Sunday,18 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Sunday,18 November, 2018
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Marriage on the rocks?

With one in five marriages now ending in divorce, is Egypt facing a crisis of married life, asks Walaa Gebba

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egyptian marriages, experts warn, are breaking up at an accelerating rate. Conservatives attribute the phenomenon to a lack of understanding of religion or poor upbringing, while sociologists speak of poor choices of partners and an inability to resolve conflicts within a marriage.

Sheikh Sayyed Zayed, a member of the fatwa committee at Al-Azhar in Cairo, blames the increasing divorce rate on the inability of young people to play by the ethical rules laid down by Islam. “Divorce, from the Islamic perspective, is like surgical intervention — a matter of last resort,” Zayed said.

He cited a hadith, or saying, attributed to the Prophet Mohamed to the effect that “the worst of all lawful acts is divorce”.

However, Hoda Zakariyya, a sociology professor at Zagazig University, questions recent claims by the media that Egypt has one of the highest rates of divorce worldwide. The US, she says, has a higher rate.

Calculating the exact rate is problematic, as some researchers compare the number of divorces in one year to the number of marriages, while others focus on a certain age group, following it through time. Others still focus on recent marriages, over the past two or three years, for example.

Due to such discrepancies, there is a need to be careful about which statistics to use and what conclusions to draw. In the US, the ratio of divorces to new marriages is said to be 50 per cent, but this figure is disputed by many. Some researchers who focussed on the same age group over time came up with an estimate as low as 13 per cent.

In Egypt, the current rate of divorce also varies according to the methodology used, with some estimates going as high as 40 per cent, and others citing only a fraction of that. A recent study by the cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC) concluded that the divorce rate in Egypt had climbed from seven per cent to 40 per cent over the past 50 years.

According to Layla Abdel-Gawwad, a psychology professor at the National Centre for Social and Criminological Research, the divorce rate was 11 per cent in 2000 and rose to 12.5 per cent in 2006. About 953,000 marriages took place in Egypt in 2014, compared to 180,000 divorces in the same year.

Using the above figures, the failure rate for marriages in Egypt is close to one in five. Statisticians are likely to contest this figure for any number of reasons, but for the sake of simplicity it can be assumed to be broadly correct.

Hala Mansour, a Banha University sociology professor, explained the reasons why the young sometimes do not stick to marriage with the same determination as earlier generations. One thing that the current generation has to grapple with is joblessness and sometimes an inadequate income. Another is boredom or infidelity.

But it is not only the young who break up. Some marriages break up after 20 years, or as soon as the parents feel that their children are old enough to cope on their own. Mansour said that society is also becoming more accepting of the idea of divorce. Some women who get a divorce now sometimes even brag about it as if it were an accomplishment, she added.

Ali Leilah, a sociology professor at Ain Shams University in Cairo, believes that family values are not what they used to be in Egypt, meaning that couples don’t feel as committed to marital life as they once did.

Samar Abdu, a family therapist, said that a poor choice of partner is often a major reason for divorce. Other reasons include poor conflict resolution and a lack of understanding, she said.

Many women who ask for a divorce are fairly level headed. Their view that divorce is preferable to raising children in an unhappy marriage shows a certain level of sophistication.

According to Abdu, things have also changed in the dynamics in many Egyptian families. A generation or so ago, many parents would not have let their children file for a divorce. They would have gone out of their way to settle their problems, or even coerced them to stay in the marriage. Such mechanisms mostly no longer exist, so many young people bail out when the going gets rough.

According to official figures, men are more likely (21 per cent) to get a divorce in the age group of 30 to 35 and less likely (0.4 per cent) to get a divorce in the age group of 18 to 20. Women, meanwhile, are more likely (22 per cent) to get a divorce in the age group of 25 to 30 and less likely (0.6 per cent) to get a divorce over the age of 65.

Fawziya Abdel-Sattar, a Cairo University law professor, believes that one of the reasons for the growing rates of divorce is that couples are not committed to their relationships. Other reasons include abuse and personality clashes.

According to Sheikh Zayed, it is crucial for everyone to select their spouses with care. He also recalled how family pressures used to reduce divorce rates in the past. “Parents and elderly relatives from both sides used to intercede and resolve marital problems, ending disputes before they came to the point of divorce,” he said.

He believes that selfish conduct, especially by wives, can wreck marriages.

“Dissatisfaction on the wife’s part, especially if the husband is not wealthy, can sour the marriage, especially if the wife is greedy,” Zayed said.


AT CLOSE QUARTERS: Some women have admitted feeling relieved, or even liberated, once their marriages ended. But others have admitted that with divorce came another level of issues that they had not anticipated.

Lobna felt bitter when her husband left her, ending a marriage of 25 years to marry a younger woman. “Rejection and lack of support — that was all I got from society after I separated from my husband,” she said.

She felt she had to explain her position, and in order to repair her image in front of family and friends she had to tell stories about her marriage, and that in itself was humiliating. “I found myself recounting details of my life that I would have preferred to keep private,” she said.

After the divorce, Lobna had to get a job in order to make ends meet. “Even when our daughter got married, he didn’t contribute much,” she said, referring to her ex-husband.

Noha had to divorce the same man more than once. “He was cheating on me, chatting with women on the Internet. I confronted him, and he said there was nothing wrong with that. He said he was only killing time.”

After the third attempt at divorce, it was all over between them. He is now paying her alimony, but this is not enough, she said, and he does not pay it regularly. “As a result, I had to find a job to support myself and my two daughters,” Noha said.

After her divorce, Mahasen Saber started Motalakat Radio, an online broadcaster dedicated to the problems of divorcees. It is a “window on reality,” she said, adding that, in her view, many divorced women encounter isolation and harassment in their daily lives.

“The biggest problem facing me after my divorce was the negative image society has of divorced women,” she said. “A large sector of society may also view divorcees as an easy catch, or as lonely and vulnerable.”

Mahasen believes that society’s reaction to divorce is schizophrenic. “Society stigmatises divorced women despite the fact that Islam regards women highly and members of the Prophet’s own family went through a divorce,” she said.

The reason she launched Motalakat Radio in October 2011 was that she wanted to offer a platform for people sharing the same problems. She said that violence and infidelity were the main reasons for divorce and that the divorce laws have many loopholes that need to be closed.

“I have read the family laws very carefully and have written about the loopholes in the laws,” she said. “We launched a campaign on the radio to demand that the loopholes be closed, but no action was taken.”

Mahasen is relieved that Egypt has laws for khola’, or court divorces, granted at the wife’s request. “The law offers a way out for women who are seeking a divorce. But the procedures are still too complex,” she said.

She is currently writing a Master’s thesis on “The Role of Al-Azhar in Women’s Education in Indonesia” and says that she’ll be much more careful about choosing a husband in future. “Divorced women get more offers of marriage than previously unmarried ones. But next time I choose a husband, I will need to think not just about myself, but also about finding the right stepfather for my son,” she said.

Therapist Samar Abdu warns that divorce can be traumatic for children, especially those of a young age. It is common for children to blame themselves for the separation of their parents, and it is therefore important for parents to explain that they may have grown apart, but that they still love their children as much as they did before.

If the divorce is done in a civilised way, the children have a better chance of coping with the consequences, Abdu said.

Leilah said that children are often mystified by the idea of divorce and that they could feel as if they have been “orphaned”. He is concerned that boys brought up by single mothers may grow up to be insufficiently masculine. “But there are also many boys raised by single mothers ... who grow up wonderfully,” he added.

The social stigma confronting divorcees might impel them to be more cautious in their daily exchanges with men than usual, which is another downside of divorce, Leilah noted.

Sociologist Hala Mansour senses that families in general are not as robust as they used to be, including about divorce. “In the past, society stigmatised divorcees. Now we are so accepting of divorce that there is no social deterrence. Women ask for a divorce and then even brag about it,” she said, even in situations when the marriage could have been saved.

“There are bumps in every marriage. If everyone bails out, no marriages will survive,” Mansour said.


DIVORCE AT A PRICE: In 2000, the khola’ law was passed that allows women to get a divorce in court if they offer to relieve their husbands from all or some of their financial obligations. In 2014, about 3,700 women obtained a divorce in court in accordance with this law. 

Law Professor Fawziya Abdel-Sattar said that the khola’ law was passed to give women a way out of bad marriages. But the procedure is still not very fast, and the courts usually don’t grant a divorce by khola’ until three months of reconciliation attempts have been made.

Sheikh Zayed said that divorce through khola’ should also be the exception and not the rule. In his view, the judges should only grant a woman a divorce if they establish that the “husband is unfaithful, a drug addict, or has aberrant sexual tastes”.

He uses references to early Islam to bolster his argument, telling the story of a woman who went to the Prophet Mohamed asking for a divorce from her husband. She said that she could not stand the man and feared that were the marriage to continue she might not be able to remain faithful to him. The Prophet, seeing her point, ordered the man to divorce her, but he also ordered the woman to give back to the man an orchard he had offered her as a wedding gift.

This incident is the basis upon which legislators have argued for the khola’ law. And Abdel-Sattar is impressed by the fact that the Prophet Mohamed granted the woman a divorce without even a hint of cross-examination. “The Prophet didn’t ask the woman if her husband beat her or insulted her,” she said. It was enough for him that she wanted out.

However, Sheikh Zayed sees khola’ as a modern scourge. “A married woman could meet a young man and fall for him, and the next thing could be that she would be asking for a khola’ divorce from her husband,” he said.

Abdel-Sattar is also concerned that some women may be taking the easy way out by resorting to a khola’ divorce. It must only be used as a “last resort,” she said.

Fatemah Salah, a legal expert at the Cairo Development Centre, an NGO, does not think that women today are taking divorce too lightly. Women who seek khola’, she noted, stand to lose many of their financial rights, and they are likely to have thought long and deeply before going to court.

Moreover, women who want to get a divorce don’t necessarily have to ask for it under the khola’ law. They can go to court and demand a divorce on grounds of abuse. This way, they can maintain all their financial rights, she said. The problem is that abuse can be hard to prove, she added.

“Proving that damage has been done to the wife is not easy. Most marital problems occur behind closed doors and are therefore hard to back up with evidence,” she said.

According to Mansour, a healthier way of bringing up children would reduce the incidence of divorce. Children need to learn more about marital relations, and perhaps even study them in class, she said. If children are not aware of what makes a marriage work, they may have marital problems when they grow up, she added.

Therapist Abdu said that the young must be prepared for marital responsibilities, advised on how to select their partners, and coached on how to keep a marriage from breaking up in its early years, which are the riskiest.

It is necessary for spouses to talk about their problems, admit their differences, and come 

up with the right compromises, she said. Those who don’t talk together face a greater risk of divorce, she added, saying that special courses could be laid on to teach couples how to negotiate their differences. 

Such courses could even be sponsored by the state. After all, the cost of the courses would probably be less than the cost of litigation and the trauma associated with divorce.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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