Although Egypt has signed many international agreements pledging to protect and guarantee women’s equality under law, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1984, there remain many areas in the Egyptian penal code where women are arguably discriminated against.
Particularly in the fields of personal status and sexual violence, there are very few laws that substantially guarantee the rights of women. There are also several examples of laws that assign harsher penalties to women than to men, even when they have committed the same crime.
On the other hand, there are a series of recent laws, often the result of grassroots activism, which improve the legal status of women in those same fields.
During the month of International Women’s Day, Mada Masr takes a look at laws that negatively affect women and at laws that women can use to protect their rights.
Laws that discriminate against women
Adultery laws in Egypt are different for men and women. Under Egyptian law, a man is only considered to have committed adultery if he has sex with a woman within the home he shares with his wife.
If he has sex with an unmarried woman outside of the marital home, he is not legally considered to have committed adultery. However, if he has sex with a married woman outside of the home he shares with his wife, he is considered an accomplice rather than a principal in the act.
Therefore, if a man has sex with an unmarried woman in a hotel. for example, he is not legally considered to have committed adultery.
However, a woman is not given the same privilege. Under the Egyptian penal code, a woman is considered to have committed adultery whether or not she is in the home or outside of it. Furthermore, whether or not the person she had the affair with is married, she is still considered to have committed adultery.
Furthermore, the penalties for adultery vary between men and women. If a woman commits adultery in or outside of the marital home, under Article 274 of the penal code she can be punished by up to two years in prison. However, if a man commits adultery within the marital home, he is only punishable by up to six months in prison.
The women’s rights group Nazra for Feminist Studies group stated in a report on laws negatively affecting women in Egypt, “This sort of discrimination is despicable, as it encourages men to commit adultery twice: first by permitting the act if committed outside the marital home, and second by prescribing a lighter penalty, even if the act is committed inside the marital home.”
Sexual violence laws
Article 268 provides no definition for sexual assault, which according to Nazra, “should be defined to include any intrusive act against the survivor leading to her or his degradation, as well as sexual acts performed without the consent of the survivor which do not amount to rape.”
Egyptian law prohibits non-spousal rape, with the punishment ranging from three years to life imprisonment to the death penalty. There is no punishment for marital rape.
Furthermore, under Article 17 of the Egyptian penal code, the judge in a rape case has the ability to reduce the sentence of the accused by two counts. The article reads, “In felony counts, if the conditions of the crime for which public prosecution is initiated necessitate clemency on the part of the judges, the penalty may be changed.”
Under the law, if a man is convicted of raping a woman and faces life imprisonment, the judge can reduce that to simple imprisonment, and imprisonment can be reduced to three months in prison.
According to Nazra, this clause is often used to reduce sentences in rape cases.
However, the laws governing rape have improved slightly in recent years. Until 1999, Article 291 of the penal code allowed someone who had raped and kidnapped a person to avoid prosecution by marrying the victim.
Under Egyptian law, a woman can only get an abortion if ending the pregnancy would save the woman’s life. She would not be able to get an abortion to preserve her health, to preserve her mental health, in cases of rape or incest, in cases of fetal impairment, on economic or social grounds, or of her own volition.
Unsafe abortions account for 11 percent of maternal deaths in the MENA region, and most are probably unreported given that abortion is illegal.
Dalia Abdel Hameed, the gender and women’s rights officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, stated that part of the problem with abortion laws is that since the topic is controversial, very few grassroots organizers or lawmakers are willing to implement change.
“Nobody wants to talk about [abortion laws] because they’re thorny issues and nobody wants to have that stigma,” she said.
Domestic violence law
Article 60 of the Egyptian penal code states, “The provisions of the Penal Code shall not apply to any deed committed in good faith, pursuant to a right determined by virtue of Sharia law.”
According to Nazra, this law is often used as a defense in domestic violence cases and helps many husbands escape the legal consequences of their actions.
Egypt does not have a law that deals directly with cases of domestic violence.
Laws that women can use to protect their rights
The government made female genital mutilation illegal in 2008. The penalty for the crime is a minimum custodial sentence of three months and a maximum of three years or a minimum penalty of LE1,000 and a maximum of LE5,000.
However, as Abdel Hameed said the law is seldom enforced. She believes the government made a mistake when they changed the law because, “It was changed without really engaging the community or society about the need to change the law. The state campaign wasn’t very successful and was an example of the top-bottom thing.”
According to Abdel Hameed, the most recent court case against female genital mutilation is an example of how the law failed in implementation. The procedure is performed on approximately 98 percent of Egyptian women, according to UNICEF statistics. However, with the exception of the landmark case in January 2015, when a doctor was convicted of performing female genital mutilation on 13-year-old Soheir al-Batea, FGM cases have not been prosecuted.
Sexual harassment law
Former interim President Adly Mansour implemented an anti-sexual harassment law for the first time in Egypt’s history in 2014.
He issued decree 50/2014 amending provisions in the penal code to provide stronger penalties for acts of sexual violence, and added Article 306B, which made sexual harassment a crime.
Abdel Hameed praised this law, as it followed a long grassroots campaign with support from activists and community members. She also said that unlike the female genital mutilation law, the law against sexual harassment is implemented on a regular basis.
“There was a real need on the ground for legal change and when it happened people benefited from it,” she explained.
The intimidation or threat law
Law 6/1998 criminalizes intimidation or the threat of force against a wife, child or parent. Egypt does not have a specific domestic violence law, however, Law 6 provides some protection for women experiencing domestic violence.
EIPR reported that the Nadim Center for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of violence drafted a domestic violence law in 2012, but the government did not use it. Although domestic violence remains a threat, Law 6 can provide some very basic protection for women who have suffered from domestic violence.
The khula law
In 2000 Mubarak signed Law no. 1 (2000) which made khula (no-fault divorce) possible. Under the new version of the law, women have the right to file for a divorce due to “incompatibility” between the husband and the wife without being forced to provide evidence of harm.
The law was passed as the result of a long-term campaign on the part of rights organizations and activists. The law also makes it possible for the government to provide income in place of fathers who default on income and child support. The law also prevents men from divorcing their wives without giving them prior knowledge.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) from 2004, part of the reason the law was successful was because it was based on Sharia law, making it more palatable to judges.
However, HRW also criticizes the law saying, “While khula has clearly helped some women have easier access to divorce, it has not adequately remedied the fundamental inequality of the divorce process.”
Egyptian men, unlike Egyptian women, have the right to initiate a divorce without going to court.
Correction: This article had incorrectly stated that the Penal Code does not define sexual harassment or sexual violence. It has been amended to reflect the fact that Article 208 specifically does not provide such a definition.