In conservative Egypt, radio show targets stigma on divorced women

Mahasen Saber started 'Divorce radio' to reverse popular conceptions of divorced women, long stimatized in Egypt's conservative society, and create a supportive community.

Mahasen Saber spent more than three years in the Egyptian court system trying to divorce her husband. In the lonely and often confusing process, she met many women in similar circumstances who relied on each other for moral support. But their battles didn’t end in court – what followed were stares and whispers.

Four months ago, Ms. Saber started “Divorce Radio,” an Internet-based station that seeks to reverse popular conceptions of divorced women and create a supportive community. Her initiative is part of a broader push in Egypt’s conservative Muslim society to challenge social stigma attached to divorced women.

“Here in Egyptian society, the woman is looked upon at as if she is the one who made a big mistake getting a divorce from her husband. She’s always at fault,” says

Saber, whose station is an extension of her popular blog, which has made her something of an icon in Egyptian media. “I want Arab society to respect women who are divorced.”

Variety of programs, including one by a man

The station runs a variety of programming, including “You Understand Us Wrong,” about the value of divorced women in society, and “Your Son: How You Raise Him,” in which a doctor discusses rearing children of divorced parents. There is also a show led by a divorced man about his experiences.

But not all programs focus on life after divorce; “Before You Say ‘I Want a Divorce’” discourages divorce as a solution to marital problems. “I want to say to [listeners], not every problem with your husband should lead to divorce…. There are problems we can deal with and there are problems we cannot deal with,” says Saber.

In Islam, divorce, although permitted, is frowned upon. But divorce statistics in Egypt are the highest in the Arab world: 40 percent of marriages end in divorce.

“The divorce issue is now in every house in our society, every family has a divorced woman – a daughter, a mother, a sister,” says Saber.

Flower vendor: Breaking up families is a 'big problem'

A relatively new law that has made it easier for women to divorce has contributed to surging divorce rates. Under the law, passed in 2000, women can ask for a divorce without explicitly stating the reason. This option, known as khula, offers women previously unavailable privacy, but in exchange, they give up any legal rights to property and their dowry.

Men aren’t happy about it.

“It’s an issue of masculinity,” says Mehab Abolkonfan, chairwoman of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights. “In Eastern society, men should be [in demand], not rejected ... [In khula, a woman] doesn’t have to say ‘he beats me’ or does any bad things, but instead says, ‘I reject this man and I will forgo any kind of financial commitment to leave this man.”

Yasser Shehad, a married flower vendor in downtown Cairo, is saddened by the law’s impact on Egyptian society.

“This [law] increases the rates of divorce and allows women to do whatever they want,” says Mr. Shehad. “Marriage is love and happiness and a family unit. Breaking up the families – that’s a big problem. What else is bigger than breaking up the family?”

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