Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Nathan J. Brown Q&A, MAY 15, 2012
What does the Islamic sharia say about the rights of women?
In general, the Islamic sharia is not gender-neutral in matters of personal status but instead establishes a differentiated web of rights and obligations on husbands and wives and sons and daughters. Broadly, husbands are expected to provide material support and a healthy home environment (failure to provide support or abuse can be grounds for a woman seeking a divorce). And wives are expected to accept their husbands’ authority. A husband can unilaterally divorce his wife; a wife (in the sharia-based Egyptian legal order) cannot do so, but can petition the court to order a divorce in cases when the husband fails his obligations. Custom is laid on top of sharia-based law—for instance, a prospective bridegroom might be expected to pledge a significant sum of money that is due to his fiancé if he divorces her, sometimes making his divorce rights extremely expensive to exercise.
Rather than arguing for a civil law or a completely gender-neutral law, advocates of women’s rights—out of a blend of genuine religious convictions, acceptance of political realities, and realization that juridical equality in an inegalitarian society can actually weaken subordinate parties—have focused most of their attention on mobilizing constituencies in support of interpretations of the Islamic sharia that grant women a stronger position. For instance, they successfully lobbied for an amendment to the personal status law allowing women to petition a court for divorce if they were willing to abandon most of their material rights and claims in the settlement. In doing so, they were able to call on some religious scholars in support of their position.
Islamist movements have sometimes questioned particular interpretations pertaining to women’s rights, but they generally have engaged directly in the debate and accepted the parliamentary-based legislation as binding. The Brotherhood’s flexibility on the issue is hardly infinite. For instance, the Freedom and Justice Party has singled out the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women for particular criticism, because of the claim that its provisions violate sharia-based rules about guardianship in the case of divorce.
Debate in Egypt is likely to center around very specific provisions of the personal status law. This includes the circumstances under which a wife can ask a court for divorce, the age of guardianship, or the age of marriage. The debate will have Salafis (and their extreme textualism) on one side and advocates of women’s rights (seeking to push the law as far as possible in the direction of increasing legal protections for women) on the other, leaving many political forces caught somewhere in the middle.
Thus, placing discussions on women’s rights and personal status within a sharia-based framework has had some real effects on the nature of the debate but not directly dictated the outcome.
See also : Guide to Egypt’s Transition