When TV presenter Doaa Salah broached the thorny issue of single motherhood on her weekly “Dodi Show” on Al Nahar last July, she probably had no idea that she would end up fired and sentenced to three years in prison.
Sporting a fake baby bump in the studio, she boldly asked female viewers if they had ever considered engaging in premarital sex. She also suggested that women marry for a short period to have a baby and lamented that sperm donation is prohibited in Egypt. She faced a fierce backlash for her "immoral remarks.”
She was permanently suspended from her job and charged with "inciting debauchery” after a lawyer filed a complaint accusing her of “violating public morality.” Last November, she was convicted of the same offense and sentenced to three years in prison. Salah has appealed the verdict and is now awaiting a decision by the court of appeals. Although she is currently out of jail, her high-profile case and the sentence sent a clear message that the state has zero tolerance for ideas deemed by the authorities to be "a threat to the fabric of Egyptian life."
Topics like sex and sperm donation are taboo in conservative Egypt, where the family is sacrosanct. Ironically, there was no uproar when the Egyptian film "Bashtery Ragel" ("A Man Wanted") took on the same delicate topic that landed Salah in hot water. The romantic comedy that premiered in January 2017 tells the story of a successful businesswoman in her mid-30s who decides to have a child and seeks a sperm donor on Facebook. While the film provoked no outcry from conservatives, it drew mixed reactions from audiences and critics. Some praised it as inspiring and empowering for women, while others condemned it as an attempt to propagate Western values that violate Egyptian cultural traditions and Islamic beliefs. Because the film is a comedy, it was largely taken lightly by the audience. But screenwriter Inas Lotfy had intended the film to be "a wake-up call" for society.
"The Egyptian public is not accustomed to hearing a woman express her needs and desires, let alone take control of her own life like the lead actress did," Lotfy said in an interview broadcast on CBC.
The film was inspired by the real-life experience of one of Lotfy's friends who, after several failed relationships, had decided she was no longer interested in finding a husband. She wanted a baby without the hassle of another breakup.
Her case is not uncommon in Egypt, where the number of unmarried women over 35 has spiked in recent years, exceeding 8 million in 2016 — an estimated 40% of women of marriageable age, according to the national statistics agency.
In Egypt, a predominantly Muslim country, perceptions of marriage, divorce and motherhood are changing. The change perhaps is best reflected in the much-publicized case of 27-year-old Hadir Makaqi, dubbed "Egypt's first single mother" by the Egyptian media. She sparked controversy last year when she announced her pregnancy on social media after her husband abandoned her. "Urfi" marriages are unregistered with the state and often take place in private with the couple simply signing a piece of paper — often without witnesses — to declare they are married. Young couples have increasingly turned to such informal and often secret marriages as a way of quietly circumventing Sharia, which prohibits adultery and extramarital sex. Choosing to keep her baby and become a single mother rather than get an abortion is a huge gamble in a country like Egypt, where the stakes are incredibly high: a tarnished reputation, exposure to insults and even the risk of detention.
Makaqi decided to go public with her pregnancy, believing that she had more to gain from speaking out than remaining silent. She had hoped sharing her story online would help garner public support for her yet unborn child by piling pressure on the alleged father to recognize his child. Photographs of the pregnant Makaqi quickly went viral on social media, earning her both praise and criticism. Supporters lauded her courage and honesty, while critics attacked her for "inciting immorality" and "promoting adultery."
The case served to bring public attention the serious problem of urfi marriages, under which millions of Egyptian women are deprived of their financial and legal rights and run the risk of their spouse denying the marriage or ending it by simply destroying the paper declaration. In many cases, children born in urfi marriages are not acknowledged by the father. When this happens, the woman might get an abortion to avoid a scandal. Few are as courageous as Makaqi.
Another reason for the increasing number of single mothers is the country's high divorce rate, the highest in the Arab World. Nearly 40% of marriages in Egypt end in divorce within the first five years, a sign that the social stigma associated with divorce is weakening.
Egypt's Grand Mufti Shawki Allam has attributed the high divorce rates to "khul" — a procedure for a no-fault divorce introduced in Egypt in 2000 that allows a Muslim woman to divorce her husband on the grounds that she is suffering in the marriage. Rights advocates, however, deny the Mufti's claim.
"Filing a court case to be granted a divorce is often a difficult process that may take up to 18 months," rights lawyer Azza Soliman told Al-Monitor. "Under khul, a woman is required to give up her legal financial rights and return the dowry she received from her spouse. So while khul appears in theory to offer women a solution to their marital woes, in practice, the procedure is time-consuming and at times humiliating for the woman, who has to represent herself in court and is often prodded by the judge to reveal the reasons for seeking the divorce.”
While divorced women in Egypt still face multiple challenges, including the negative social perceptions of divorced women, more women are opting to break away from unhappy marriages and make a fresh start as single mothers.
"Society always puts the blame on the woman for the divorce. The hardest part for me was the fact that everyone I knew — even close friends — turned their back on me after my divorce," said Marwa Kamel, who has two adolescent children in her custody. Her husband walked out on her seven years ago to be with another woman, ending their marriage of 13 years. After getting over the initial shock of the breakup, Kamel went about rebuilding her life, working two jobs to support herself and her children.
Still, she has no regrets. "I am happier and more fulfilled today than I ever was during my marriage," she told Al-Monitor.
By law, Egyptian women are entitled to custody of their children until they turn 15. Under a proposed bill currently under review in parliament, a divorced mother would lose custody of her children to her ex-husband in the event of her remarrying if the ex-husband can provide a female caretaker. Under the current laws, custody of the children goes to the maternal grandmother if the woman remarries. Critics have slammed the proposed amendment as discriminatory.
Soliman said, "It forces divorced women to choose between remarrying and retaining custody of their children," while divorced men do not face the same restrictions.
In Egypt, 25% of households are headed by single women, according to the Ministry of Social Solidarity. A report released by the national statistics agency on March 8 revealed that women are the breadwinners for more than 3.3 million families in Egypt, 14% of the total. Women also represent 23% of the workforce, with more than three quarters of them holding permanent jobs. The figures indicate a shift toward a growing decision-making role for women within the family and in the public sphere. As girls become more economically independent, they increasingly refuse to bow to social pressures, so fewer girls are getting married just to appease their parents. More women are taking charge of their destinies and making their own choices. Marriage is no longer the cultural gateway to societal recognition and sexual activity — and more women are speaking out against harmful cultural practices and demanding their rights.