Egyptian Female Lawyer Works to Reform Divorce, Citizenship Laws

Mona Zulficar speaks at Middle East Institute in Washington

By Brittany SterrettWashington File Staff Writer

Washington -- A prominent Egyptian female lawyer and human rights activist, Mona Zulficar, says she and her cohorts are strengthening the legal rights of Egyptian women by advancing different interpretations of Sharia, or Islamic, law.

“Why is Sharia being used to restrict our liberty and it is not used to liberate us? It could also be the source of liberation; in fact, it is. If you properly interpret the text, it is a source of liberation, it is a source of equality, of freedom,” Zulficar said in a presentation at the Middle East Institute, a nongovernmental organization that works to promote understanding between the Middle East and the United States, in Washington June 28.

Zulficar, the senior managing partner at the Shalakany Law Office in Cairo, said she and other activists found that under Sharia law, women have the right to unilaterally terminate the marriage contract.

"It was very simple: the man had the right to unilateral divorce, and the woman had the right to unilateral repudiation," she said. "So it was equality, but using a different instrument.”

Zulficar said that the legal rights campaign was successful in changing Egyptian divorce laws to benefit women. In the past, in order to obtain a divorce, a woman had to prove that she was the victim of both material and moral damage, she said. Now, a woman must prove that she has suffered only one of those two forms of damage.

"We fought to change the laws. The good thing about changing the laws is when we fight to change the laws, we change ideas. We lobby for change in tradition, we change the culture,” she said.

Zulficar said she had a similarly successful campaign in giving Egyptian nationality rights to children of Egyptian mothers and foreign fathers. To bring about this change, she recorded interviews with children who suffered as a result of their lack of citizenship and disseminated the tapes across the country. New citizenship laws were enacted in 2004.

Zulficar was one of a group of Egyptian human-rights activists who met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after the secretary's speech at Cairo University June 20. Zulficar said the meeting was “extremely positive.”

She said that the secretary was “extremely sensitive and understanding" of the Egyptian activists' concerns. She said that Rice commented that it took the United States hundreds of years to build its democracy and the United States should be more understanding of other people fighting for democracy in their own way. "This I saw as a breakthrough,” Zulficar said.

Zulficar went on to praise the United States for modifying its human rights and democracy policy that it is “no longer one size fits all.”

She added that the entire group “agreed that Egyptian reform was an Egyptian agenda, and it could not succeed unless it had the support of the Egyptians.”

Rather than politically intervening and publicly supporting women’s rights groups, Zulficar encouraged the United States to praise whatever positive steps governments take after they are taken. She also encouraged the United States to provide education and employment opportunities in the countries of need.

“Once a woman, a poor, illiterate woman, is economically empowered, her life changes completely,” she stated. According to Zulficar, only then are women able to talk about political participation.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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