Hussein Sobhy, a 35-year-old Egyptian lawyer, said that since he and his wife agreed to divorce, his visitation rights only allow him to spend three hours a week with his 5-year-old daughter.
Even the three hours are not guaranteed, he said, adding that out of nine visits, his wife only brought his daughter five times.
He said his ex-wife pulled their daughter out of the school where he teaches so he wouldn’t be able to see her.
Sobhy is one of hundreds of divorced fathers caught in custody battles, prompting him to join Egypt’s first-ever association defending men’s rights. The association was officially registered by the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity on June 9 under the name The Egyptian Association for Defending the Rights of Men and Children in the Egyptian Family Law.
In a press statement on June 9, lawyer Ahmed Rizk Matar, founder and board chairman of the association, said that its establishment aims primarily at safeguarding the entity of the Egyptian family and resisting the steady rise in divorce cases in the country.
This association was established in conjunction with Egypt’s recent formation of a judicial committee to redraft the controversial family law, also known as the personal status law that governs issues related to marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance. Egypt’s Minister of Justice Omar Marwarn issued a decision on June 5 forming a 10-person committee that will re-examine the law, composed of eight male judges and two female judges, mostly from family courts. They have been given the responsibility of presenting a new draft law within four months.
The move comes after Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met the minister of justice on June 4 and directed the formation of the committee to draft a law “that takes into account the multiple interests of all parties concerned with its provisions and in a balanced manner.”
Sherif El Haddad, founding member of the association, criticized the current personal status law, arguing that it is biased toward women at the expense of children.
“The association calls for a number of demands, including amending the law to give the noncustodial parent — usually the father — hosting right for their children instead of the currently limited visitation right, which is only three hours a week,” Haddad told Al-Monitor.
“Three hours a week are not enough to form a bond between a child and the noncustodial parent. What could the father say or do with his child in three hours,” Haddad said, adding that the current law does not allow men to practice their role as fathers after divorce.
“An unfair law is often used as a tool for personal revenge. Mothers sometimes make it difficult for fathers to see their children frequently. We want a law that respects both the mother and the father and takes into consideration the psychological wellbeing of children. Children should not be harmed by the separation of their parents,” Haddad said.
He noted that the association also calls for reducing the age of custody to 7 for a boy and 9 for a girl, as was the case before 2005 when the law changed to raise the age to 15.
The current personal status law gives divorced mothers the right to custody until the child reaches 15 years of age, after which the child may choose between living with their mother or moving in with their father, provided that there is a female caretaker for the child. If the mother remarries before this time, she loses custody of her children and custody transfers to the maternal grandmother. The current law allows the noncustodial parent to see his children for no less than three hours every week in a public place.
Haddad also criticized Egypt’s khula law (permitting nonfault divorce), saying that it completely destroyed the Egyptian family by making it easier for a woman to file for a divorce for any reason.
Article 20 of the khula law introduced in Egypt in 2000 allows women to file for a divorce if two spouses do not mutually agree on divorce while giving up all of her legal financial rights.
In a telephone interview on Al-Nahar's satellite TV, head of the Egyptian Mazouns (marriage registrars) Syndicate Sheikh Islam Amer said that Egypt recorded nearly a quarter-million divorce cases in 2021 and that 88% of the divorce cases were initiated by women in family courts under the khula law.
Some women's rights activists in Egypt are taking on the establishment of an association for the defense of men’s rights.
Director of the Cairo Foundation for Development and Law Intissar al-Saeed wondered, “Are men oppressed or subject to any kind of injustice from women in order to form an association that defends their rights?”
“While khula has clearly made it easier for Egyptian women to get divorced, they still risk losing all their financial rights. Also, it has not adequately remedied the fundamental inequality of the divorce process. Egyptian men, unlike Egyptian women, have the right to initiate a divorce without going to court,” Saeed told Al-Monitor.
Azza Sulaiman, head of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, also hopes that the current personal status law will be replaced with a new and just one soon, annulling any kind of discrimination women are subjected to after divorce.
“Egypt’s personal status law was passed in 1929 and has been amended several times without addressing the real challenges of systematic discrimination against the rights of women embedded in this law,” Sulaiman told Al-Monitor.
“Mothers losing the right to custody when they get remarried discriminates against women and violates the constitution, which ensures full equality between men and women. This pushes her to never get married or to get married in a non-official way, which can be used to blackmail her," Sulaiman added. "I’ve seen mothers pay money to avoid being publicly revealed as having remarried and at risk of losing custody of their children.”
A man can live his life normally and remarry after divorce, whereas a woman’s life is held up in courts as she fights to obtain her rights and the rights of her children, as fathers sometimes decline to pay for the expenses of their children after divorce as a kind of personal revenge against mothers,” Sulaiman said.
“It is women who suffer the most after divorce. What rights are men calling for?” 33-year-old Rahma Hassan told Al-Monitor. She has two daughters and got a divorce after 10 years of marriage.
Ever since her divorce three years ago, Hassan has been in and out of courts pursuing her rights. She hasn't been able to get her ex-husband to pay for the expenses of their two daughters, and she had to file for alimony. But the case has been stalled in court for two years.
Hassan, who has not completed high school, is working at a hospital to secure the basic needs of her two children after their father refused to support them financially.
“I’m tired. I feel like I’m still knocking on the door with all my strength in the hope that I’ll be heard. Meanwhile, my ex-husband lives his life normally, without paying any care to his daughters and how I pay for them,” Hassan said.