Two weeks ago saw an inauspicious incident within Parliamentâ€™s Proposals and Complaints Committee. A bill proposed by MP Ibtisam Habib to legalize unofficial marriage (urfi) contracts in order to protect young women from situations where they are entitled to no legal rights as wives or mothers was vehemently opposed by MP Abdel-Rehim al-Ghoul. It was not that Ghoul had anything against the bill;
he merely protested that the bill was proposed by none other than the Christian Dr Habib, saying that it should have rather been proposed by a Muslim. He further slighted MP Habib by describing her as a fame seeker, and that the only purpose behind the bill was to increase the proceeds of the State Registry, of which she had been head before becoming MP.
The incident made me doubly sorry. First because it did not take place within Parliament’s main convention, since I am certain that Speaker of Parliament Fathi Sorour would never have let Ghoul’s remark go unchecked, but would have directly intervened to confirm that MPs represent all Egyptians regardless of any sectarian or religious considerations. Second, because I spotted in Ghoul’s remark a total sidelining of wider Egyptian interests in favour of defending what he sees as Islamic sharia, even if his view is unsubstantiated. This attitude indicated that the current incendiary religious climate is not merely confined to the uninformed, but has spread to the supposedly well educated and well informed.
It has to be stressed that representatives of all elected councils—whether local, sectarian, professional, or national—represent Egyptians across the board. There is nothing wrong with a male MP tackling women’s problems, a tycoon undertaking the problems of the destitute, or a Muslim endeavoring to confront the grievances of Copts. In fact, this is precisely what MP Mohamed Guweili did when he proposed a bill for a unified law of building places of worship. So there can be nothing wrong with a Christian MP proposing a cure to a serious problem the majority—but not the only—victims of which are Muslim. A Christian MP is entitled to be proactive with any problem that mainly concerns Muslims without having to be branded as an outsider.
As we strive to uphold citizenship concepts we never cease to stress that it is citizenship obligations that entitle a person to citizenship rights, and that public or political work pre-requires that national identity should precede religious identity. In this context we usually condemn the efforts of a Coptic candidate who would attempt to win exclusively through Coptic votes, or a Muslim candidate who would exploit Islamist slogans to win the votes of Muslim voters. A candidate is required to serve the interests of the entire Egyptian people and brush away all religious considerations.
With this in mind, MP Habib offered her proposal of the bill requiring the official registration of all urfi marriage contracts. To see the proposal as a means of inflating registration revenue is to trivialize the matter.
And to accuse her of invading an area exclusive to Muslims is to unjustly blame her, since she never tackled in any way the basis of Islamic marriage. What she did do, however, was to attempt to legalese an illegal situation which leads to immeasurable problems, especially for the women, once the men realize there is nothing official to prove they have any obligations towards the women they ‘unofficially’ married. Taking the entire matter into the light by legalizing it as MP Habib proposed would correct the injustice, achieve social stability, and defend the basis for a sound family. Or would it have been preferable to do nothing about a social ill set to undermine our society? MP Habib has every right to the attempt, and MP Ghoul has every right to oppose it, but not on grounds that MP Habib is Christian.