CAIRO (AFP) – When her divorce finally came through after a painful four-year procedure, Mahasen Saber became the target of reproving looks and gossip in Egypt’s conservative society.
But she fought back, and in a bid to counter the prejudice attached to being no longer married, the young Egyptian mother decided to take to the high-tech airwaves on the Internet with the launch of “Radio Divorcees”.
“Our society burdens women with the greatest share of responsibility for divorce. The woman is wrong, the woman is bad — she’s the reason a marriage failed,” said the 30-year-old.
“This radio station is saying that we are not bad. When people tune in, they understand that divorcees can play an active and positive role in society and that women who are divorced from their husbands do not do always so by choice.”
Since its launch a few months ago, “Motalaqat Radio” — Radio Divorcees in Arabic — has broadcast on the Internet, airing programmes with titles such as “You are misunderstood” and “Diary of a divorced man”.
It also put out a programme called “Before you say ‘I want a divorce’,” cautioning women on filing for separation too hastily.
The Internet initiative was an immediate success, and received wide coverage in the Egyptian media.
Saber says she has about 20 collaborators, but that their Egyptian audience is in the thousands, with others tuning in from as far afield as Morocco and Lebanon. Motalaqat Radio’s Facebook site also has more than 1,700 members.
The project was timely and bound to strike a chord in Egypt, a country where the number of divorces is on the rise, despite the value placed on marriage and the stigma of separation.
Government figures show that every six minutes a couple separates in Egypt, a country where the population is more than 80 million.
Doaa Eweda, a friend of Saber who works with her on the radio project, points to the growing pressures on women that have contributed to this social trend.
“The number of divorced women in the Arab world has risen sharply, with women marrying very quickly, whether from love, parental pressure or because they fear ending up as spinsters, and that can quickly lead to divorce,” she said.
Since 2000, women in Egypt have been able to secure a divorce without needing to prove anything other than incompatibility with their husbands.
But the procedure, known as “khulu”, obliges the woman to forfeit all of her financial rights and also to return the dowry she received when they married, and the process can take up to six months.
Women can also resort to the older procedure of drawn-out litigation to keep some financial rights, but such court hearings are often seen as biased against them.
It can also be tortuous, as famously depicted in the 1975 film “I Want a Solution”, in which a woman played by celebrated Egyptian actress Fatin Hamama fought an excruciating battle for a divorce.
In contrast, it is easy for a man to divorce his wife. Official statistics back this up, showing that 80 percent of divorce cases are in fact instigated by men.
But in Egypt’s conservative society, despite the law placing hurdles in the path of women seeking to end their marriages, some people believe the legal system is excessively favourable to females.
“Women have more rights than they should have, they have really gone too far,” according to Abdel Rahman Hamid, who heads a men’s association against khulu.
“They have exploited this law to further their personal interests, and the family pays the price. This law is not at all fair. Women have become rebellious.”
Saber, who works in the administrative department of a university, is well aware of the heavy price that divorced Egyptian women must pay for gaining their freedom.
She says it is impossible to speak to a colleague on the street without immediately being suspected of having a relationship with him.
She also recalls the case of a female doctor who avoided working night shifts, for fear that people would gossip about her.
Saber herself was married for two years, and finds it ironic that she spent twice that time — four years — getting divorced.
Despite not following the khulu procedure, Saber still had to forfeit some of her financial rights in order to speed up the process and protect her five-year-old son from the turmoil of an even lengthier divorce case.