17 - 23 February 2000
Issue No. 469
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
By the skin
of her teeth
Legislation is one thing, implementation another. Mariz Tadros meets Wafaa
photos: Mariz Tadros
When I told my traveling companion that we were going to meet Wafaa, the first woman in Egypt to file a suit asking for Khul' (the right to obtain a divorce by renouncing all her financial rights), he frowned. He knew nothing about Wafaa, the poor fellaha from Sigin Al-Kom, a village in the governorate of Al-Gharbiya, nor did he particularly want to. His mind was already made up -- the new procedural Personal Status Law will lead to the destruction of many households.
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When we got to Sigin Al-Kom, a poor village no different from its neighbours, we asked for Wafaa's house. After so much publicity, everyone knew where it was. From a two-room mud house with virtually no furniture, Fathiya, Wafaa's mother greeted us. She fetched Wafaa, a large, jolly woman in her early 30s, with deep eyes and a beautiful smile.
LEAVING EL-SAYED: Wafaa's story begins in 1986 when, aged 18, she married El-Sayed. He was from Alexandria and had a diploma as a health assistant. Back then, she says, he was as poor as she was, and had just divorced his first wife because, after four years of marriage, she had borne him no children.
Although she was pregnant only a month after marriage, there were still problems between Wafaa and El-Sayed. "He was educated, and I was an ignorant fellaha who knew nothing. He told me he was far above me. I could never reach his level." Wafaa, however, learned to read and write "so that I don't feel ignorant". When she discovered that El-Sayed beat his first wife, she told herself that she must never disobey him so as not to provoke his anger. But she could not avoid the blows. "That was the way he communicated with me, to scare me. I resigned myself, but he punched me, kicked me... right in my face."
She didn't know what upset him. There were many occasions: if his trousers were not ironed properly, if the towel was a little damp, if she answered back, if...
Every time he beat her, she would cry. Then, when she sensed his mood had improved, she would try and make up with him. "It is his nature, I had to put up with it. It is better than if he had hit a friend or had a fight. At least this way, he only took it out on me."
In the meantime, Wafaa was learning the skills required at a dental laboratory El-Sayed had opened. The first two years after their marriage they stayed at Sigin Al-Kom, then spent a year in Tanta, followed by two years at a village near Mahalla, before finally settling down in Damietta. El-Sayed's business prospered. But life grew more difficult. He felt she wasn't good enough for him. In Damietta, he built a three-storey house, and decided that it was no longer proper for his wife to be seen working at the laboratory, so he hired another woman to do the work.
Things started turning sour. Wafaa left the house at least three times, "every time after getting beaten up". He had become more violent... "He used to hit me in front of the children. Once he got a knife from the kitchen and my son screamed 'not with the knife, don't hit her with the knife!' So he took off his belt and tried to strangle me."
Why did she not file a report? "Go report the father of my children to the police? I am a fellaha, and no matter what he does to me, I can't do that. It is not proper." Not once does she use negative words to describe El-Sayed.
Wafaa was desperate. Once, she says, she tried to kill herself. El-Sayed told her he would divorce her if she wanted, but begged her not to cause a catastrophe. He did not divorce her, she points out: "He said the doors of the courts are wide open and I can file whatever suit I like." Wafaa stayed on.
"He thinks I am his property. He wants to keep me there -- neither living like a married woman, nor divorced."
'I felt they were not passing judgement on a law but on my life. The men who said that Khul' would be used by women who want to swap men surprise me. They don't know about my situation and that of many women like me, do they?'
A year ago, she became terribly sick, and started spitting blood. "He was good to me," she asserts, "he took me to hospital immediately. It was midnight. The hospital wouldn't let me go home that same day, they said I was too sick, and so I stayed. He would come and visit regularly, but I noticed that the woman who worked at the laboratory always came with him, all dressed up. I felt something was wrong."
Then a far greater tragedy struck the family: her 13-year-old son slipped off the roof where he was playing and died.
Shortly after, El-Sayed married another woman. On her marriage contract, Wafaa had consented to his taking another wife, provided he treated the two equally. "He told me it was only right for me to return the favour: she looked after my children and the house when I was sick, so I should accept the marriage. He promised I would always have the place due to me as his first wife."
She was not in a position to refuse, she explains: she did not have the support of a family to negotiate on her behalf. She had no money and, realistically, "he would have married her with or without my consent. Isn't it better than if they were to live illicitly?"
Life was especially hard for Wafaa after he took the second wife. "I felt like nothing. He treated her well and he would tell me that he owed me nothing: that I should be grateful to eat and drink."
Seven months had passed when another fight erupted. According to Wafaa, she threatened to leave. He pulled her hair and kicked her down the stairs, then offered her LE10 for her train fare back. She refused.
"It was night-time, and I went to the graveyard where my son, Mohamed, was buried. I sat there and cried. I wished I was dead and buried next to him. I decided there was no going back -- it was over. And I kept on asking myself, what did I do to deserve this?"
Wafaa headed for the train, with nothing but the galabiya she had on. The ticket seller sympathised with her plight and let her get on. When she arrived home, her mother was not impressed. "I believed her when she said she was badly treated, because I saw him hit her when I visited." In light of their circumstances, it was still best if Wafaa went back.
Fathiya, her mother, confides that her marriage, at the age of 16, was unhappy. "We had seven children, and I worked hard because my husband did not contribute much. I started mending old shoes, which was my father's trade. I never sent the two girls to school, and I wanted to get them married off quickly so that he would not say the girls were bad because the mother was bad. And now this," sighs Fathiya. Her husband, from whom she was divorced a few years ago after he married a 15-year-old girl, beat her up frequently, but she never complained.
Taking a second wife, says Fathiya, destroys homes, "but what can you do? It is their right, you cannot it take away from them." Since then, she has been trying to make a living by mending shoes. Fathiya feels sorry for her daughter, but there just isn't enough to go around.
"When Wafaa came home before, I always told her to go back to her children. She would tell me how badly he treated her, and I would tell her to go back. All homes are like that. This is your fate. Sometimes he used to follow her the same day and ask for her to go back home with him. Sometimes I took her back and asked him to forgive her. She has a nice home to go to, but here we don't even have clean water. What is she going to do? I have her brothers and sisters to feed."
When Wafaa came home this time, Fathiya was hoping that El-Sayed would take her back, but Wafaa threatened to kill herself.
"I want a divorce," she told the lawyer. She had to get her marriage certificate, which was with her father. When she told him why she wanted it, he told her: "If you do this, you are not my daughter." She cried until he gave it to her.
Atef Abdel-Wahab, her lawyer, recounts that "at the beginning, when Wafaa came to see me, I didn't believe what she said about him. I called him to see if a compromise could be reached. This went on for 20 days, but in the end I realised that what she was saying about him was true." The negotiations between her lawyer and El-Sayed took place before the draft Personal Status Law was passed by the People's Assembly. Taking the role of the guardian, the lawyer sought assurances from El-Sayed that Wafaa and her co-wife would be treated equally.
Under the current procedural Personal Status Law, there are six conditions under which a woman can file for divorce without having to give up her financial rights. But in Wafaa's case, says Abdel-Wahab, the judge would have found the evidence unconvincing. "There were no police records, her injuries were not recent, and getting witnesses in a neighbourhood where he has many friends wouldn't have been easy," he explains. The other option would have been to file for divorce on the basis of injury incurred from El-Sayed's remarriage. But Wafaa did not qualify, because she had consented to that very eventuality.
She followed the parliamentary debates closely. "I felt they were not passing judgement on a law but on my life. The men who said that Khul' would be used by women who want to swap men surprise me. They don't know about my situation and that of many women like me, do they?" The day after the law was approved, Wafaa went to see the lawyer. On 1 February, the first request for Khul' was filed by Abdel-Wahab at the Tanta court.
Wafaa says she will never go back, not if he divorces his second wife, not if he apologizes, not if he promises to treat her differently. Khul', she explains, is "divorce for women who can't stand living with their husbands anymore, and are prepared to give up everything in return". Many women's rights advocates are concerned that Khul' will undermine the welfare of poor women who would have to give up everything. "No," she says. "Khul' is for poor women like me, who don't want to keep going from one court to the next: women who will give up anything for their peace of mind."
Money is her last concern. "I just want my freedom. You don't understand what it is like to hate life with your husband so much that you would give up the galabiya you are wearing to be free."
Everything about her home is tainted with memories Wafaa would rather bury. "I hated the air I breathed there. I hated the clothes he bought me. I hated everything that reminded me of him and of that house. In the end, sometimes I used to ask our neighbour for food, because I hated eating there. I felt I was going to die."
It isn't the beatings she resents the most, but his betrayal. Taking up another wife hurt, but his neglecting her afterwards was worse. It was then that she came to the realisation that he valued only the work she did. Maybe, says Wafaa, he would learn when she left him that "enough is enough".
Wafaa wants to work, do anything that will help her earn a living. But for all her confidence, her message to women cannot be described as emancipatory. Wafaa insists that beating is not sufficient grounds for divorce; before seeking Khul' "a woman must endure until she cannot bear anymore, until she feels total injustice." She must hate her husband "so much that she cannot be his wife. If that is the case, she would be treating him unfairly, and not doing her duty as a wife." She quoted a popular saying that holds that the angels condemn a woman who refuses to have sex with her husband.
'IT'S ALL IN HER HEAD': In a telephone interview, El-Sayed questioned Wafaa's psychological welfare. "Ever since her son died, she has not been in her right mind, and I have had to take that into account when dealing with her." Wafaa is ignorant, he suggests. "I taught her to read and write." According to El-Sayed, she started acting strange after that, and got terribly sick. "She asked me to take a second wife to take care of her and her children, since her health no longer permitted it. I asked her if she would be jealous, and she said no, she would be like a sister to her," he elaborates. It was after she got better that the trouble started. "She started getting jealous and treating her badly. Then she left home." Nevertheless, he asserts, because she is the mother of his children, he offered immediate reconciliation, but she refused. "It was the lawyer who put all these ideas in her head." He also cites "her mother's bad influence, what with her divorce and all that". "I suspect she wants to marry another man. Otherwise, she would have returned when I invited her back. If she was a real mother, she would put up with extreme hardship for her children's sake," he adds.
Not that El-Sayed admits to exposing her to any hardship. "I may have given her a slap or two, but that was a long time ago -- more than a year ago. I never did those things she says I did," he says. "In 14 years, she never went to court to ask for a divorce, so why now?"
El-Sayed does not want Wafaa back after the scandal, but he will divorce her because of the family. "I am educated, and I know what is better for my children, and I don't want them to suffer psychologically from the break-up of the family," he explains. He has refused to give two-year-old Shouq to her mother, arguing that her siblings would suffer tremendously if she was taken away from them -- more than their mother is suffering from the separation from her daughter. El-Sayed believes that Khul' violates the Shari'a: "The husband's consent is a prerequisite."
'THIS LAW IS UNJUST': Many of the inhabitants of Sigin Al-Kom were sympathetic with Wafaa and felt it was a shame things had been so bad for her. Their views on the Personal Status Law were more mixed.
"What is new about Khul'? We have always done it here," said one elderly man. He was referring to Ibraa, in which a woman obtains a divorce from the Ma'zoun (public notary) after returning her bride-gift. The crucial difference, with Khul', is that a woman may be divorced without her husband's consent.
One man spent several years embroiled in court cases to obtain his daughter's divorce. He said that with Ibraa, family members from both sides and respected members of the community gather to reach an understanding over the division of property. "But sometimes a man wants revenge and decides not to divorce his wife," he explains. The villagers agreed, however, that men who keep their wives against their will are not acting respectably; nor are men who marry younger wives just because they are tired of their old wives.
There was also confusion about what Khul' really meant. Some thought that a woman requesting it would be divorced automatically, others did not know that women have to give up their financial rights. One woman thought it gives the wife the right "to take everything", while many men thought giving women the power to divorce would give them too much clout in the marriage.
"It will break up many homes," said an elderly woman, who pointed out that women who choose to resort to Khul' must be immoral.
"This law will allow a woman to keep remarrying, live with one man for a while and then exchange him for another," said one young man, as the others nodded.
One newly married man could not understand how a man can spend his life savings on setting up a home, only for the woman to ruin him in a moment of anger. Men and women alike claimed that women would abuse their right.
One young woman said the law is unjust because women have to forsake their financial rights to obtain Khul'. "After all her years of hard work on the land, all she has built would be gone," she sighed. One elderly man agreed: "If the man wants to divorce her without it costing him anything, he will give her hell until she can't stand it anymore. She should endure quietly, so that he does not get his way, and all her financial rights are not lost."
On our way back from Sigin Al-Kom, my traveling companion said angrily: "This law is unjust. Why should a woman like Wafaa have to give up her financial rights when she has done nothing to deserve what she has gone through? It isn't fair at all that women like her will be left with nothing."
Wafaa's case will be heard on 14 March.