Legal Aspects about “Desperate Housewives”

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The award-winning American series “Desperate Housewives” taking place in an American suburban context remained of relevance to the Egyptian viewer, for we all know that similar female characters are to be found inside the Egyptian society. Of course, the reaction of society towards them is totally different and the dimension of these characters remains limited in number. However, similar female characters exist in Egyptian society, if we disregard the fact that the actors of the series are portrayed in the usual American “glamour”. This raises the question of the legal status for desperate housewives in Egypt.

The American series “Desperate Housewives” featured a number of female characters: a wife/mother struggling to save her marriage, a wife whose husband is constantly on travel, a wife cheating her husband, a divorced single mother, a widow or a wife with a husband sitting in jail. Of course, the drama is complemented by male characters equally “desperate”, varying from delinquant husbands to caring husbands deciding to remain at home to look after the children. Egyptians of both sexes watching the show became swiftly spellbound. For male viewers, the popularity can be easily explained by the presence of Eva Longoria or even the attractive Teri Hatcher, if we speak about the elder generation.                                                                                                                             

But the action taking place in an American suburban context remained of relevance to the Egyptian viewer, for we all know that similar female characters are to be found inside the Egyptian society. Of course, the reaction of society towards them is totally different and the dimension of these characters remains limited in number. However, fact remains that similar female characters exist in Egyptian society, if we disregard the difference of names, education or wealth, in contrast to the actors of the series portrayed in the usual American “glamour”. This raises the question of the legal status for desperate housewives in Egypt.

The  relevant legal provisions are subject to the Egyptian 1971 Constitution porclaiming in its article 11 that: “The State shall guarantee coordination between a woman’s duties towards her family and her work in the society, considering her equal to man in the political, social, cultural and economic spheres without prejudice to the rules of Islamic law (Shari’a)”. The reservation of the respect of the Islamic law is not thought to limit the principle of equality, but to underline the concept of “different and complementary rights and responsibilities” adopted by the Islamic Law. However, some forms of discrimination exist in the Egyptian legislation, especially for the consequences of adultery, as it will be further explained in detail, adopting more severe punishments for wives than for husbands. These provisions violate both the Islamic law and the Constitution, especially as the Islamic law enshrined the principle of equal punishments regardless of the sex of the perpetrator, including for the offence of adultery.

The root of many housewives’ problems in the Egyptian society resides in the practice of forced marriages. Despite its legal and religious prohibition, parents often force their daughters into an undesired marriage. According to the Egyptian law based on Islamic rules the validity of the marital contract depends on the wife’s free consent. A forced marriage can be annulled by the court, as it lacks the fundament of a marital union: the parties’ free will to wed. However, if the girl lacks the courage to oppose the forced marriage, then one should not expect from her to take an active step such as requesting the judicial annulment of the contract. In addition, the act of forcing a person into a marriage is not incriminated as such. Furthermore, it is deplorable to see some Islamic scholars allowing the father or the male guardian “to choose for an inexperienced girl her future husband”, even though this stream remains a clear minority among scholars. Yet, they provide a moral and religious justification for this act, despite its clear violation of the provisions contained in both the Quran and the Prophet’s tradition, insisting on the parties’ consent for the validity of the contract.

The legal obligation of obedience imposed on the wives is another issue often raised in connection with the situation of “desperate housewives”, especially as many Egyptians often hear expressions like “the house of obedience” beit el ta3a or a court ruling of obedience hukm bel ta3a.  First of all, it is always important to mention that the obligation of obedience imposed on the wife is symmetric to the husband’s obligation to provide the financial support for the household, including all the wife’s needs such as food, clothing, medical treatment and even jewellery. According to this concept the wife is exempted from any contribution to her own needs, which remains the husband’s duty. The husband’s failure to honour this duty exempts the wife from her obligation of obedience. However, if the husband accomplished his obligation of financial support, the wife may not violate her obligation of obedience. The obligation of obedience imposes on the wife obeying her husband’s lawful and reasonable instructions, except if the common marital contract inserted any exceptions.                             

The most common example is her duty not to leave the marital domicile without his permission. As previously mentioned the marital contract may limit the scope of this obligation, for instance marrying a “working woman” is considered to be in principle a permanent permission by the husband for his wife to leave the domicile for her work. In addition, the jurisprudence enumerated a number of circumstances where the permission is not required, for instance visiting a doctor or the sick mother. However, if the wife’s violation of this obligation is continuous and unequivocal, she is legally considered as deviant or nashez. In case the husband has provided his wife with a home fulfilling all her necessities in accordance with her social status bayt al ta3a, the wife is supposed to return to the conjugal domicile. The obligation of common residence between spouses also exists in a number of Western legislation, and it should be underlined that the domicile of obedience or bayt al ta3a may not be used to demean or humiliate the wife, as the judge has to verify that the house is in conformity with the wife’s social and moral status. If they wife is still seeking the physical separation, she risks to be recognized by the court as deviant. In this case, she loses her right for alimony during marriage and upon divorce. But if she cannot bear her husband anyway, we should not expect him to provide her financial support either. It is important to mention that although the wife is legally obliged to return to the marital domicile, the husband cannot execute a decision of obedience by the force of police or any other imposing mean like it used to be before. Thanks to Faten Hamama’s famous 1970s movie “I want a solution”, that pointed out the problem of forcing wives to return to the marital domicile against their free will, this achievement was pushed through.

A much more sensitive issue portrayed in the series is adultery. Like in any society, adultery also exists in the Egyptian society, where there is still the remaining of a tolerance for adulterous husbands in stark contrast with a zero tolerance for adulterous wives. This social attitude is even reflected in the Egyptian legislation, where the rules for adultery still contain a difference in regard to the sex of the adulterous spouse. A wife is penalized for two years, whereas a husband is penalized for no more than six months. For adultery, the evidentiary standards are different for women and men. While a wife is penalized for committing adultery anywhere, a husband must do so in the marital home, in order for such an act to be considered adulterous. The murder of a wife (but not a husband) in the act of committing adultery is categorized as an extenuating circumstance, thereby commuting the crime of murder to the level of a misdemeanour. The rules of Islamic law did not distinguish between the sexes when it came to the punishment of adultery and the current Egyptian distinction is by the way the remaining of the first French penal code.

As for the desperate housewives’ way out of marriage, women who seek divorce in Egypt have two options, harm-based divorce or divorce against concession khul3. Unlike men, women can only divorce by court action, except if the marital contract stipulates the right of unilateral repudiation for the wife. In order to obtain divorce against concession, the wife had to return her dowry and renounce all her financial rights.

Some housewives cannot afford the fulfilment of this condition, even though we have to admit that it is a legitimate and justified condition (she only returns what she received from the husband and renounces her entitlement for future financial support by the husband). In this case the divorce for harm is the only possible path. Providing the evidence of the harm is very often a difficult burden on the wife, especially if we speak about moral harm. However, the series “Desperate Housewives” include interesting examples for filing a divorce for harm in Egypt. The husband’s imprisonment is a classical case, where the wife is guaranteed to obtain divorce, as the moral harm is beyond doubt. The husband’s absence is more complicated. Courts in Egypt request the complete and continuous absence, which equates the desertion of the common house.  The ecliptic appearance of the husband in his wife’s life is often considered sufficient to overrule the divorce request. The husband’s continuous absence for business like in the American series would not be considered by the applicable jurisprudence in Egypt as a reason for divorce, except if the wife succeeds to prove a very neglectful attitude of her husband.

Finally a divorced/single mother would find herself standing in Teri Hatcher’s shoes. However, dating neighbours in this case would probably lead in Egypt to the loss of the children’s custody. Some courts would transfer the custody even if the relationship between the mother and her neighbour is a marital union, which often leads mothers to contract secret customary marriages zawag 3urfi to keep the custody.

Court cases always show that examples portrayed in “Desperate Housewives” have an Egyptian everyday version.


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