A public struggle over verbal divorce erupted between the heads of religion and state in Egypt on January 25, 2017. The issue came to symbolize a victory for the Egyptian family and another victory against extremism for the state. For the religious institution Al-Azhar, it was a matter of principles entrenched in Sharia law since the dawn of Islam. But rights issues, especially those relating to women, don’t usually just appear at the top of the agendas of these institutions.
The call to review the issue was initiated by the presidency, which declared 2017 to be the year of women. This top down direction wasn’t coordinated in partnership with civil society organizations already working on issues of marriage and women’s rights, as the state is launching a crackdown on such groups, bombarding them with asset freezes and travel bans. The state, in actuality, is usurping such issues and demands from the level of the street, where they have been voiced since the January 2011 revolution.
The move was strategic: selecting an issue as a point of confrontation with Al-Azhar evokes an image of modernity for the government that is not dissimilar to the actions of post-colonial states that sought to further ambitious citizenship agendas. But a patriarchal state taking on the mantle of women’s rights with no reference to the women who have been affected by the issue only reinforces the role of the guardian authority. In fact, the state only focused on punishing men for abusing their rights in this regard. The only women involved in the discussions were the same women always used in official discourse — the nameless, faceless women who sacrifice to protect family and nation. Such women are not considered individually, a perspective that both the state and Al-Azhar do not dispute.
The issue of verbal divorce was raised by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a speech he gave on Police Day, January 25, 2017, in which he claimed the rise in the divorce rate in Egypt necessitates a move to ban verbal divorce. The president directed passionate and provocative statements at Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, who was required by protocol to attend. “What do you think honorable, Imam?” he asked. This prompted speculation that the grand sheikh may be pushed to resign, despite his position being officially guaranteed for life in 2012.
Though some celebrated the perceived progressiveness of the president’s reform, others criticized him for raising a matter of jurisprudence at such a ceremony in which military strength is celebrated.
The discussion widened to include legal and Islamic precedents, pitting the law and Islamic jurisprudence against one another.
As far as society is concerned, the changes could carry clear benefits for women. Customary marriages may become less popular and men will lose a current privilege, even if the amendments do not actually result in fewer divorces, according to the Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance.
Al-Azhar anticipated the call, forming a jurisprudence committee 10 months ago and researching the potential for avoiding “the painful reality of family courts.” The religious institution chose to put an end to the jurisprudence debate. Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars considered Sisi’s call to be “in contradiction to the agreement among the Umma since the age of Prophet Mohamed.” No matter how high the authority of the president is, it should never override that of the Prophet, Al-Azhar maintained.
The move was strategic: selecting an issue as a point of confrontation with Al-Azhar evokes an image of modernity for the government
Publicly there were calls for Professor of Comparative Thought at Al-Azhar Sheikh Saad al-Din al-Helaly to step into the conflict, as he compared Sisi to the Prophet in 2014, maintaining that they both seek to defend religion, a comment for which he was critiqued by Al-Azhar at the time. “People now face two options: Either they make the law the master or the fatwa. If they go for the latter, the members of the Council of Senior Scholars will be the master of the people. And the people aren’t their own guardians,” Helaly said, according to Al-Masrawi newspaper.
Sharia law allows for such reform to take place, Helaly argued, adding that such reforms have already been enacted in Indonesia, Malaysia, Kuwait, Tunisia, Morocco and other countries. He referred to an Egyptian law banning verbal divorce between 2000 and 2005 that was ruled unconstitutional in 2005 because it lacked the phrase, “… or those officially married.”
The fight over the law, however, wasn’t perceived publicly as a contest between Sharia and the courts, but as a disagreement between two men that would do nothing to improve women’s rights. And this has also been the case concerning the state’s intended foray into women’s rights issues in the past. The religious institution also blocked a prior move to ban verbal divorce in 1975, as part of a package of rights that were named after first lady Jihan al-Sadat.
Although Sisi clearly stated his reasons for the proposed reform centered on protecting the family, the public seemed focused on the debate between the two men — Sisi and Tayyeb — and the role of the umma and nation state, with discussion remaining far from the rights and desires of women. Islamic researcher Mohamed al-Shahat argued, for example, that “Egyptian men tend to use divorce not to dissolve a marital relationship but as a means of swearing  … So, should we try to restrain men in order to reduce divorce rates, as the president wants, or does the restraint come from within a man’s ‘Muslim conscience,’ as Al-Azhar believes?”
The only role of women in these debates is as objects of sympathy or fear, and always within the context of the nuclear family and the ramifications of verbal divorce on the state.
No research was conducted on the effects of divorce on women’s lives, which would have necessitated consulting with civil society organizations and would have imposed a different hierarchy of demands than those stated by the authorities.
Even though the reform in and of itself could be perceived as a positive one, why is this the main issue in the “year of women?” Why is this even the year of women? Has it been imposed on the country by a foreign agenda? Is it the result of demands by civil society since 2011? It is more likely intended to fuel an existing debate with the religious institution over power, to exhaust Al-Azhar in the process, and for the state to appear to be the one making concessions after the debate is done.
It doesn’t threaten the role of the state or entrenched norms of masculinity. It neither radically protects nor radically confronts. It neither threatens divorce laws, nor aspires to equality. It merely gives women the chance to potentially be involved in divorce negotiations with their husbands.
At the center of the year of women is the relationship between men — a fact already known to women and which comes as no surprise to women activists or those already working on women’s rights.
 It’s common for a man to swear to do something or that something is true based on his marital relationship in Egypt.
Note: Translated by Assmaa Naguib