- The Washington Times - Monday, October 18, 2004

Women’s rights advocates have won sweeping reforms of marriage and divorce laws in Morocco and Egypt by basing their arguments on an unlikely source — the Koran.

The latest reforms were in Morocco, where the parliament in February approved landmark changes to a 46-year-old family law by granting women property rights in marriage and the right to divorce.

Supporters of the changes — including King Mohammed VI — relied on verses from the Koran to support the reform.

“We showed in Morocco that there is no such thing as a contradiction between Islam and modernity, and there is no contradiction between Islam and equality between men and women,” said Aziz Mekouar, Moroccan ambassador to the United States.

The reforms also placed new restrictions on polygamy, requiring a husband seeking a second wife to first demonstrate to a judge that he can provide for the second wife as well as he has the first.

Morocco also raised the minimum age of marriage for women from 15 to 18 — the same age for men.

In Egypt, female politicians and activist groups relied on Islamic teachings to help pass changes to the country’s personal-status laws, making it easier for women to get a divorce.

In the past, Egyptian men could divorce their wives at will, but women had to prove they had been injured or harmed. Women now can get a divorce based on incompatibility.

The key to the legislative victories in both countries was that women’s rights advocates based their arguments on the Koran and worked within the existing political system, said Diane Singerman, an associate professor at American University specializing in Middle Eastern politics.

“It represents a learning curve within the women’s movement,” she said at a recent forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Now the women’s movement is poised to do more extensive lobbying.”

She added, “These women basically turned Islam into an asset.”

In both Morocco and Egypt, as elsewhere in the region, family law is based on Islamic law or Shariah, whereas most other laws have a secular basis.

The Koran clearly spells out that women and men are to be treated equally, said Maysam Al Faruqi, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University. But in some cases, she said, the text has been misinterpreted to deny women their rights.

In other instances, she said, laws geared toward protecting Muslim women were added, but they had the unintended side effect of denying women their full rights. Muslim women now see it as their duty to correct these misinterpretations of the Koran.

“In general, Muslim feminists don’t operate outside the realm of Islam,” she said. “They use that religion to restore their rights.”

Ms. Al Faruqi said it is important to understand that most Muslim women do not want blind equality. There is a belief that because a wife is responsible for child rearing, her husband has a greater responsibility to provide financially for the family.

“Because of the fact that women have to carry children and therefore must provide time and effort and attention and care, they make the financial obligation fall on the man instead of the woman,” she said. “It equalizes the responsibility.”

Despite the gains, Farida Deif, a North Africa and Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, cautioned that men and women remain far from equal in both Egypt and Morocco.

For instance, she said, if an Egyptian woman files for divorce based on incompatibility, she must return the dowry paid by her husband and cannot seek alimony. She also has no rights to the couple’s home.

“They are perpetually at risk of becoming homeless. There’s no sense of shared marital property,” she said. “Divorce can be basically tantamount to homelessness in the region.”

Throughout North Africa, she said, women accused of adultery or extramarital affairs face harsh laws while husbands accused of killing their wives for committing adultery can have their sentences reduced.

Even when the laws are changed, as in the case of Morocco, that does not mean women will take advantage of them.

“One big problem is public awareness, especially with a lot of older, immigrant women,” said Susan Schaefer Davis, a socio-economist and author of “Patience and Power: Women’s Lives in a Moroccan Village.”

She spoke at a forum sponsored by the Moroccan American Center for Policy earlier this week.

Besides learning about the new laws, Ms. Davis said, women in rural areas must travel to family courts in the provincial capital, which can prove extremely difficult. Once at the court, women then must rely on the judges to apply the new laws appropriately.

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