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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Edmund Bower in Cairo

‘The reality is worse’: can TV drama end legal woes of Egypt’s bereaved?

A young bearded man standing behind an older woman in a headscarf against a black background
Aly Hegazy, 20, with his mother Eman Helal, 48, in their house in Cairo. ‘Nobody understands what it’s like unless they’ve been through it,’ she says. Photograph: Jonathan Rashad/The Guardian

The day before Aly Hegazy graduated from high school in June 2020, his father died from cancer after a long illness. The grief of losing him was compounded by the realisation that, without his father’s signature, he would be unable to go to university.

Under Egyptian law, responsibility for Hegazy, who was 17 at the time, and his younger brother fell not to his mother but to his 90-year-old grandfather, who had dementia.

A family portrait with an inscription amid carvings of elephants
A treasured photo of Aly Hegazy’s late father with his mother, Eman Helal, and younger brother. Photograph: Jonathan Rashad/The Guardian

Still in mourning, Hegazy’s mother, Eman Helal, began the long, slow process of challenging the country’s guardianship law to take control of her family affairs and get access to her late husband’s pension and bank accounts. Three years on, her legal difficulties continue. “We weren’t ready for any of this,” says Hegazy.

The guardianship legislation is one of a number of “personal status laws” that lawyers say are outdated and treat women like criminals. They stem from a passage in the Qur’an that says: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more [strength] than the other, and because they support them from their means.”

The drama series Under Guardianship, which was aired on Egyptian television this year during Ramadan in March and April, followed the struggles of a bereaved mother trying to raise two children whose guardianship had passed to their grandfather.

It led the country’s MPs to submit amendments to update the 75-year-old law, but campaigners are sceptical that the slow-moving Egyptian parliament can deliver substantial change.

A still from TV showing a woman sitting on a sofa with a young child
Mona Zaki, who plays Hanan in the hit TV drama Under Guardianship, in which a widow is forced to confront a patriarchal legal system to keep custody of her children. Photograph: Handout

For months after her husband died, Helal struggled financially. Her father-in-law had not left the house for seven years so was unable to attend court to sign the guardianship over to her. Hegazy could not enrol at university. Helal was forced to rely on friends and relatives for money.

“The reality is worse than on the TV show,” she says. “Nobody understands what it’s like unless they’ve been through it.”

It took six months before Helal was granted a special court hearing to transfer guardianship because of her father-in-law’s dementia. “It was easier for us because we had other sources of income,” says Hegazy. “Other people wouldn’t have survived those six months.”

But Helal still does not have direct access to her late husband’s money. The family has to make regular trips to court, queueing with other women to ask the judge to reimburse payments for food, fuel or Hegazy’s tuition fees. Helal has to pay out of her own pocket and present the receipts to the judge, who has the power to refuse a refund.

A middle-aged woman in a headscarf against a black background
‘The law should reflect modern life,’ says Eman Helal. Photograph: Jonathan Rashad/Guardian

“I want the law to be changed. Guardianship should go from the father to the mother,” says Helal. “They are the two most important people for the children. If, for some reason, it’s not right to give the kids to the mother, the law should account for that, not the other way around.

“The law should reflect modern life,” she adds. “Nowadays, women go out and work, she can do everything the children need. It’s not like in the past when women would just sit at home not doing anything.”

The guardianship legislation was intended to protect the inheritance of a child before they reached the age of 21, explains Karim Adel, a lawyer based in Cairo, and to prevent the mother from spending it. But in practice, he says, “the court treats the mother as a thief”, with judges reluctant to let women spend money.

“Some people want to enrol their kids in international schools,” he says. “These schools cost $10,000 a year or even more. And here is the judge, who is getting the salary of a judge, who sees things differently to the way the mother sees things. So he feels that spending this money on schools is insane.”

Menna el-Zuheiry, 25, says: “There are things the court doesn’t always agree to. “Clothes, for example … food, drink, private tuition. We’ll go and ask to buy bottled water and the court will say, ‘just drink from the tap’ or ‘get the bus, why are you getting an Uber?’”

When Zuheiry lost her father, Mohamed, to Covid-19 in 2020, her two younger siblings fell under the guardianship of their estranged grandfather. Mohamed, who worked as a customs official, knew he was dying and that his death would leave his family’s money in the hands of a man with whom they had a rocky relationship.

However, he was too ill to leave hospital to sign the guardianship over to his wife. “My father worked so hard so that we could have a good future,” says Zuheiry. “And he died worrying about this.”

A young woman against a black background
Menna el-Zuheiry: ‘Imagine, we had to go through all of this when our father had just died.’ Photograph: Jonathan Rashad/The Guardian

It took Zuheiry’s mother, Um Haidy, months to persuade her father-in-law to give her guardianship. But since then, Haidy “spends every day in the court. Every day. Nothing happens without the court. Imagine, we had to go through all of this when our father had just died.”

Amira el-Adly, a member of Egypt’s House of Representatives, says that the Qur’anic verse on which the law is based has been misunderstood and used to argue that women are incapable of managing money. But as she notes: “Even the prophet Muhammad married a businesswoman.”

“The law is based on very outdated ideas,” says Adly. “We have female politicians, we have doctors, scientists – even the minister of planning and urban development is a woman. But the law still sees women as incapable of managing their children’s money.”

For some women, she says, the implications of the guardianship law can be crushing: “Many of these women aren’t working outside the home. Their sole source of income came from their husband.” Even when requests to the court for reimbursement of expenses are approved, women can wait up to eight months to receive it.

A woman sits at a table speaking into a microphone
Amira el-Adly is one of the MPs trying to change Egyptian guardianship law. Photograph: Courtesy of Amira el-Adly

Azza Soliman, a lawyer and co-founder of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, welcomes discussion about changing the law but is sceptical that it will lead to real reform. “We have had a big crisis for a long time,” she says. “Now, suddenly, after one TV drama, they are saying, ‘Oh my God! We have a problem!?’ Please. Pull the other one.”

According to Soliman, even if the amendments to the guardianship law go through, a host of other personal status laws remain, under which women are treated unfairly.

“This is the big mistake we make in Egypt,” she says. “Since 1920, we have changed a few articles here, a few articles there. But we need to change the mentality of our legislators. They still see women as subservient to men and in need of somebody to protect them.

“The president and many people who have important positions in this country always talk about women by saying, ‘Oh, she’s like my daughter, my wife, my mother, my sister.’ No, habibi [my dear],” says Soliman. “You need to see me as a citizen.”

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