Gender Studies

Egypt’s Reservations to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and Women’s Rights in Egypt

“The object and use of lawyer’s language is twofold: partly to prevent information being conveyed to certain descriptions of persons, partly to cause such information to be conveyed to them as shall be false, or at any rate, fallacious: to secure habitual ignorance, or produce occasional misconception.” – Jeremy Bentham, Rationale of Judicial Evidence.

This paper addresses the role that the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) can play to improve women’s conditions and secure their rights in Egypt, in light of that country’s religious-based reservations to the UN convention and its recent constitutional amendment making the Shari`ah its principle source of legislation. Specifically, it addresses Egypt’s reservations to Article 16, which concerns the eradication of discrimination against women in cases of divorce, as this area has been the focus of recent legislative reform. The paper is limited to Egypt, because it is the leading Muslim state in providing women’s rights in the area of family law.

Introduction

The hallmark of the second half of the twentieth century has been the noteworthy efforts to formulate human rights and secure their protection. What do we mean by human rights? Are all human rights universal, or are some cultural? Is there some minimal core of human rights, values, or norms to which the sensibilities of the entire human race can relate and accept? Finally, can international institutions expect and demand that states in violation of such rights conform to these international norms without offering them the opportunity to contribute in the rights-creation process?1

States’ ratification of international instruments, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), with apparent religious-based reservations raises these questions. Religious beliefs often define the boundaries and determine the content of individuals’ understanding of what rights and obligations they have – to whom and why. The existence of religious-based reservations questions whether or not the present normative landscape of rights is truly universal, and whether universality can mean something beyond “authentic participation in the rights-creation process” by everyone expected to adhere to the ultimate product of that process.2 

An example of a state that has ratified CEDAW with religious-based reservations is Egypt. The specific question addressed in this paper is how CEDAW can improve women’s conditions and secure women’s rights in Egypt, in light of that country’s religious-based reservations to the UN convention and its recent constitutional amendment making the Shari`ah its principle source of legislation.

This paper addresses Egypt’s reservations only to Article 16,3 the central provision of the Women’s Convention that requires states’ parties to eradicate discrimination against women in matters involving marriage and family relations, for two reasons. First, as Jane Connors states, the “private sphere and family life are the fundamental sites of discrimination against women which, effectively, set the framework and opportunity for discrimination in public life.”4 Second, because under Egypt’s former legal system (Ottoman rule), only family law continued to be subject to the “personal religious law” of each of the country’s principal religious communities, (in accordance with the Personal Status Law of 1929). In the case of Muslims, this meant that the Shari`ah governed legal matters affecting marriage and family relations.5 More specifically, the paper discusses Egypt’s divorce laws, the focus of recent legislative reform, given that Egypt is the leading Muslim state in providing women’s rights in the area of family law.

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