Is it the society or the law that needs to change first?
Updated: Nov 12, 2021
Original published in the independent on Sunday 17th of June, 2018
It was almost 15 years ago that I became pregnant, and instead of quietly getting it “taken care of”, I decided to keep the baby and challenge the social norms of my country of origin. Having a child from an unofficial urfi marriage, in a country like Egypt, meant a scandal for my family and I, as they have no official contract and are often kept secret.
Under Egyptian law, without an official marriage contract, only a man can register a child’s birth. As a result, tens of thousands of children are legally non-existent; they cannot be issued birth certificates, passports, receive vaccinations, register for school or even get married.
In Egypt, the standard three-step solution for any unmarried, upper class girl in my situation is an abortion, a hymen repairoperation, then marriage to the first unwitting suitor the family can snare. Poorer women without access to these options can face death – killed by a male member of the family to end the “shame” and cleanse the family’s “honour”. For me, play-acting my way through the virgin-marriage pageant was not an option. Instead, I did the unthinkable and chose to keep my baby.
The father of my child refused to acknowledge his paternity, and I chose to take my case public, scandalising the nation. And while a small group of feminists and educated elites strongly supported my case, the vast majority of the country was against it.
After losing, and appealing, the judge ruled in my favour, forcing the father to recognise both his relationship with me and his paternity of Leena, who was 19 months old. My case and my subsequent efforts to change the laws did, in fact, inspire thousands of Egyptian mothers to fight for the rights of their own children, and drove the Egyptian court to include DNA tests to paternity investigations.
I had hoped that this would lead to a real shift in what has always been a misogynistic and patriarchal society. In reality, little has changed. Egyptian tabloids, talk shows, newspapers and the general public remain vocally prejudiced against single mothers like me, looking down on us as “sinful”, and our children as “illegitimate”. Ultimately, laws proved to be easier to change than societies.
For a decade now, throughout my post-graduate studies, research and continuous activism, I’ve talked to hundreds of women, listened to their daily struggles, and realised that even though laws are gradually changing in favour of equality, women’s social, economic and political status has barely improved in most Arab countries.
Despite legal reform, Arab Muslim societies continue to treat women as second class citizens, as protectors of the “family’s honour”, as potential sources of disgrace rather than individuals who have rights.
In Saudi Arabia, women were only allowed to vote for the first time in 2015, yet only around 130,000 women registered to vote, compared to 1.35 million men. This year they were permitted to drive for the first time, but I would be surprised to see that become commonplace any time soon. Changing the law is all well and good, but when the oppression of women is so ingrained in the culture, it makes little real difference.
In Saudi Arabia and most Arab Muslim countries a single woman in her thirties is considered a spinster, sexual harassment of a woman is still considered her fault, premarital sex is ok for young men, but a family’s dignity is lost upon a girl’s engagement in any sexual activity. A girl should cook, clean and do the laundry for her brothers, while they watch a football match; a man has the right to divorce a woman with one phrase, “you are divorced”, while women have no such right. The list goes on.
Islam and feminism have been in a constant clash since the turn of the century, and we can no longer ignore this fact. Somewhere between the liberal secular positions like mine, and the attempts by fundamentalists to silence us, it is often the voices of Muslim women themselves that are left unheard.
Much of this sexist mentality exists across different religions due to culture and tradition, but the growing confrontation with fundamental Islam over the application of sharia law is making it more difficult for Muslim women to demand reform.
With such a negative perception of women’s rights, no progress can be made. Calls for greater women’s rights will not achieve anything on their own. What is necessary is a change of attitude; a radical change of public thinking.
Women need to speak out. Only when we understand the need to speak out, fight for our rights, and stop accepting the status quo, will we see real change.
In the meantime, as long as we accept and allow traditionalism and fundamentalism to dictate our destinies, the situation will continue to worsen for women like me, no matter what the laws say.