CAIRO: A fabricated story about controversial “farewell sex” in the Egyptian parliament this week has deflected attention from genuine issues facing Egypt’s women and their conflict with religious fundamentalists in the country, according to rights campaigners.
When the story hit newsstands, it seemed too bizarre to be true.
Egypt’s parliament, dominated by Islamists, had in mind a new law which would permit husbands to have sex with their wives up to six hours after they had died.
By the beginning of this week it had gone global, splashed over news websites from India to America.
There was only one problem: It was completely and utterly false.
The saga began last month when Egypt’s state-run Al-Ahram newspaper ran a flowery comment piece from one of its writers, Amro Abdul-Samea.
In his piece, Abdul-Samea made a vague reference to the controversial issue of so-called “farewell sex,” a topic which came to prominence last year when a Moroccan cleric gave his blessing to the act.
The same article also included a claim that the National Council for Women, an Egyptian rights group, had sent a letter to the speaker of Egypt’s parliament outlining its concerns about a variety of political issues.
The Al-Ahram piece might have slipped under the radar had it not been for Jaber al-Qarmouty, a television presenter with his own show on the ONTV channel.
Following the article’s publication he decided to include a segment on his show making reference to the piece. But apparently confused about what exactly Abdul-Samea had written, he concluded that the NCW had sent a letter to the parliamentary speaker about the issue of “farewell sex.”
“This is very serious,” said a shocked Qarmouty. “It is a catastrophe to give the husband such a right! Has the Islamic trend reached that far?”
The NCW had indeed sent a letter, but had made no mention whatsoever of the sex-after-death proposals, instead focusing on genuine parliamentary plans to reduce the age of marriage.
But it was too late. The Al-Arabiya satellite channel soon picked up the story, running a headline saying: “Egypt’s women urge MPs not to pass early marriage, sex-after-death laws.”
Not long afterward the “story” was featuring on news websites across the world. Britain’s right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail gleefully jumped on the bandwagon, reporting the “outrage” that the proposals were causing.
In all this time it seems that nobody bothered calling up Dr. Mervat al-Talawi, the head of the NCW who was reportedly responsible for sending the letter. Speaking recently, she told The Daily Star that she had not sent any letter about “farewell sex.”
“I didn’t send any such letter,” said Talawi, who added that she had not spoken to Al-Ahram newspaper before the story was published.
She said the group had sent a number of other letters, but they had been about various other issues.
She added: “If you know Islam well and know how Muslims treat people, you know that we have respect for the body and any dead person.
“The whole story was not feasible.”
Nihad Abul Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, said the farewell sex farce had overshadowed issues affecting women and genuine attempts to roll back women’s rights through new laws.
She gave the example of a parliamentary proposal to shake up the custody laws and grant fathers more rights.
Under the current legislation, if a mother and father divorce then the women can keep custody of the children until they are 15 years old. After this age the father then has the option of taking custody.
However, a new law being discussed by MPs has proposed reducing the age to 7 for boys and 9 for girls. According to Abul Komsan, this will mean that women in abusive relationships will feel compelled to stay with their husbands for the sake of seeing their children.
“Women cannot sacrifice their kids,” she said. “This is controlling women by controlling her kids.”
The custody legislation falls under an amendment made to Egypt’s Child Law in 2008. That bill also raised the age of marriage from 16 to 18 – another bone of contention in Cairo’s new parliament, where some ultraconservatives have proposed lowering the age to as young as 12.
The first modern custody laws were enshrined in the 1980s following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
Panned by some conservative critics – who derisively branded them the “Jehan Laws” after Jehan Sadat, the wife of the late president, who championed them – they were just one of a raft of subsequent bills directed at liberating Egyptian women.
The so-called Jehan Laws also stated that a minimum of 30 seats should be guaranteed for women in parliament – a figure which was amended to 64 in 2010.
In 2000, under an amendment to another piece of legislation, women received the right to divorce without their husband’s consent, while a further bill that same year gave females the option of traveling internationally without the approval of their husbands.
For rights groups, such victories marked great strides in their battle for greater female emancipation.
But following Egypt’s first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections, the opprobrium of conservative critics – many of whom tried to link the more modern reforms to the wife of Hosni Mubarak, another backer of legal change – has again reared its head.
Dr. Yusri Hamad, a leading member of the Salafist Al-Nour Party, told The Daily Star that reforms carried out since the 1980s were made at the behest of the regime.
“There was no judicial respect during the last regime,” Hamad said. “The government of Hosni Mubarak changed the laws and directed them away from Islam.”
However, campaigners say that some MPs are using the names of Jehan Sadat and Suzanne Mubarak to smear legitimate reforms.
Ultimately, said Nihad Abul Komsan, many radical Islamists pursuing their agenda aimed at curtailing women’s rights. “They will end up taking girls out of schools,” she said. “This is their ideology.”
There are numerous other examples of gender inequality in Egyptian society. Inheritance laws are heavily weighted in favor of sons over daughters, while men can far more easily claim state benefits than women.
If a man wants to get a divorce, he simply has to say the word three times to the official who signed his marriage papers. For a woman, it involves a tortuous, protracted process that lasts many months.
In the new Egyptian parliament itself – following the repeal of membership quotas last year – women now constitute a meager 2 percent of members, while not a single female candidate is running for president.
Egyptian journalist Marwa Nasser told The Daily Star that she was not too concerned about the lack of women sitting in Egypt’s People’s Assembly. “We don’t have so many expert women in politics,” she said, adding that it was more important that Egypt’s MPs were capable of doing their jobs.
But with the growing influence of conservative Islam, there seems little doubt that issues affecting women will become one of Egypt’s most important political battlegrounds.