Iriny has wanted out of her marriage for a decade. A member of Egypt's ancient Coptic Orthodox church, she was pushed into marrying a virtual stranger by her family 12 years ago.
Problems quickly developed, and her husband began to beat her, explains Iriny. When they had a son, Iriny's husband beat him, too. This is where her voice cracks.
Fearing for her son, she took him and left her husband to live with her parents.
But Iriny, a woman of modest means from a traditional family, cannot make a new life for herself because she is still married. In Egypt, the state leaves matters of marriage and divorce to the religious establishment, and the strict, patriarchal Coptic church will not grant her a divorce. "I want to continue my life," says Iriny, who did not want her real name to be used. "I want my own home, to live on my own with my son. My life is all lost."
Thousands more are in Iriny's shoes. Now, after a controversial court case and the government's promise of a new law dealing with personal-status issues like marriage, their cases are in the spotlight.
The resulting struggle has exposed the pitfalls of a legal system that, by forcing people to abide by religious regulations, has deprived citizens of the freedom to make decisions about their personal lives. Some – Christians and Muslims alike – are calling for alternatives.
"Our problem is that the state appears to be washing its hands of the problem, saying it's an intercommunity issue," says Hossam Baghat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "The argument we're trying to make as an organization is that Egyptian men and women of any religious conviction should enjoy the right to marry and have a family without being subject to the patriarchal family law."
Egyptian law says that a citizen's marriage and divorce petitions should be decided by the principles of that person's religion.
Christians must go to their leaders for permission to marry, divorce, or remarry, and Muslims abide by sharia, or Islamic law. A citizen's rights effectively depend on the religion he or she belongs to.
Islamic law is more permissive on issues of marriage and divorce, so Egyptian Muslims have more freedom to make such decisions than do Copts. Copts make up the majority of Egyptian Christians, who are about 10 percent of the population.
But the Coptic church wasn't always so strict. A 1938 code listed nine reasons Copts could divorce. But the first decree of the current pope, Shenouda III, upon taking office in 1971 was to disallow divorce except in cases of proven adultery. The church also allows remarriage after the death of a spouse.
Uproar in Coptic church over remarriage ruling
The church argued the state has no right to interfere. So when Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court did just that in May, ruling that the church must allow two men, in separate cases, to remarry, it unleashed an uproar among church leaders and adherents. Pope Shenouda refused to carry out the court's order.
The Ministry of Justice announced it would write a personal status law for non-Muslims, a move the pope has long sought in order to solidify the church's stance on marriage and divorce. In July, the Supreme Constitutional Court halted the implementation of the earlier remarriage decision until the issue was resolved. This month, Pope Shenouda signaled that he approved of a draft of the law drawn up by a committee of Christian leaders.
Many observers say the moves reek of politics by the ruling National Democratic Party. "The only explanation is that this is an election year and the government needs the support of Copts, who have traditionally voted NDP," says Mr. Baghat.
Some Copts have changed religions to get a divorce, though that can be costly and risks abandonment by family and community. For those who convert, reverting to Christianity after divorce can bring protests, even death threats, from Muslims.
The problem is compounded by the sectarian strife that pervades Egypt, says Azza Soliman, director of the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Aid. Discrimination has made Christians tend to band together, resolving their problems within the church, she says.
Still, more Egyptians now are asking to add a third route: government-recognized civil marriage. "Civil marriage is the only solution, because you can't force the church to change its beliefs," says Karima Kamal, society editor at the popular independent newspaper Al Masry Al Youm. But she and others say the government will not permit it, because it would allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, breaching Islamic law.
"It really boils down to this. If we have a civil law, then we will have no control over interfaith marriages," says Baghat.
Ms. Soliman says one option is to offer civil marriage only to Christians, which would sidestep the controversial issue of interfaith marriage. Even that is unlikely. But advocates take solace in the fact that at least people are talking about it.
"The one positive thing that is coming out of this process is that there's a more vocal minority that is speaking out against religious interpretations that are gender-biased or that do not allow easy access to divorce or remarriage," says Baghat.