Polygamy goes on trial in Egypt

A trial started yesterday of a man accused of breaking the law by marrying more than four women.

The trial of an Egyptian businessman began yesterday, after he was accused of breaking the law by marrying 69 women.

The case against Ragab el-Swerkie is drawing attention to the centuries-old custom of polygamy, which is legal here as in many Middle Eastern countries. Egyptian law, based on the Koran, allows a man to have four wives. While Mr. Swerkie's case is extreme, it comes against a backdrop of growing criticism by women's groups that Egyptian marriage law favors men.

Egyptian laws passed in 1985 allow a man to have four wives, but he must inform his other wives if he plans to take a bride. If they object and ask for a divorce, they have the burden of proving to the judge that his taking of another wife will do them harm.

This requirement of proof superceded a more liberal 1979 law, relieving the woman of the burden to show harm. The earlier law allowed a woman to obtain an almost automatic divorce if she objected to an additional wife. Islamic groups successfully challenged that law and had it overturned on the grounds that it restricted a man's right under sharia (Islamic law) to keep up to four wives.

Many Egyptian women's groups contend that the current burden of proof is both too high and too vague, since the word "harm" is a subjective term wide open to individual interpretation.

"Proving that your husband's marriage to a second wife can harm you is very difficult, and it is not a reasonable burden to put on the shoulders of a wronged woman," says Amel Abdel Hedy, the director of the New Woman's Research Center.

Dr. Hedy's group is pushing for the abolishment of polygamy, which is practiced by 2 to 4 percent of Egyptian men. Nearly half of the 22 leading women's advocacy groups in Cairo have taken the same stand. The "abolishonists," as they are known, are basing their drive on a 1956 Tunisian law, which outlaws polygamy and is, its supporters claim, grounded in Islamic law.

Current sharia law in Egypt and many neighboring Islamic countries cites a passage in the Koran permitting men to "marry such women as seem good to you, two, three, or four of them. But if you fear that you cannot maintain equality among them, marry one only...."

But Hedy and the women's groups favor the Tunisian interpretation, which bases its banishment of all forms of polygamy on a later passage in the Koran: "Try as you may, you cannot treat all your wives impartially."

"What the Koran is saying is that a man's soul and his passion will be unequally divided with more than one wife, and that he will never be able to remain equitable," as the previous passage stipulates, says Hedy.

Other women's groups are taking a more pragmatic approach, says Amira Behay Eldin, one of Cairo's leading women's rights attorneys. "They favor a return to the 1979 law as a means of preserving a man's theoretical right to have more than one wife," she says.

The Egyptian government approved a so-called "new marriage contract" last year, which was designed to appease the concerns of women, particularly the ability to request that a husband not take a second wife. The new "contract" permits a man and woman to enter into a marriage with a signed agreement that the husband may not take a second wife.

But Ms. Eldin is highly skeptical of this contract as a basis for change. She says it does not have the force of law, and besides, Egyptian men and their families do not accept the idea of preconditions being put on a betrothal. Egyptian men prefer to "keep their options open," she says, in order to marry a second wife in the case that the first wife is barren.

Nor does the contract address the problems created by unofficial and secretive "Urfi" marriages - the kind Swerkie had. Urfi marriages are based on mutual acceptance, and they require two male (or one male and two female) witnesses, along with the payment of a dowry. These marriages, while technically legal in Egypt, usually are not registered with a government clerk. They also allow men to forgo most of their legal obligations to spouses and to divorce on extremely short notice.

Under Egyptian law, an Urfi marriage still does not exempt a man from having to inform his other wives about any subsequent betrothal.

Swerkie, who allegedly married 11 women this year alone, was apparently able to exploit Egyptian law by marrying the women and divorcing them as quickly as several days later - thus staying within the legal limit of four wives.

Eldin, who is following the case closely, says Swerkie likely crossed the legal line twice. "He did not wait the required three months after divorcing his fourth wife before marrying the next," she says. "That would have given him five wives, technically.

"In addition," Eldin says, "he apparently did not report his Urfi marriages to the registrar when making an official marriage. By failing to report the other wives, he essentially perjured himself. Beyond that, he clearly did not understand that under Islam you enter into the idea of a permanent marriage contract, not something that you can dispose of in a day or a week."

Nasr Farid Wasel, Egypt's grand mufti - the highest religious official in the land - has commented in the state-run media that Swerkie's greatest mistake may have been his cavalier approach to the institution of marriage. Such oversight by a husband, while not necessarily a crime, is considered a "sin" in the eyes of Allah.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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