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Egypt: Grand Imam Issues Religious Opinion Calling Polygamy Oppression of Women

(Mar. 18, 2019) Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (the main religious institution in the Sunni Muslim world), stated on March 2, 2019, that the Qur’anic teachings concerning polygamy have been misunderstood and distorted, with the result that polygamy has been used in a way that is unfair to women. El-Tayeb argued that a Muslim man’s freedom to marry more than one wife is “bound by restrictions and conditions” and that the well-being of women is the most important priority. According to El-Tayeb, women comprise half of society, and if society does not care about women’s concerns, the result is like someone trying to walk on just one leg. (Grand Imam Al Azhar: Polygamy Oppresses Women and Children, EGYPTIAN STREETS (Mar. 2, 2019).)

Criticism of the Grand Imam’s Opinion and His Response

Many Muslims, both inside and outside of Egypt, quickly attacked the Grand Imam for his statement, claiming that he was trying to ban something that is permissible under Islamic Law. In response, Al-Azhar posted a video of El-Tayeb on its official Twitter account in which the Grand Imam says he was not calling for a ban but for Muslims to have a better understanding of the Qur’anic teachings on polygamy. (Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Under Fire for Saying Polygamy ‘Can be Unjust,’ AL-BAWABA (Mar. 4, 2019).) According to El-Tayeb, polygamy can be unjust to women and children and thus harmful to society. (Id.) The Sheikh also stated that a Muslim man who wants to have multiple wives “must obey conditions of fairness”; otherwise, it is forbidden to have multiple wives. (Id.)

Reaction of the National Council for Women and Women Activists

On the other hand, the National Council for Women endorsed the Sheikh’s statements and the religious reasoning behind them. Maya Morsy, the President of the Council, stated that members of the Council appreciate the religious assertions of El-Tayeb concerning polygamy in that they “enlighten minds and reveal the truth, while constantly affirming that Islam honours women by bringing justice and rights that did not exist before.” (Grand Imam Described Polygamy as a ‘Restricted Right’ but Did Not Call for Ban: Egypt’s Al-Azhar, AHRAM ONLINE (Mar. 3, 2019).)

However, some women activists consider El-Tayeb’s religious opinion to be ineffective. Nihad Abu Al-Qomsan, the head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, stated that the Grand Imam’s opinion is fair to women but too late in coming, saying that there is still no public awareness in Egyptian society that polygamy is a severe injustice to women. (Sarah El-Sheikh, Controversy Resurfaces over Polygamy Among Egyptians, DAILY NEWS (Mar. 5, 2019).)

Draft Law on Polygamy

An attempt was made in the Egyptian Parliament to restrict polygamy in March 2018 when member of Parliament Abla El-Hawary proposed amendments to the 1929 Personal Status Law, article 11 of which provides that a husband must acknowledge his social status and mention the names of his current wife/wives in the remarriage contract. In addition, the officer who is authorized to carry out the marriage contact must notify the current wives about his remarriage. (Dunya Hassanin, Parliament’s Anti-polygamy Action Sparks Controversy in Egypt, EGYPT TODAY (Mar. 17, 2018); Call for One-Year in Prison Against Husbands over ‘Unstated Polygamy,’ EGYPT TODAY (Jan. 25, 2019).) El-Hawary’s proposed amendments included a provision that a husband who did not inform his current wife/wives of his new marriage was punishable by a six-month prison term. (Hassanin, supra.) In January 2019, she again proposed imprisonment for any husband who failed to notify his current wife/wives about his remarriage, this time calling for a prison term of one year. (Call for One-Year in Prison Against Husbands over ‘Unstated Polygamy,’ supra.)

Women’s rights activists have endorsed the draft laws, with feminist Yasmine Mohsen claiming that El-Hawary’s proposal “reflects the general tendency of the legislative institutions to stand up for women’s rights.” (Id.)

One the other hand, some legal scholars, such as Ahmed Karima, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, opposes the amendments, arguing that they would “open the door to forgery, deception and fraud, as well as increase the prevalence of customary marriages in society.” (Id.)