Male guardianship customs confine Egyptian women to patriarchy

Guardianship custom confines Egyptian women to patriarchy
6 min read
11 August, 2023

In 1899, Egyptian intellectual and reformer Qassim Amin wrote a book called Tahrir Al-Maraa - 'The Liberation of Women'. Despite facing social opposition, he advocated for women's freedom. He could not have predicted that his pursuit would continue to this day.

If Amin were alive today and saw how patriarchal Egyptian society still is, he would likely be disappointed. He would realise that his efforts to bring about change did not yield the results he had hoped for.

One example is Heba, a PhD holder in veterinarian medicine, who talked to The New Arab about her ordeal following an ugly divorce almost seven years ago. Heba agreed to talk to The New Arab on the condition of her anonymity. 

"The collective unconscious in our society has long dictated that a man has authority over women. It's an earned right that he won't easily give up"

Despite being financially independent and owning her own practice in Cairo, she has endured the presence of a controlling father and intrusive brother for a long time.

“I’m not allowed to have a life, see friends, travel alone or take my child out without my father or my brother being present because I’m divorced,” she told The New Arab. "I haven't rebelled against these rules otherwise I'd be locked in the house and unable to continue my career."

Social legacy

Egyptian women suffer from a patriarchal society where male guardians interfere in almost all facets of their lives. They are forced to put up with abuse for the sake of their children or to maintain their marriage status. 

"Women are doomed if they divorce, they risk the family's honour and dignity," Heba explained. 

Social custom, rather than legalisation, has put Egyptian women at the mercy of their male guardians. "My husband controls my movement, who I talk to, and how much money I can spend," a 33-year-old banker said to The New Arab

"Ironically, I earn more than him. Were it not for my income, our family wouldn't have been able to live a decent life or send our children to good schools. I don't oppose so we don't fight in front of the kids. Life goes on. My mother did the same," she added. 

The banker's attitude is shared by many Egyptian women. "The collective unconscious in our society has long dictated that a man has authority over women. It's an earned right that he won't easily give up," clinical psychologist Reda El-Ghaafary explained. "Any decision that has to do with her life is rightfully his as the master of her fate."

"If she were to get divorced, she gives up her financial rights, such as alimony, and has to live in a society that judges her and blames her as the reason for her failed marriage, Heba reminded herself. 

Divorced parents in Egypt face a concerning custody issue. While they can make decisions about their children's education, mothers have no authority to take their children out of the country without the father's permission. However, fathers can do so without the mother's consent.

Released in 1975, the film Orido Halan - 'I Demand a Solution' - plot centres on a woman who seeks a divorce from her abusive husband through the court system over a period of years. The film is credited with prompting changes to the person status law, ultimately ending the use of police force to seize wives and return them to their husbands upon request via court order. Additionally, wives were no longer deemed disobedient if they left the home without their husband's consent. The film was rated number 21 among the top 100 films in the history of Egyptian cinema. 

Last month, a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW), examining the status of women’s freedom in 20 countries in the Middle East and North Africa revealed that “women face varying restrictions preventing them from moving freely in their own country and from travelling abroad without the permission of their male guardians—typically their fathers or brothers, and when married, their husbands.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

Those who defend this patriarchal custom often cite women's protection. However, these rules are inherently demeaning and expose women to increased incidents of domestic violence. "Women have pointed to how men have used such rules to extort, exploit, punish or degrade them, and harm their rights," the Human Rights Watch report read. 

“Travel and mobility restrictions on women contradict many states’ own laws and constitutions which guarantee women’s equality and the freedom to reside in and leave one’s own country, including Egypt,” the report added.

“An Egyptian woman used to be legally obliged to have the husband’s consent to have a passport issued or renewed and, accordingly, his approval to travel outside the country,” women’s rights advocate and lawyer Maha Omar told The New Arab.

“Before the historical ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court that annulled this legislation, several cases of husbands with grudges were reported who banned their wives from travelling minutes before boarding the flights either on their way to Hajj or business trips, though they had earlier approved the flights,” she added.

According to Human Rights Watch, social customs in many countries dictate that single women should not live on their own. Women may face discrimination in practice when trying to rent flats where they are not married or without a male guardians’ permission or even rent a room at a hotel.

Some Egyptian women told Human Rights Watch that many hotels refrained from allowing them to rent single rooms alone without a male guardian, usually a brother, a father, an uncle or a husband, even though the country’s authorities denied that they had issued such instructions in the first place.

“Laws are drafted at a time when the society slowly develops,” political sociologist Dr Said Sadek argued.      

“In a nutshell, a woman’s status is influenced by social class, education, family background and religion. In Some cases, women need social enlightenment to confront traditional stereotypes and submissive culture,” Said told The New Arab.

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Both Reda and Said believe there is light at the end of the tunnel, though.

“There have always been attempts to enlighten society through the media, feminism and women’s rights movements and expose the patriarchy," Said argued.

“There is a part inside women that fears to rebel against the obsolete traditions of the male-dominated society and be responsible for the consequences….liberty and dependence have always had a price…and in order for women to gain their freedom, they still need legal and social support and protection,” Reda reflected.

Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo, reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs from the Egyptian capital