks Jamal Kutb, the former head of the fatwa committee gave the impression to the audience that al-Azhar got the final word on the subject. In addition, all participants on the panel including Abou-Bakr, are accused of not being experts in the Islamic field.

In 2010, a platform called Noon Center founded by men and women whom we can call moderate Islamists. This institution claimed in the booklets they published that they supported feminist jurisprudence and received support from Islamic feminists like Omaima Abou-Bakr, Amani Saleh and Fatma Hafız. Abou-Bakr taught lectures on gender equality that the platform had organized for the ulama. Abou-Bakr summarizes these encounters which she described as “poking holes in the wall by their heads” as follows:

“It was very difficult to teach the ulama as an academic researcher, let’s face it, we live in ivory towers. We cannot get in touch with real people because we are not activists.” She defined these lessons as an opportunity for both parties and expressed it as follows: “[Ulama] they were not satisfied with the gender equality training, but of course they were very polite. When we tell them about Nisa 34, they perceive man being the protector of the family as the leadership of men. When we say: “No, God gave it to provide opportunity to men, because you inherit more.”, they mount an argument about men’s disposition. And then I would say: “Okay, you can be conservative about gender equality, but don’t tell me that it’s Islamic.”.

The project coordinator of the center though, had drawn a more positive picture on these trainings. He stated that the ulama got more positive about equality in post-surveys.

Afterwards, the International Musawah Organization had empowered Islamic feminists in Egypt. The organization decided to move its secretariat to Egypt in 2012 and currently, names such as Azza Süleyman, Marwa Sharafeddin, Omaima Abou-Bakr and Mulki Al-Sharmani are working with Musawah in Egypt. Mulki Al-Sharmani describes the community in Musawah as: “Even though our beliefs and religious views are different, our goals are the same”. In the book Men in Charge? published by Musawah, Abou-Bakr analyzes how the concept of men’s protectorship is interpreted differently by legal experts and glossators over time. She begins to address new generation and taboo issues in Egypt. For example, Fatma Emam and Yara Sallam brought up marital rape at the conference, which was not yet considered a crime in Egypt. They stated that this should be considered a violation of rights in terms of Islam. The reactions they received were on that they were not experts in the Islamic subject. Fatma Emam expressed her implication as follows: “Talking about Islamic fiqh is a taboo, and on top of that, it is even more difficult in Egypt if you are both young and female, civic educated and without a headscarf. He begins to address new generation and taboo issues in Egypt. For example, Fatma Emam and Yara Sallam brought up marital rape, which is not yet considered a crime in Egypt, at the conference. They state that this should be considered a violation of rights in terms of Islam. Their reactions are that they are not experts in the Islamic subject. Fatma Emam expresses her implication as follows: “Talking about Islamic fiqh is a taboo, and on top of that, it is even more difficult in Egypt if you are both young and female, both civic-educated and without a headscarf.”.

In summary, Islamic feminism in Egypt is having difficulties on the field. Academic studies are various, but their dissemination is difficult without state or institutional support.

Caught between the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and authoritarian military governments, Egyptian women and women’s rights associations are going through hard times. The financial assets of the dissident women’s associations, which have received funds from abroad since 2016, are frozen and their managers are under travel ban. We see that it has become difficult for Islamic feminism to gain priority and reach the public level due to political polarization and pressure.


  1. The issues which were less discussed and that were still taboo were Muslim men being allowed to marry women of another religion, while Muslim women could not, and the woman who would remarry to lose her right of custody.
  2. For example the woman’s not being allowed to travel, not being able to get a job, getting questioned about smuggling or prostitution if she left the airport without permission, and the need for her husband or father’s signature on her passport.
  3. While the courts had been trying to decide whether the beating falls within the scope of damage to the woman, they wanted to investigate whether this was a cause or not  (i.e. a justification should involve advice first, then splitting beds and lastly beating). In addition, the courts’ definitions of damage had varied according to the conditions of women. While “unfair” mild physical violence was considered acceptable for women in the economic lower class, it is more likely to be considered as damage for an educated upper class woman.
  4. Known as “Cihan’s law”, this law takes its name from the wife of the President Enver Sedat of the time. We also know that prolonged women’s studies had been effective in the enactment of this law.
  5. The woman has to apply for divorce within one year from the date she finds out about her husband’s marriage.
  6. In 2003, female judges were appointed to the Constitutional Court for the first time. We’ve started to encounter women judges in first instance courts after 2007. In the long run, these developments can increase the perspective of women among courts.
  7. According to the law, they did not need the judge’s approval, so the judge had no legal discretion not to divorce the woman.
  8. This law was based on both the verses of Surah al-Baqarah (2: 229) and Surah An-Nisa (4: 128) and on a hadith. It refers to the incident where Sâbit b. Kays b. Şemmâs’ wife went to the Prophet and stated that she wanted to divorce from her husband and the Prophet seperating them on the condition of the woman returning the financial assets she had been given during the marriage (muhâlea). It should be noted that there are different interpretations in this hadith about how the divorce took place or about who was divorced from whom. (See TDV Encyclopedia of Islam, article: muhâlea).
  9. A woman who divorced with “hul” could not receive alimony or “muta” (two-year alimony right determined by the 1985 law), her bridewealth or her postponed bridewealth, if any. She had to return the bridewealth (gift) she had received earlier. However, the women who had the custody of the children could not be disposessed from the house where she got married, until the children would be 15.
  10. Personal interview with Azza Süleyman. 2014, Cairo, Egypt.
  11. Al-Azhar Al-Sherif: The mosque in Cairo and the complex around it, which is the oldest religious educational institution in the Islamic world.
  12. Marwa Sharafeddin,  2013. “Challenges of Islamic Feminism in Personal Status Law Reform: Women’s NGO’s in Egypt between Islamic Law and International Human Rights” In Feminist and Islamic Perspectives: New Horizons of Knowledge and Reform, ed by Omaima Abou Bakr. Women and Memory Forum Publications.
  13. Women are the breadwinners in many families.
  14. Women and Memory, 2012. “Topic: Islamic Feminism and the Ulama” http://womenandmemory.org/islamicfeminism/forums/?mingleforumaction=viewtopic&t=4, last accessed  January 28, 2021
  15. Personal interview with Omaima Abou-Bakr. April 23, 2014, Women and Memory Forum, Cairo, Egypt.
  16. Personal interview with Noon Center coordinator. 2014. October 6, Cairo, Egypt.
  17. Personal interview with Mulki Al-Sharmani. 2014. Al-Mohandeseen, Cairo, Egypt.
  18. Personal interview with Fatma Emam. 2014, Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt and Online Interview 2017.
  19. Azza Suleiman is among these women.
Bernard-Maugiron, Nathalie and Baudouin Dupret. Breaking Up the Family: Divorce in Egyptian Law and Practice. Hawwa, Brill Academic Publishers, 2008, pp.52-74.
Abou-Bakr, Omaima. (Abou-Bakr, Omaima) (ed). 2013. Feminist and Islamic Perspectives: New Horizons of Knowledge and Reform. Women and Memory Forum Publications, Cairo, Egypt.
Abou-Bakr, Omaima. Personal Interview. April 23, 2014, Women and Memory Forum, Cairo, Egypt.
Al-Sharmani, Mulki. Personal Interview. 2014. Al-Mohendeseen, Cairo, Egypt
Emam, Fatma. Personal Interview. 2014, Cairo, Egypt & Online Conversation, 2017.
Noon Center coordinator. Personal interview. 2014. October 6, Şehri, Cairo, Egypt
Shaarawi, Huda. 1987. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist (1879-1924), ed Margot Badran. The Feminist Press at CUNY.
Sharafeddin, Marwa.  2013. “Challenges of Islamic Feminism in Personal Status Law Reform: Women’s NGO’s in Egypt between Islamic Law and International Human Rights” In Feminist and Islamic Perspectives: New Horizons of Knowledge and Reform, ed by Omaima Abou Bakr. Women and Memory Forum Publications.
Sonneveld, Nadia. 2012. Khul’ Divorce in Egypt: Public Debates, Judicial Practices, and Everyday Life. American University in Cairo Press.
Suleiman, Azza. Personal Interview. 2014, Cairo, Egypt.
Women and Memory, 2012. “Topic: Islamic Feminism and the Ulama” http://womenandmemory.org/islamicfeminism/forums/?mingleforumaction=viewtopic&t=4 , last accessed: January 28, 2021.

The first draft of this article, with the title “Efforts on Family Law Reform and Islamic Feminism in Egypt”, was presented on December 19, 2020, at the “Being an Immigrant Woman Within the Local Movement” conference organized by Havle Women’s Association. You can click here to access other texts of our Feminism Localization conference.

Etiketler: azza sulayman  egypt  fıqh  islamic feminism  khul  localization of feminism conference  musawah  omaima abou-bakr  reform  sharia 


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