Letter from Cairo: Laws of the Lady


For decades, Suzanne Thabet Mubarak had been for Egypt what Elvis Presley was for Memphis.

Her pictures adorned hundreds of schools, libraries, and charity organizations and her name was given to all institutions that had to do with motherhood and childhood and sisterhood and all the “hoods” that imply benevolence and compassion and all those elevated forms of human sentiments. She was spoon fed to Egyptians as the guardian of women’s rights, the protector of underprivileged children, and the number one promoter of culture.

Before satellite dishes made their way into almost all Egyptian houses and we were forced to watch state TV, there were times when the entire news would be a report on a visit she made to this hospital or that school with special focus on how people in either place enumerate the countless merits of having her in their lives and how much they owe her. The phrase “Under the auspices of Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak,” in both its written and spoken forms, had over the years become the “In God we trust” of Egypt. In fact, the first lady did gradually acquire several holy-like attributes that reminded me of the La Virgin de Guadalupe, the Mexican edition of Virgin Mary and who, besides her traditional religious role, serves as communal mother to whom all the Mexican people turn for comfort, advice, and blessing. Apologies due to the venerable Virgin!

When the regime was toppled and the halo was snatched from the “patrona” by the power of the people, a nationwide campaign to obliterate any proof that she had ever existed took me back to the post-Akhenaton Eighteenth Dynasty and the vociferous attempts by the Amun-ists to deface all traces of the Tel al-Amarna epoch. Apologies due the monotheistic pharaoh and to Atun!

A few days after the president stepped down, dozens of schools were rendered nameless as their signs were pulled out or, in case they were too big or too difficult to remove—like the lady seemed to have been—you would see big white or black paint stains over her name and/or face. A lawsuit was indeed filed to have Mrs. Mubarak’s name removed from all state-owned facilities, yet before the ruling—which came in favor of the people’s demand—was out, the procedure was already being carried out in what I perceived as a forceful reminder that revolutions do not wait for official approvals.

Removal of names and pictures constituted the start of a long list of steps to eradicate the legacy of a much-hated regime and revolutionaries decided to begin with that not because it was the most important, but rather the easiest and fastest in addition, of course, to the message such action delivered. Moving from the symbolic to the practical, it was time to embark on a more critical purge, one that involves the substantial evidence of the lady’s hegemony over the country’s social and political scene during the past 30 years. It was the turn of what came to be known as the “Laws of Suzanne,” a series of civil status edicts that regulate a number of family matters and which, the majority of Egyptians now argue, were only authorized by parliament because the “hanem”—the former president’s wife nickname and Arabic for “lady”—wanted it that way. Those laws, rumor had it, had nothing to do with the welfare of Egypt or the Egyptians and were only meant to serve Mrs. Mubarak’s personal ambitions. Some say the laws provided her with the prestige she wanted in international conferences and especially with other first ladies, with whom she was able to brag about her role in advancing women’s rights in a society generally known to be male-oriented. “Imagine the challenges I face,” she must have told them. Others even go as far as attributing the changes she introduced to her keenness on being considered for the Nobel Prize for Peace. This might explain the grudges the whole Mubarak family harbored against Mohamed ElBaradei—prior, of course, to his emergence as a staunch opponent to the regime and a potential presidential candidate.

Two specific laws are most associated with the former first lady and currently under attack and facing annulment demands: Unconditional divorce, in which a woman is empowered to obtain a divorce without needing to go through the routine legal procedures and without having to provide reasons for her decision provided that she forfeits her financial right, and visitation rights, in which a divorced father is only allowed three hours per week with his children in a public place and under the supervision of a court official. It took me a while to find out what is common between the two laws in question until I realized that it is definitely men who want to revoke them, yet this doesn’t make the two laws nor the possible reasons for the criticism leveled at them similar in anyway.

In the first case, it is obvious that Egyptian men, raised to believe they are superior to women, are disconcerted by the control given to wives over their marital life and by the fact that they were robbed of one of the powers they had always thought was exclusive to the male sex. Let me point out here that this law does not of course deprive men from the right to divorce their wives. It is just the humiliation of not being the sole decision-maker as far as the continuation or termination of the marriage is concerned. Let me also clarify that this law had existed since the dawn of Islam and was condoned by the prophet, so even for those who use religion as a pretext to suppress women have no case at all. Now, with all the arguments for cancelling unconditional divorce rendered absolutely invalid, those men have been offered a new leeway on a silver platter—the revolution.

There is no point going through how I feel about exploiting a noble cause for furthering a personal end neither am I going to elaborate on how the law, as mortifying as it is for men, is not that fair to the woman who opts for unconditional divorce since it deprives her of the financial rights to which she becomes entitled upon divorce. I would rather ask those who want to see the law go one question: Should we cancel all the laws issued or proposed or authorized by Mr. Mubarak or any members of his family or any of the former regime’s officials? What would happen if you had benefited from one or more of the laws approved throughout the past three decades? Are you willing to give that up, too?

I would also like to ask them another question which I allowed myself to borrow from a dear friend of mine and which, to me, made so much sense: How about the sons of Egyptian mothers and foreign fathers who were granted the Egyptian citizenship, also upon instructions from the first lady? Should they be stripped of that now? Or are we even being selective with the “Laws of Suzanne”?

The major difference between the first and second law from my point of view is that the men protesting against the latter have a legitimate demand that does not look like it is driven by some blind desire to prove who wears the pants. I am a feminist, and I do admit that women in Egypt still have a long way to go and that any semblance of gender equality has been possible mainly in upper-middle classes, yet I find the law in flagrant violation of fathers’ rights. I am vehemently against the way it assumes that all men are out to retaliate on their ex-wives and/or kidnap their children and that they all do not perform their duties towards their children and therefore deserve to be punished. According to several women interviewed on the issue, the father would do his best to tarnish the mother’s image in front of the children and would have a better chance to do so if he gets to spend more time with them. Is there a reason the mother would not do the exact same thing? Isn’t there such a thing as an incompetent mother? And don’t mothers sometimes lose custody for being unfit to raise kids?

I believe that gender equality does not mean being biased to women and I am totally for granting divorced parents equal rights when it comes to spending time with their children as long as none of them violates the ethics of partnership. Yet again I worry about the rationale used to abolish the law and which puts the men who make sense in the same box with those who don’t. The “Laws” argument mars the cause they are fighting for, and which I believe is a very noble one, and renders them subject to the same accusation hurled at the first group. There is no way I can be as unfair as to claim that they are intentionally dwarfing a sublime patriotic action that is bound to change the course of history into a tool for settling personal disputes or reducing the rampant corruption from which the country had suffered for 30 years to a couple of family status laws favored by the former president’s wife. Yet, without realizing it, they are facing the risk of joining the ranks of male chauvinists who are purely driven by an obsessive desire to maintain the balance of power from which they apparently derive their self-esteem and assert their flawed notion of manhood.

Like her husband and two sons, Suzanne Mubarak has indeed caused the country a great deal of damage and there is no doubt that the interest of the country has never been among her priorities. Bringing her to justice is a prerequisite for the completion of the revolution, yet taking advantage of the anti-regime sentiments that have been prevalent in the country since the start of the revolution in order to garner support for demands that are in themselves legitimate weakens the cause, and the sympathy it might have initially gained will gradually fade away.

True, the law was and still is associated with “Suzanne,” yet capitalizing on this association to get it annulled only benefits those who do not have a cause and were only able to come up with one just because an umbrella under which they can do so suddenly descended upon them from the high heavens.

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Sonia Farid

I teach for a living... write for a life!

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