Source: Al-Monitor
A controversial bill in Egypt that would make the penalties for adultery the same for men and women faces many hurdles.

Proposed by Margaret Azer, a Copt and leader of the Support Egypt coalition, the bill has aroused strong opposition among members of the parliament's Legislation and Religion committees.

The Egyptian penal code states that a wife who is shown to have committed adultery must serve two years in prison. An adulterous husband, however, receives only six months, and then only if he commits adultery in the house he shares with his wife. Otherwise, there is no punishment for him.

According to Qanun Nashaz (Unfair Law), a campaign by Nazra for Feminist Studies, the code also states that a husband, who kills his wife and her partner in flagrante delicto, in the act of sex, shall receive a lenient sentence of only 24 hours in detention. A wife who commits the same offense faces a charge of willful murder, which means she would most likely receive a sentence of hard labor or life.

Members of the Legislation and Religion committees have rejected the bill on various grounds. Omar Hamroush, the secretary of the religion committee, described the proposed legislation as “contradicting Sharia.”

Amena Nosair, a member of the Legislation Committee and a religion professor at Al-Azhar University, called for voting down the bill because, she believes, the penalty for women should be more severe. Her rationale is that the woman's crime could extend beyond adultery to include intermixing lineages, that is, possibly obscuring the paternity of a child from an affair.

Ilhami Agina, an independent and a member of the Human Rights Committee, rejects the bill but alternatively wants to increase sentences for women, he claims, to “preserve timidity.” “The woman is the main reason behind adultery, not the man,” he said.

In early September, Agina had also asserted that female genital mutilation (FGM), in which girls’ external sex organs are cut off, is necessary to keep women’s sex drive under control and equal to that of Egyptian men, who allegedly “suffer from sexual weakness,” by which he meant physical stamina, not an inability to resist temptation. After virtually being castrated on social media, Agina tried to backtrack, saying he was only joking and that he objects to laws against FGM because they are difficult to enforce.

In a related matter, on Oct. 4, Agina was referred to the parliament’s Ethics Committee after he said women who want to attend college should first be required to have their virginity certified. Some 200 parliament members signed an official complaint against him for his history of offensive statements.

The adultery bill also aroused criticism from Religion Committee Secretary Omar Hamroush who told Al-Monitor that the solution to adultery is increased awareness, via the media, about the social issues and health risks involved. Hamroush said his committee will debate the bill and then determine whether it is consistent with Sharia.

Azer pointed out that the bill’s objective has nothing to do with the prevalence of adultery in Egypt — there are no statistics indicating its occurrence is on the rise — or with increasing the penalty for men. Rather, she said, “The bill is intended to eliminate the discrimination based on gender.”

Azer added, “Neither Sharia nor any of the [other] Abrahamic religions prescribe a penalty for adultery that discriminates based on gender. Hence, the penalty for adultery contradicts Egypt’s constitution, which relies on Sharia as a source of legislation. Surat al-Nur in the Holy Quran calls for the same penalty for a man or a woman who commits adultery.”

Azer said she is fully prepared to fight for the bill’s passage and does not care about some opposed to it playing the “Coptic card.” She emphasized, “I am a representative of the whole nation, including the Muslim nation and the Coptic one. I am ready to apply Sharia according to Egypt’s constitution.”

Zainab Kheir, the executive director of the Egyptian Association for Economic and Social Rights, told Al-Monitor, “Continuing to [enforce] penal code articles related to the crime of adultery contradicts Egypt’s constitution and the international treaties ratified by Egypt on human rights and on nondiscrimination.”

The code not only calls for different penalties for men and women, it gives the husband the right to abolish the wife’s sentence if she agrees to live with him to preserve the family. The law does not, however, grant the wife the right to prevent her husband’s (already lenient) sentence from being carried out.

According to Suzy al-Nashed, a member of the Legislation Committee from Support Egypt, objections to the bill are expected to continue if it makes it to the parliament floor by one path or another.

“Equality is necessary in the law,” she told Al-Monitor. “However, the religious aspect should be taken into consideration when tackling such issues. Sharia permits polygamy by men. Therefore, the legislator [should] not make the penalty lenient for a wife who murders her husband when she catches him in the marital home with another woman, as [the other woman] could be a new wife that the older one does not know.”

Nashed said she will call on enlightened and nonextremist voices in the Legislation Committee to develop wording that will put an end to the gender discrimination while still acknowledging the principles of Sharia.

Ahmed Khalil, the head of Nour Party's parliamentary bloc, said that members of his bloc are waiting for an opinion from Al-Azhar University’s fatwa committee. “When a Sharia-related bill is in question, Al-Azhar is the one to decide,” Khalil told Al-Monitor.

Azer's bill does have some support. “Sharia-wise, nothing is wrong with making equivalent the [penalty for] men and women who are involved in the crime of adultery, in my opinion,” Gamal Qutb, a former head of Al-Azhar's fatwa committee, told Al-Monitor. “Equality is a general Islamic principle. If the crime is the same, the penalty shall be the same.”

Qutb in addition noted, “The penal code does not apply the penalty stated in the Quran for adultery, which is flogging for the nonmarried and stoning to death for the married.”

The fight to amend the penal code concerning adultery is not new in Egypt. Many voices have called for its amendment for years. The 1985 film “Afwan Ayuhal Qanoon” ("Dear Law Excuse Me") looks at the injustice experienced by an Egyptian woman who catches her husband committing adultery as well as the societal discrimination and shaming she suffers from her husband cheating on her.

There were a number of initiatives introduced during former President Hosni Mubarak’s time in office (1981-2011) to amend the law. The National Council for Women backed them, but they failed to pass.

By Walaa Hussein

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