World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th – 24th 2010


FAMILY LAW IN THE MENA - 2/2 (215) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: WED 21, 11.30 am-1.30 pm

· NOT_DEFINED institution: University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Maaike Voorhoeve

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: This panel is the second in a series on Family law in the MENA. Family law is a delicate topic in the MENA. It is the battle field between ''traditionalist'' and ''progressive'' social groups, and a sensitive issue in political debates. This panel treats family law in different contexts: public debates in the media, judicial practices and litigants’ strategies. Nadia Sonneveld focuses on informal (‘urfi) marriages in Egypt, comparing debates in the media with the actual day-to-day practice. Esther van Eijck describes judicial divorce practices in Syria, comparing the Islamic and Christian courts. Corinne Fortier compares litigants’ strategies in Egypt and Mauritania. Maaike Voorhoeve focuses on open norms in the Tunisian Personal Status Code and their interpretation by judges.

Chair: Sarah Vincent (London School of Economics)

Paper presenter: Nadia Sonneveld (The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and The Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance, and Development), “Informal Urfi Marriages in Egypt: Reflecting Changing Gender roles”
In Egypt, informal marriages, often called ‘urfi marriages, are not registered with the relevant authorities. In 2000, a new procedural law in the field of Personal Status Law gave women in ‘urfi marriages the possibility to divorce. This right created a furor in the public debate. Making it looks like as if ‘urfi marriages are merely a means for youngsters to have premarital sex without the knowledge of their parents, the public debate and a film contribute to their negative perception in Egyptian society. In this paper I compare public debates on ‘urfi marriages to the actual day-to-day practice of ‘urfi marriages. I will show that informal marriages are also practiced by men who do not have the financial means to marry (another woman) and by women who hope that marrying an already married man is a way to keep their freedom and independence. As such, informal marriages are a sign that the gender roles are changing.

Paper presenter: Esther van Eijck (School of Middle Eastern Studies, Leiden University), “Family Affairs in Muslim and Christian Courts in Syria”
Syria is a multi-religious country with a Muslim majority and several religious minorities, mainly Christians. The various religious communities have long since enjoyed the right to regulate and administer their family relations according to their respective religious (or religiously inspired) family laws. This plurality of various religious laws operating in a secular civil law system is interesting yet complex, especially in cases of interdenominational or interfaith relations. It creates complex situations, not only for the parties involved, but also for the lawyers who represent them.
The patriarchal family model, where male dominance over female family members prevails, is dominant in all (religious) communities in Syria. Especially in the more conservative areas, segregation of the sexes, obedience of women, family honour, and tight social control are common features of a society enforcing the patriarchal structure. In both the Muslim and Christian courts, these traditional norms and values are emphasized and reinforced time and again. This is most apparent in divorce cases, which make up the majority of cases in the courts.
Judges of the different religious courts generally aim to reconcile the disputing parties. In the Christian courts the clerical judges consider it their duty to reach reconciliation between the spouses so as to avoid divorce or separation. The focus on reconciliation in the Christian communities is a natural one, for marriage is considered a sacrament of holy matrimony. Obtaining dissolution of a Christian marriage is a strenuous and lengthy process, whereas divorce at a Muslim court is relatively easier to obtain. Regardless the differences between an Islamic and a Christian marriage and the dissolution thereof, both Muslim and Christian judges first seek to reconcile husband and wife who are having marital problems.

Paper presenter: Corinne Fortier (CNRS), “Divorce on the initiative of the wife (khul‘) in Islam: differential practices in Mauritania and Egypt”
In recent years several Muslim countries have instituted significant
legislative reforms, especially as regards marriage and divorce. In
Mauritania, the government introduced the first personal status code 
in 2001. This code recognizes women's right to divorce. But this personal status code has brought about no socio-juridical 
revolution as this right has been recognized and enforced for 
quite some time in the Moorish society of Mauritania. It is legally and religiously legitimized in the ancient Maliki legal
texts that govern Moorish juridical practice. Moorish women did not wait for the introduction of a personal status
code to benefit from the right to divorce.
The situation of Moorish women in this regard does seem different from that of Egyptian women who are rediscovering these rights through the new legislative reforms concerning personal
status of 2000.

Paper presenter: Maaike Voorhoeve (University of Amsterdam), “Open norms in the Tunisian personal status code and their interpretation by judges”
Tunisian family law is known for its ‘progressive’ character. For example, repudiation has been abolished and polygamy is prohibited. At the same time, the family code contains many open norms, giving judges room for interpretation. As a consequence, the ‘law in the books’ might differ significantly from the ‘law in action’. This paper focuses on the concept of ‘open norms’. On the basis of decisions of the Court of First Instance in Tunis, it examines how judges apply the family law.