By Coptic Solidarity –
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published an insightful report this week titled Personal Status and Family Law in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Most MENA countries have an official religion or a favored religion which is Islam and Judaism in Israel. Within this region, the majority of governments establish personal status law on one’s religion, “often, but not exclusively rooted in some interpretation of Shari’a- rather than civil or international standards.”
Personal status law is essentially family law, and the report examines the representative categories: marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and guardianship. Each of the categories is highlighted in the report utilizing specific examples from countries in the region. The information under each country is representative of the broader category throughout the region meaning the issues discussed in one country is often similar to that of other countries in the region although not specified. USCIRF found that “these laws have a particular and consequential impact on the rights of women, including their right to religious freedom.
The situation in Egypt, is typical of the region in that Islam is the state’s official religion. Article 2 of the constitution declares “the principles of Islamic Shari’a” as “the primary source of legislation.” In 2014, an article was added to the constitution which allowed for Christians and Jews to utilize their own religious principles for “personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders.” It is positive that these two minorities have an alternative to Shari’a in some circumstances, but there is still no civil/secular legal alternative in Egypt.
One of the few bright spots in personal status laws occurred in Egypt in the area of inheritance rights for women, when the parliament legislated in 2017 that women are to receive their legal inheritance. Under Shari’a law, women are to receive half of what their male siblings inherit. In 2019, a Coptic female successfully brought a lawsuit requesting the use of Coptic Orthodox personal status regulations which allowed her to receive equal portions of her late father’s inheritance along with her male siblings. As USCIRF notes that the “case perpetuated the dominance of religious law…rather than carving out a civil alternative,” but it did create precedent for “the distinct rights of certain religious minorities in the country to follow their own traditions in lieu of Sharia norms.”
The report found that even if one does not believe or follow a specific faith, there are no civil alternatives to religiously based rulings. As exemplified in Lebanon, “the practical reality of this system forces some women to remain in abusive and violent marriages while it leaves others, whose husbands have unilaterally cut them off form marital support, economically vulnerable and socially stigmatized.
USCIRF concluded that under the international norms of Freedom of Religion, Belief and Conscience, women should have the ability to choose to be governed by religiously based entities. BUT, where the violation of religious freedom occurs is “through a given government’s legal mandate that woman must adhere to these traditions even if she disagrees with them, without recourse to civil codes or other legal alternatives distinct from an officially sanctioned interpretation of a religious law.”