Like many women of her generation, Samia Medhat, a housekeeper for many New Cairo villas, says that while she is the breadwinner for the family, she has little control over the salary she receives.
Her husband, who “refuses to get off the couch”, demands she hand it over every month, keeping in line with societal norms which dictate that men are in charge of the family’s economic decisions. More importantly, however, when Medhat received her inheritance from her late father, her husband also took the money and used it for his own personal purposes.
But the Egyptian Parliament is trying to strengthen women’s inheritance rights.
Following a year of deliberations on amending the Inheritance Law (Law No. 77 of 1943), the Egyptian Parliament passed a law on December 5 guaranteeing women their legitimate right to receive their inheritance.
The parliament approved the new law after the Cabinet, the National Council for Women (NCW) and civil associations submitted several drafts in
January 2016, December 2016 and September 2017 respectively, to amend the existing law.
Article 49 of the new law stipulates that anyone who deliberately denies the heir, be it a male or a female, their legal share of the inheritance or confiscates a document confirming this share shall be imprisoned for at least six months and be subject to a fine ranging between EGP 20,000- 100,000.
The sentence shall be prolonged to no less than one year in prison upon the second offense.
“This amendment is consistent with Article 11 of Egypt’s Constitution which stresses the State’s responsibility of protecting women against all forms of violence,” Member of the Executive Committee at the NCW Rania Yehia told The Caravan.
She added that such amendments represent a great step for women’s empowerment in Egypt, given that many families deprive women of their inheritance rights.
“Deliberately denying the inheritor from the legal share of their inheritance is a form of economic violence and [NCW] seeks to put an end to the violence imposed on women in all its forms. The amendment is considered as part of the council’s plan for women’s empowerment in Egypt.”
Yehia added that NCW had not yet been able to determine the proportion of women who consider the amendment “useful” and who therefore led lawsuits against their brothers or cousins demanding their inheritance.
But she believes that the number of women who claim their rights surged after the amendment of the inheritance law and that the gure will boost dramatically as awareness increases through the media and will therefore have a powerful impact in the near future.
However, Nada Nashaat, advocacy coordinator at the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), told The Caravan that the new law is impractical due to the consistent number of women who still visit CEWLA seeking for their inheritance.
“The government should provide clear mechanisms that unfairly treated women can rely on. The legislation would then become a real tool rather than a judicial text to obtain rights. Many women have spent years in court hallways in vain,” she said.
She described the legislation as “overlooking other vital dimensions to the problem,” referring to the majority of the females, who despite encountering inheritance issues refuse to “disgrace their families” by ling a case against their siblings or cousins.
“Ordinarily, the heirs must draw up an estate declaration that lists all the assets and liabilities of the deceased along with their corresponding values. In order to make the legislation e ective, the women ought to withhold a personal document proving her legal right to an inheritance on spot rather than waiting for it to be distributed by her brother,” Nashaat told The Caravan.
According to online newspaper Al-Monitor, a 2010 survey of 200 Egyptian women indicated that 59 percent of them did not receive any inheritance, and women in Upper Egypt in particular do not dare to demand their rights in legacy.
Egyptian law follows an interpretation of Shari’a, which maintains that a man inherit double that of a female based on what is stated in Surat Al-Nisaa in the Qur’an (4:11). However, there are various interpretations concerning Islamic inheritance laws.
Pursuant to Dar Al-Ifta Al-Missriyyah’s website, the variation in inheritance is not based on the gender of the heir, but on three primary conditions: the degree of kinship to the deceased, the generation to which the heir belongs and the financial responsibility of the heir.
According to a 2009 study conducted by sociologist Salwa al- Mahdi titled “The Inheritance of Women in Upper Egypt Between Reality and Hope,” families in Upper Egypt follow a custom called “radwa” where the female is assuaged with a sum of money in lieu of inheritance.
The study revealed that nearly 96 percent of women in the governorates of Sohag and Qena did not receive their proper inheritance under norms and customs that do not favor inheritance for women.
“The women’s siblings or cousins often refuse to give them their inheritance out of fear that their husbands or children would take it. Therefore, it would be transferred to outsiders, which is unacceptable especially in Upper Egypt,” Yehia told The Caravan.
Nashaat added that regardless of the religious pillars of the law, Egyptian men often exploit Islamic laws in their personal interest.
“Under Islamic Law, husbands must fully nance their wives and children, yet [CEWLA] constantly receives thousands of cases every month where men refuse to be obliged with their financial responsibilities, especially after divorce, leaving women with no source of income,” she added.
Helen Rizzo, associate professor of sociology, says that a reason why women refrain from ling cases against their siblings is that many do not want to get on their male sibling’s bad side in case they need support in times of crisis, such as getting a divorce.
Because of a man’s upper hand in the process of farming in agricultural areas, he projects this upperhand as strength and dominance over the women who are seen as more “reproductive” than “productive,” Rizzo said.
However, Rizzo says, with industrialization, things are changing. In the post-modern world, women can be more present in all work forms; more and more women are entering elds that have high levels of manual labor.
Nevertheless, Rizzo believes the recent amendment is a crucial step.
“At least let us get it on paper. Women have a right to their inheritance… For those who decide to ght, it gives them an upper hand to ght with,” Rizzo adds.
This article was first published on The Caravan and was written by Sara Mohamed. The Caravan is the bi-lingual weekly student newspaper of the American University in Cairo, offering the community a combination of reporting and commentary on campus life, politics, popular arts and culture and the latest developments in the worlds of business, science and technology in both English and Arabic.