In Selected Opinion

By Youssef Sidhom – Watani – 

Problems on hold

Today I tackle yet another problem which deeply irks me and which I have vowed not to drop, this being the inequality between Egyptian men and women in inheritance.

In Egypt, it is a time honoured tradition that family matters are governed by religious teachings: Muslims are governed by Islamic sharia (Islamic law), and Christians by their own doctrines. Article 3 of Egypt’s Constitution states that: “The principles of the doctrines of Egyptian Christians and Jews shall be the main source of legislation governing their personal status affairs [family affairs], religious affairs, and the choice of their religious leaders”.

Currently, we await approval by the various Churches in Egypt—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—of a draft for a unified family law for Egyptian Christians. The Churches should approve the draft law which would then be handed to the government to present to parliament to pass as legislation.

Once passed, the unified family law for Egyptian Christians should replace current legislation. By its very nature as a law that applies to all Christians in Egypt regardless of denomination, the unified family law is expected to iron out problems that ensue out of different views on family issues among various Churches, differences that throw the courts in quandary when judging on disputes between Christians of different denominations. In such cases, courts in Egypt settle disputes according to Islamic sharia. And in case the dispute concerns inheritance—inheritance is legally a “personal status” family matter—and Islamic sharia is applied by the court, a man inherits double the share of a woman, even though no such rule exists under Christian doctrine.

A unified family law for Egyptian Christians would abolish the need for courts to apply non-Christian doctrine to Copts. Sadly, however, the new draft law is said to include no provision for inheritance rules, thereby giving courts no Christian principle to rule by in inheritance cases. It thus puts the court in the position of having no alternative but to rule according to Islamic inheritance law, meaning that a man would inherit double the share of a woman.

Yet a recent ruling issued by the Cairo Court of Appeals appears to have the effect of a stone cast in stagnant waters. The court ruling, which is final and definitive, rules that Coptic Orthodox men and women inherit equal shares, according to Article 3 of the Constitution and Article 274 of the Coptic Orthodox family bylaws.

The story goes back to March 2016 when a Coptic woman died, and her sole inheritors were her brother and sister. A first degree court ruled that the brother should inherit double the share of his sister, meaning that the estate would be divided into three equal portions of which the man inherits two and the woman one. The female inheritor was unhappy about the ruling, and thus contested it in the Court of Appeals.

The legal reasoning behind the new ruling declared that Article 274 of the family bylaws for the Coptic Orthodox stipulates that if a person dies leaving no children or living parents, the spouse should be given his/her share of inheritance, and the remaining part of the estate should be equally divided between the brothers and sisters of the deceased, provided they are full brothers and sisters. Accordingly, the appeals court ruled that the first-degree court ruling should be annulled, and the brother and sister in question should inherit equal shares of the estate.

True, the ruling establishes a legal precedent to be applied to similar cases. Yet we look up to the unified family law for Christians to stipulate all-encompassing rules that would root equality between men and women in all inheritance cases.

I care to repeat what I wrote before, that I aspire for gender equality in inheritance for Egyptian Christians, basing on Christian doctrine and Coptic history. Once applied, I earnestly hope it acts as a positive model that would one day extend to cover all Egyptians, Muslims as well as Christians. Tunisia already has such legislation in place; would Egypt catch up with Tunisia any time soon?


Court ruling: equal inheritance for men and women

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