Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 June 2010
Issue No. 1003
Living
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Breaking the stereotype of divorce

In an attempt to overcome the stigma of divorce, one young Egyptian divorcee has launched a radio station for divorced women, attracting the admiration of Amany Abdel-Moneim

Click to view caption
Saber and her son

Egyptian women today are often no longer afraid of the social stigma associated with divorce, partly helped by the emergence of new ways of breaking down prejudices, such as the online radio station launched by one 31-year- old divorcee, Mahasen Saber.

Inspired by her own experience of divorce, Saber, who has a degree in history and is the mother of Abdel-Rahman, a five-year-old boy, launched the online station Motalakat Radio (divorced women's radio) earlier this year.

"I wanted to change the negative stereotypes of divorced women in Egypt and create a supportive community," Saber said. Her online biography describes her as being a self-assured woman who wants to be remembered for helping others and who enjoys the music of Brian Adams, Sting and Tchaikovsky and is a fan of actors Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Ed Harris and Omar Sharif.

Egyptian society tends to burden women with the responsibility for divorce, and when a woman asks for a divorce people sometimes give her disapproving looks. "Even if she pleads that she is married to an abusive husband, one common attitude is still 'Get a life,'" Saber said.

However, for her part Saber believes that women have the right to decide how they want to live. Even if divorce could be seen as representing a personal failure, a woman should be able to leave negative experiences behind her and take on a positive role in society.

"I'm not promoting divorce, since it is a hard experience that needs strength. But if a woman feels it's best for her to end an impossible partnership, then it is her right to choose," Saber said.

Saber herself was married for three years, and she finds it ironic that it took almost four years, longer than the marriage lasted, to go through Egypt's snail-paced court system to get a divorce. In her painful journey, she met many women in similar circumstances who relied on each other for moral support. It was then that Saber's desire to help others in a similar situation truly emerged, introducing her to Internet culture.

"When security disappears from marriage and serenity becomes an unattainable dream, then welcome to the most hated halal (of divorce)." Saber opened her blog Ayeza Atalak wa... (I want a divorce and...) with these words two years after her divorce, and she went on to record her experiences on the blog, including her experience in court, the ordeals she faced and the condescending attitude of the attorneys she hired to help her.

Soon after its launch, the blog turned into a forum for divorcees to share their experiences, and its success encouraged Saber to go for a larger audience by launching an online radio station. Egyptians tend to prefer listening to reading, she said.

Saber founded Motalakat Radio as a spin-off from her blog before setting up a dedicated website at www.motalakatradio.com. The slogan "Motalakat Radio : See Life Differently" appeared on Saber's blog ahead of the official launch at the beginning of the year, and since then her voice has been available to listeners across the world.

"I set up a radio station to act as a bridge between women, men and society in Egypt, the Arab countries and abroad," Saber explained, adding that her webcasts and blog posts are delivered in easy to understand colloquial Arabic and are dedicated to helping women whose marriages have failed, leaving them facing tremendous legal odds and needing a forum to express their feelings.

There is a divorced woman in almost every Egyptian family today, and Saber's Internet- based radio therefore reaches a wide public. The divorce rate is at an all-time high, so it's no surprise that the station meets a need. Egyptian couples today file for divorce every six minutes, according to the National Centre for Social and Criminological Research.

One third of marriages in Egypt end within the first years, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS). Another study has revealed that there are now 13 million single men and women in the country, according to data collected from the 2006 census.

In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, sociologist Lobna Moukhtar said that Egyptian women were increasingly likely to initiate legal proceedings leading to divorce. Some 250,000 women are currently involved in court battles, and Egyptian women can ask for a divorce today without stating a reason or having to prove anything other than incompatibility with their husbands, as stipulated by the amended divorce law of 2000.

However, all this comes with a price tag attached, since should women take this no-fault option, known as khul', they risk giving up their rights to property and to their dowry, and the process can take up to six months. As a result, some women still resort to the older procedure of sometimes drawn-out litigation in order to keep some financial rights, even if court hearings are often seen as being biased against them.

In contrast, it is easy for a man to divorce his wife.

Saber, fully aware of the heavy price that divorced Egyptian women pay for gaining their freedom, refused to get a Khul' divorce, saying that this was unacceptable as it meant giving up her rights. Despite her refusal to follow the simplified procedure, Saber still had to forfeit some of her financial rights in order to speed up the process and protect her son from the turmoil of an even-lengthier divorce case.

Her recounting of her experiences, first on her blog and then on her radio, was an immediate success with the public, and it has received wide coverage in the national and international media. The radio station has been featured on the BBC, CNN and Al-Arabiya satellite channels, and it has also been shown on the Egyptian television shows Al-Ashera Masaan ( 10 o'clock) and Ana Wal Hyah (Me and Life).

The station has been up and running for six months now, and it features broadcasts dealing with topics relating to divorced women and those thinking of getting a divorce. A lot of divorcees support the station via the Internet, listening to broadcasts from their homes in the Arab countries, Europe and the United States.

Saber explained that she chose meaningful names for her programmes, such as Abl ma Te'oly Ya Talaa (Before you say Divorce), intended to caution women against filing for separation too hastily. "The only real advisor for a married woman thinking about getting a divorce is a divorced one, since she has already been through the painful experience," she explained.

One programme on the station is called Yawmeyat Motalak (Diaries of a Divorced Man), presented by a divorced man, and Taliek Ala Mataawedih, (An Amicable Divorce), which aims to help build a healthy relationship between couples after their separation. Saber said that her own relationship with her ex-husband had become more positive after getting the divorce, which has been important because it has positive effects on her child.

Another programme is called Yamafhoumin Belghalat, "Oh, how misunderstood we are", this looking at the value of divorced women in society and at how divorced women deal with their daily lives and the criticisms they can face for having asked for a divorce. "People tend to look at us suspiciously, thinking that a divorced woman is capable of bad behaviour," Saber pointed out.

In addition, the radio station puts out programmes like Ibnek Ala Ma Terabih, "How to raise your son", in which divorced women can ask psychologists about how to make the best of their children's education, or how to help children come to terms with their parents' divorce.

The station deals with the psychological problems that women can have as a result of their divorce in a programme entitled Hekayat Men Taht Sereery, "Stories from under my bed". This helps divorcees find ways of turning negative experiences into something positive. There are also programmes for young people, such as Qeloub Banat, "Girls' Hearts" or "Facebu", in which a medical student makes fun of the latest trends on Facebook.

Saber's Internet-based radio has put certain trends in Egyptian society, generally dominated by conservative views, onto the blogosphere. As a result, some have described it as being provocative or courageous, while others have seen it as being scandalous. Some men, such as 45- year-old Medhat Omar, see it as an open call to women to seek a divorce and rebel against their husbands.

"Women have more rights than they should. They have really gone too far and have become rebellious," Omar said, adding that activism for women's rights has sown the seeds of family discord.

On the other side from Omar are the station's supporters, especially women who see the station as a chance to turn their own experiences into something positive. Such women want to create awareness of the problem in Egypt and overcome the psychological and social barriers against which divorced women struggle.

"I don't have a problem saying that I'm divorced, yet people look at me, comment on me and judge me," said 33-year-old Maha El-Shennawi, who works as an accountant.

"Joining the blog was great, because we're all like-minded. Divorce is becoming more acceptable in society. Egypt is a country that continues to change," El-Shennawi said. Nevertheless, in general terms Egyptian culture is still conservative and family-oriented and for many finding marital happiness remains the goal.

"I've been divorced for over three years, and I think I'm past the feeling of being unhappy," said Laila Saif El-Din, a housewife. Nevertheless, "I do dream of finding someone to share my life with," she added.

The team behind the station consists of 10 people, not all of them divorced women. Headed by Saber, it includes some men, since they also make up part of the target audience, as well as unmarried and married women.

The radio has very modest funding, and all the staff are volunteers. It has no permanent studio or headquarters. Despite these disadvantages, the radio has proved to be very popular, and each presenter makes his or her programme at home and then uploads it onto the station's homepage, the public responding if they wish by e-mail or on Facebook.

Commenting on the success of Motalakat Radio, Saber points to the growing pressures on women that have contributed to increased rates of divorce. Her only aim, she said, is to improve the image of divorced women in society and to present their problems to her Egyptian audience and to those who tune in from further afield, including Morocco, Lebanon, Italy and Colombia.

Having been met with mainly positive responses to her Internet-based radio station for divorced women, Saber now plans to expand her operations and launch a television channel.

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