Egyptian Salafists in uproar over bill restricting polygamy, underage marriages

Women’s rights groups have been mobilising in support of the bill.
Sunday 22/03/2020
Lawmakers of the Egyptian Salafist Nour Party attend a special session of parliament to vote on new constitutional amendments, in the capital Cairo on April 16, 2019. (AFP)
Lawmakers of the Egyptian Salafist Nour Party attend a special session of parliament to vote on new constitutional amendments, in the capital Cairo on April 16, 2019. (AFP)

CAIRO--Egypt’s ultraorthodox Salafists are rising up against a bill proposed by the government to rein in polygamy by committing Muslim husbands wishing to take a second wife to get written approval from their first wives.

If passed, the measure would replace a law that has regulated marriage contracts since 1955.

The Salafists said the proposal oversteps the Islamic religion, which gives men the right to have four wives at one time.

“You cannot eliminate a licence that was given by God to men by man-made law,” said Salafist activist Sameh Abdel Hamid. “Laws are OK so long as they do not violate religious rules.”

Egypt is among Arab countries that allow Muslim men to marry more than one wife. Some countries, including those in North Africa, have introduced restrictions to polygamy. Tunisia banned it in 1957.

There is no reliable estimate of the number of men with more than one wife in Egypt.

Egypt’s laws are said to be sharia-based, which means that they must conform to Islamic law.

Nonetheless, Islam restricts polygamy by making it necessary for men who have more than one wife to treat each wife fairly and on equal footing. The Quran says, however, such equal treatment is not possible.

Authorities proposed the bill to — among other things — restrict polygamy and curb related social ailments. Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional and Legislative Affairs has debated the measure and referred it to al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest religious authority, for review.

The bill, some lawmakers said, is important because it addresses social issues that have been overlooked.

“I think there is more openness in society now for restricting polygamy,” said MP Samir Rashad, a member of the committee. “Islam gives men the right to marry more than one wife but this right is far from unfettered. I also believe that the changes happening in our society require a rethink of the way this right is practised.”

Salafists, who accuse those propagating the new rules of overlooking the licence Islam gave men, are strongly opposed to the bill. “If approved into law, this bill will cause the whole society to collapse,” Abdel Hamid said.

The proposed legislation will introduce new terms to marriage contracts, requiring husbands to get written approval from their first wife to be able to contract a second marriage. However, it is considered unlikely that many women would be willing to sign a statement allowing their husbands to marry other women.

Marriage registration officials would not be able to register the marriage in the absence of such statements or they would be subject to penalties, including suspension.

Apart from trying to curb polygamy, the bill seeks to eradicate the marriage of underage girls, which is rife in some parts of Egypt, often driven by the desire of poor parents to get money in return for marrying off their daughters.

The measure would also make it necessary for husbands who divorce so they can marry again to provide their estranged wives with a monthly pension. It would give women the right to divorce without approval of their husbands and without filing for divorce at Egypt’s Family Courts.

Under present regulations women seeking separation file a complaint at Family Courts, which sometimes can take years to reach a settlement.

Salafists object to women’s right to divorce, which they describe as “an insult to men,” warning it would increase Egypt’s already high divorce rates.

In 2018, divorces increased 6.7% to 211,554 compared with 2017, the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, the official statistics agency, stated.

Women’s rights groups have been mobilising in support of the bill, accusing Islamists of encouraging polygamous practices.

“They are behind the increase in these practices,” said women’s rights advocate Azza Kamel. “Sorry to say, these practices are humiliating to women and lead to the loss of their rights.”

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