Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 June 2001
Issue No.539
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Did hisba ever go away?

Contrary to all expectations, Cairo's Civil Affairs Court decided to hear a case against prominent feminist Nawal El-Saadawi which seeks to force her separation from her husband on the grounds that she insulted Islam, reports Khaled Dawoud

Seventy-year-old writer and prominent feminist Nawal El-Saadawi showed up early Monday at Zananiri's Civil Affairs Court in Cairo hand-in-hand with her 78-year-old husband, Dr Sherif Hetata, surrounded by scores of supporters from Egypt and all over the world.

El-Saadawi, known for her controversial views and fierce campaigns demanding equal rights for women in a male-dominated society, appeared in high spirits, and almost certain that the court would throw out a case filed against her by a lawyer demanding her separation from her husband.

The lawyer, Nabih El-Wahsh, claimed that El-Saadawi insulted Islam and questioned one of its main pillars in an interview with an independent weekly, Al-Midan, in early March. She was quoted as saying that pilgrimage to Mecca and kissing the black stone were "vestige of pagan practices", and repeated her opposition to Islamic inheritance laws which give men double that left to women.

El-Saadawi insists she was misquoted by the newspaper, and that her words were taken out of context. However, the lawyer made use of the second article of the Egyptian Constitution which states that Islamic law, or Shari'a, is the main source of legislation in Egypt, and filed what is known as a hisba case against El-Saadawi. Hisba signifies a case filed by an individual on behalf of society when the plaintiff feels that great harm has been done to religion.

A number of Islamist lawyers made a specialisation of filing hisba cases against Egyptian intellectuals and writers in the early 1990s, one of which, in 1995, resulted in a court order for the separation of university professor Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid from his wife. As a result, the government asked parliament to amend the hisba law, allowing only the prosecutor-general to file such cases after receiving complaints from individuals.

El-Wahsh did not file the separation case through the prosecutor-general's office, but went straight to the Civil Affairs Court. Thus, El-Saadawi's lawyers and legal experts expected the court would reject the case at the first session because it had not followed the proper legal procedures. What added to El- Saadawi's and her supporter's optimism that the case would immediately be turned down was that the prosecutor's office presented a memo to the court at the opening session asking it to reject the case. Another lawyer who represented the government and attended the opening session also refuted allegations by El-Wahsh that the amendment which parliament approved to the hisba law in 1996 was unconstitutional.

However, after El-Saadawi and her supporters -- some of whom were from Tunisia, the United States and Europe -- left the court house in the popular district of Shubra feeling certain that things would go well, the judge decided to adjourn the case until 9 July to allow both sides to present their briefs to court.

One of the prominent figures who came all the way from Italy to express solidarity with El-Saadawi was European Parliament member Emma Bonino.

"This is a problem related to freedom of expression, and goes contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Bonino told Al-Ahram Weekly. "That is why I came to express solidarity with El-Saadawi, who is well known for defending women's and human rights."

Commenting on the court's ruling to adjourn the case instead of immediately rejecting it, Gasser Abdel-Raziq, director of Hisham Mubarak Centre for Human Rights, said: "That is a surprising development. It could mean that the case could turn similar to that of Dr Nasr Abu Zeid."

El-Saadawi told reporters that she was "optimistic after the prosecution also demanded dropping the case." She thanked all those who came to express solidarity with her. "Our struggle now is to work on cancelling the hisba law once and for all," she said.

Meanwhile, the Zananiri Court, which is usually crowded with women seeking divorce, turned into a shouting battlefield between El-Saadawi's supporters and those of El-Wahsh even before the session started. El-Wahsh did not go to court with crowds of followers, but did his best to incite members of the public in the courtroom by claiming that El-Saadawi and her supporters were against religion. "Go cover yourself up, woman, before talking to me!" he shouted at one of the supporters, who was trying to argue with him. "These secularists are against religion," he added.

However, he did not succeed in intimidating El- Saadawi's supporters, who openly called El-Wahsh an "extremist" and a "demagogue".

Besides the case demanding El-Saadawi's forced separation from her husband, El-Wahsh earlier filed a complaint to Prosecutor-General Maher Abdel-Wahid's office, accusing the writer of "deprecating religion", a charge that could be punished by up to three years' imprisonment. Abdel-Wahid summoned El-Saadawi for questioning and decided to drop the case because it was groundless. "This was a political decision," El- Wahsh shouted loudly while standing at the court's entrance. "The government is bowing to pressure from the United States and Europe."

In the past, El-Wahsh has filed cases against Queen Elizabeth, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former US President Bill Clinton.

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