COVID-19 and the Necessity of Muslim Family Law Reform in the Arab World
Image provided by Musawah.

Marwa Sharafeldin/ Jadaliyya- When Salma discovered that her mother had contracted COVID-19, she was already at breaking point. Salma was juggling her two boys’ education from home along with her own piles of work as a short-contract academic, and was now threatened with a layoff. That, of course, was alongside the cleaning, cooking, and disinfecting of their home on a daily basis. Her husband worked in a government authority and returned home tired, barely offering assistance with the housework. Salma was now suddenly responsible for the management of two households, along with caring for her sick mother.

Salma’s mother is, thankfully, out of the woods now, but Salma has developed chronic headaches, a stomach ulcer, and debilitating insomnia affecting both herself and her entire family. Salma used to be a social butterfly, but has now shut down all contact with her circle of friends and family; she simply has no time or energy.

This story took place in Egypt, and I am sure that it is happening all over the world today. It raises the important question: Is there a relationship between the effects of COVID-19 on women and families in the Arab and Muslim world on the one hand, and family laws[1] and practices on the other? I believe most women going through the experience today would ardently agree that there is.

COVID-19 Effects on Women: Domestic Violence, Unpaid Domestic Care and Labor, and Informal Sector Work

We know that women around the world are particularly affected by this pandemic. In the Arab world, we find that the lockdown came with an avalanche of additional unpaid domestic labor for women, which is affecting women’s health and well-being. Salma is one of the lucky women who still has food and shelter. Other women are facing the spike in domestic labor in far worse circumstances.

There has also been an alarming rise in cases of domestic violence (DV) and suicide amongst women. More and more women are now reporting DV in the Arab world, some for the first time after suffering for as long as twenty years. In Lebanon, there has been a one hundred percent rise in calls to DV hotlines. In some areas of Palestine, women’s rights organizations witnessed a twenty percent increase in calls. They later discovered that in fact, more women needed to call but could not, due to the sheer burden of the additional domestic labor they were now carrying. Ironically, women are too busy to call for help.

Sixty-two percent of working women in the Arab world actually work in the informal sector. These include domestic workers, street vendors, cleaners, and beauticians, among others. Many of these women are either heads of households, or contribute a significant share to the livelihood of their families. The informal sector is one of the most precarious and fragile sectors that has been hard-hit by COVID-19. However, when governments in Egypt and Morocco started to roll out financial aid packages for suffering families, many of these women were not eligible to apply because they were neither recognized as heads of households, nor as workers in the informal economy.

In such a context, whose immunity is compromised with the stress of additional domestic labor and caring for the sick? Who is de-prioritized in testing, medical treatment, and access to nutritious food within families? Who is usually asked, if not forced, to leave their work and jeopardize their financial security to attend to the rising domestic labor burdens? And who is required to be quiet about the violence because there are other more pressing issues at stake now? It is usually women and girls.

Relationship with Family Law

How is this related to family laws and practices in the Arab region? To answer this question, we should examine some of the background statistics and reports related to the family in the Arab world.

Mindful of critiques against international reports and how they are sometimes used for un-benign political reasons, I still use them when they are in congruence with stories and accounts of Muslim women written by Muslim women living in Muslim contexts. The potential misuse of this work globally should not silence us from engaging critically with our societies’ issues, finding solutions in local resources while interacting with global ones. For better or worse, it is these reports rather than other forms of evidence that are usually used in policy circles to justify law and policy change.

I focus on the Arab region as an Arab national, with the awareness that many of the root causes of the problems presented below are also shared with other regions of the world, including supposedly more gender-egalitarian Western countries. We all suffer, even if in different ways, from patriarchy and gender injustices. This requires sharing in solidarity the common fight against them, each in their own locale.

The following will focus on three of the issues raised above, which COVID-19 has brought to the fore: domestic violence, women’s labor participation, and unpaid domestic labor and care.

Violence against Women

The Arab region has the highest rate of violence against women (VAW) worldwide, with violence committed by husbands being the most common regionally.

We would err to assume that what happens inside the home does not reach outside its walls. The cost of domestic violence in social, psychological, and economic terms in some countries amounts to 3.7 percent of its GDP, more than double what most governments spend on education. In Egypt for example, the cost of domestic violence in 2015 was estimated to be a whopping two percent of its GDP. These are serious numbers, affecting not just women but the entire society.

By now we know from many studies that there is a clear link between gender inequality and domestic violence. Many Arab and Muslim family laws not only contain provisions that promote an unequal relationship between the spouses, but they also condone varying levels of violence. For example, some of these laws still allow: differing degrees of “wife disciplining”—also known as beating—by the husband, child marriage, and mitigation of penalties on so-called “honor” killings. None of these laws criminalize marital rape, while some still exonerate the rapist upon his marriage to the victim. Most of these laws consider the man to be the head of the family and main decision-maker in the household. Such laws do not give equal rights to spouses with regards to divorce, making it much easier for the man than the woman. In addition to all this, these laws require wives’ obedience to their husbands, and gives husbands and male guardians the right to restrict the movement of women and girls and their ability to access education, work, legal services, and signing contracts.

The 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defined violence as rooted in unequal relations between the sexes. It defines VAW as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, [disciplining the wife] sexual [marital rape] or psychological [threats of polygamy, unilateral divorce, requiring women’s obedience] harm or suffering of women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, [the husband’s permission is required to work, go out, travel, and have equal guardianship over children], whether occurring in public or in private life.”

We can see from the above that there is a relationship between our current family laws and normalizing VAW during “ordinary” times. So, when crises like COVID-19 hit, there is fertile ground for an increase in VAW. This is then seen as socially-acceptable collateral damage at best, or as men “letting off steam” at worst. With court proceedings suspended in many Arab countries, the situation becomes even more complicated and we find increasing cases like this one in Egypt: “He has been humiliating me verbally and beating me constantly, […] and now he is telling me to get out of the house and that he would divorce me. But I don’t know where to go, there are no courts currently operating to get me my right from him.”

There are also reports from activists across the region from Iraq to Palestine and Egypt revealing that child marriage is on the rise, as families try to alleviate their economic burdens during this crisis. In fact, some activists report anecdotal evidence that the only cases judges are now taking on are to conduct child marriages.

With the normalized level of violence against women and girls that family laws and practices contribute to, it is no wonder that in some Arab countries we are now also seeing reduced jail time for VAW offenders. These are now sent back home to the victims of their violence after spending only a few hours in the police station. What message is this really sending?

COVID-19 shows us that inequality in family law and practices are the starting point, beatings, killings, and suicide by women today are the end result.

Labor Participation and the Economy

It comes as no surprise that family laws are considered one of the most serious impediments towards Arab women’s labor participation in the region’s economies. Family laws require the husband or male guardian’s permission for women to work, travel, and, sometimes, to borrow from banks and conduct other banking transactions. In fact, a recent comprehensive cross-country study drew the conclusion that “egalitarian reform of family law may be the most crucial precondition for empowering women economically.”

These family law provisions are part of the reason that the rate of the female labor force participation in the Arab region is lower than in any other region in the world. This incurs losses not just for women and their families but for nations as a whole. Studies show that if women’s participation rates in the workforce increase to an equal level with males, it would lead to a significant increase in national GDP. For example, the UAE’s GDP would increase by twelve percent, in Egypt by thirty-four percent, and in the whole Arab region by eighty-five percent. The extent of these numbers demonstrates that reform of such laws should be a collective priority for all, not just for feminist activists.

Men are also paying the price of these restrictions on women’s labor, despite the power they give men over women’s movement and financial well-being. Dependency ratios in the Arab world are, again, the highest in the world, with each worker, usually male, supporting more than two unemployed people. It is very difficult for a small number of workers to provide reasonable livelihoods for their families, not to mention the pressure this puts on the workers themselves.

Crises such as COVID-19 exacerbate the negative effects of these family law-related barriers to women’s labor participation. We can clearly see that, in the absence of adequate social safety nets, having only one spouse as the main breadwinner is nowadays proving to be too high a risk for the whole family, especially in cases of layoff or illness. This is also true for families that have experienced divorce. Due to the suspension of court proceedings across the region, women and their children who are dependent on their husband’s maintenance for their survival are facing serious problems. In the case of Hagar, whose ex-husband refrained from paying maintenance and challenged her to go to the courts, she exclaimed “how can family courts shut down? This was the only way I could have gotten my right, but now I have no other way.”

In Palestine, a recent COVID-19-related policy has also been applied whereby unpaid debts are no longer punished by imprisonment. While this law aims to protect against contracting COVID-19, it has had the effect of passing on the suffering to more fragile sectors of society, such as divorced women and children who are solely dependent on men’s maintenance payments. Today, ex-husbands are under no pressure to continue making such payments, while some women are unable to buy milk for their children, according to a Palestinian activist.

All of this is not to say that women should be forced to work to serve a neoliberal agenda rather than choose to take on domestic responsibilities, (which in unpaid form would still be subsidizing economies at the expense of women). Instead, it indicates that the family laws and practices in the region must change to provide women and their families with a truly free choice regarding women’s labor. Impediments affecting this choice, such as male guardian control over women and the requirement of their permission should be addressed. The stereotypical expectations of domestic gender roles and labor upon which these laws and practices are premised must also be taken into consideration.

The Relation between Unpaid and Paid Labor

The abysmally low employment rate of women in the Arab world is not only related to male control, as shown above, but is an inevitable consequence of the close association between a woman’s ability to work for pay, and the unpaid domestic and care work she has to do.[2]Even when a woman works, either in the formal or informal sector, she usually bears the “double burden” of work inside and outside the home. This results in time poverty, stress, and ill health for women. Working women are also not exempt from any domestic responsibilities in the home, nor do they enjoy any additional rights there.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that unpaid care work performed by women amounts to around eleven trillion dollars, or nine percent, of global GDP. It is difficult to find accurate numbers for the Arab region as a whole. However, recent figures from Egypt are indicative of the enormity of women’s unpaid national contribution, which ranges between twenty and thirty percent of the GDP. Women’s “invisible work” contributes significantly to the economic worth of their families and societies, yet women are treated, in law and practice, as dependents and legal minors who must obey those who supposedly bring home the actual money in the family.

The time women spend in unpaid domestic and care work in the Arab region exceeds the time that men spend by about 4.7 fold. Again, the Arab region has the highest rate among all regions in the world. Moreover, in several Arab countries, women work more hours in the twenty-four-hour day than men, whether in paid work, unpaid work, or both.

Paradoxically, men are suffering from the privileges which family laws grant them. For example, we know from recent surveys that many Arab men feel pressure and stress about being the main breadwinner of the family. Oftentimes this leads to ill health, a rise in cases of depression, and little time spent with children, affecting the quality of that relationship. Nevertheless, men still expect to control women’s movements and rights, be considered heads of households, and leave women to do the lion’s share of unpaid care and domestic work, even if women contribute financially to the household. If men want to relieve their stress, they may want to consider making different choices.

Yet it is not only up to men. Many of the Arab region’s family laws and practices assume that it is the role of women to perform unpaid domestic and care work. Interestingly, this contradicts settled classical Islamic jurisprudence which does not obligate the wife with this kind of work, and requires compensating her if she does. Gender stereotypes make the situation worse at times of crisis, such as COVID-19, when unpaid domestic labor suddenly spikes. It becomes very difficult for women to object or ask others in the family for help despite the negative effect on women’s health and the family’s well-being. Domestic and care work become the woman’s problem, not the family’s and not the state’s.

Unpaid care work has also been one of the main reasons why women in the Arab world have been prone to work in the informal sector. Despite this sector’s precariousness and bad working conditions, it provides women with relative flexibility to juggle multiple roles within the family. The informal sector, however, has also been one of the most hard-hit sectors by COVID-19, greatly affecting women and their families. Activists in Morocco report that twenty percent of families are headed by women and seventy percent of these work in the informal sector. As expected, most of them are now without a job.

What this section shows in numbers is that all the issues discussed tie together. When family law treats women and men unequally it provides fertile ground for violence against women, harming them, their families, and societies as a whole. By granting men the power to control women’s movement and labor, and assuming that it is the woman’s responsibility to perform unpaid domestic work, it is both women and men that eventually suffer as a result. Everyone in the Arab region countries is affected, as economies keel as a result of these arrangements, and crises like COVID-19 come to wreak further havoc with all our lives. We cannot escape the fact that we are all tied together, as the numbers above have shown. However, this could yet be our biggest asset today.

Family Law Reform: Whither the Way Forward?

Family law is one of the most contentious laws to change in the Arab region and the Muslim world. One of the reasons given for this is its close association with religion.

However, it is important to first observe how family law is deeply implicated in distributing wealth and in allocating power and resources. Because of the way that family law is constructed in some countries in the Arab region, it is usually in men’s hands where power and wealth is concentrated. Such a phenomenon is expected when women need their husband’s permission to go out to work, are tasked with unpaid domestic and care work, and men are considered the heads of household. As such, any family wealth or property is usually written in their name. To capture the nuances of such a topic would require another article, but for now, it is important to note that this is not just a fight over “modern” personal rights and freedoms. It is a fight over a much-coveted and guarded realm of wealth and power. We can see from some of the numbers above, however, what this family law arrangement means in terms of cost, not only for women, but for our societies, economies, and even men themselves.

Returning to COVID-19, family law reform, and religion, there is a fundamental problem with the underlying philosophy of gender inequality found in family law practices, and the religious jurisprudence upon which they are based. But would we be tampering with religion if we call for the reform of Arab and Muslim family laws?

The answer is no. There is a difference between shari‘a and fiqh (jurisprudence). Shari‘a is what Muslims believe to be the eternal message of God; unchangeable, divine, and relevant for all times and places. It is full of all things good. Fiqh, on the other hand, is the human endeavor to uncover and understand this divine message. It is therefore changeable and subject to context. The Arab region’s family laws are not divine, because they are based on human fiqh. If such laws were divine, how is it that they are all different from one another, despite their being based on the one unchangeable shari‘a? If such family laws were divine, why then have they undergone a continuous process of change and reform since their inception, and will continue to do so in the near future and beyond? This is because such laws are based on different fiqh schools. Even within one school, there was, and is, a difference in opinion. It is a difference that was celebrated and embraced throughout Islamic legal history, and never claimed to be divine.

The good news is that today we find new jurisprudence, knowledge, and family law reforms which reflect a more gender-sensitive understanding of the divine shari‘a.[3] The bad news is that these reforms are slow and very hard to come by. Musawah (equality in Arabic), a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family, has published a table showing the positive developments in family laws across the Muslim world. We see here that where there is political will there is a way, and that religion per se is not the problem, rather ‘how’ it is wielded by different political actors for ‘what’ purposes.

We are told today that family law reform is not a priority. Yet COVID-19 has shown us the high price of ignoring the inequality lurking in our family laws and practices. Between the violence and the deaths, the exponentially increasing unpaid labor load, the breakage of livelihoods in informal sectors, and the threats to women’s and families’ health and well-being, what exactly are we waiting for?

That is why a movement such as Musawah is launching its global campaign to reform Muslim Family Laws. Musawah is a movement comprised of Muslim women and men worldwide. They are scholars, activists, and policymakers who believe that these are pressing issues and that gender equality and justice are at the core of the Islamic message. They realize that inequality in the family intersects with various other global/local inequalities, and root their scholarship and activism in local knowledge, lived realities and history of struggles for inclusive citizenship. Musawah’s work pays particular attention to the creative dynamic interaction between the local and the global, including the power-related challenges and possibilities. They, therefore, make the case that change is necessary, change is possible, and the time for change is now.

Image provided by Musawah.

Image provided by Musawah.

[1] By family law, I refer to what is commonly known as Muslim Family or Personal Status Laws. I also sometimes address provisions in the Penal, Civil, Labor and other laws that deal with family issues. These may or may not have a secular basis, but still reflect varying levels of gender discrimination.

[2] The focus here is on “unpaid” domestic and care work provided by the majority of women for their families. There are exceptions to this in parts of the Arab region, such as the Gulf states, where families increasingly resort to hiring ‘paid’ foreign domestic labor to carry out these duties.

[3] Such as the work of Musawah, Amina Wadud, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Khaled Aboul Fadl, Abdullahi An-Naim, Kecia Ali, Omaima Abu Bakr, Fazlur Rahman, Mulki Al-Shurmani, Asma Lamrabet, and many others.

(This article marks the launch of Musawah’s campaign to reform Muslim family laws, and has been written by  Marwa Sharafeldin; a Senior Expert in Musawah.)

*جميع الآراء الواردة في هذا المقال تعبّر فقط عن رأي كاتبها/كاتبتها، ولا تعبّر بالضرورة عن رأي “تجمّع سوريات من أجل الديمقراطية”.

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