Both Egypt and Iraq have recently witnessed a social media uproar following suggested bills aimed at amending the Personal Status Law in each country. The Personal Status Law, also known as the family law code, regulates matters of marriage, divorce, custody of children, and inheritance. In Iraq, public mayhem has ensued over a legislative proposal discussed in parliament in early July to limit mothers’ custody of their children. In Egypt online campaigns have launched already in February in protest of a governmental draft law leaked to the media, that if approved would inter alia deny women’s right to act as their children’s guardian, including the right to make decisions about their children’s education, health, travels, and financial affairs. Although the socio-political context is different, these two bills arose quite similar reactions in the virtual sphere.
In the Iraqi case, a draft law to amend article 57 of the Personal Status Law No. 188 of 1959, concerning the mother’s right to custody over her children after divorce, was introduced for a first reading in July. In its current form, Article 57 is considered relatively progressive, as it accords mothers the right of custody over their children until they reach the age of ten, with the possibility of petitioning the court for extending custody until the age of 15 – at which point the minor is eligible to decide for himself (following an amendment introduced in 1978). The law also allows a divorced woman to remarry without losing custody of her children (according to an amendment introduced in 1987).
The proposed amendment, if adopted, will grant a divorced woman maternal custody only until her child reaches the age of seven, and provided she does not remarry, while the father’s right to custody is not forfeited in the case of remarriage. In practice, such an amendment will annul an important achievement of the women’s rights movement in the last four decades, and mark an additional milestone in the path of re-patriarchalization of the Iraqi Personal Status Law taken since the 1990s, in response to the impact of the Iraq-Iran war.
In reaction, thousands of angry posts and tweets from all over Iraq have surfaced on social media under tags such as “No to the Amendment of the Personal Status Law”, “We Oppose the Amendment of Article 57”, “Guardianship Belongs to the Mother”, “Do Not Take Children from their Mothers”, and “LeaveArticle57alone”. Sara from Baghdad, for example, tweeted: “This is a very important issue, and I hope that journalists and friends following me will join us in this campaign, and reject this law which treats women unjustly… taking us back to the Middle Ages or earlier.” Iraqi citizen Hassanen Nadim, for instance, tweeted: “the new amendment to the Guardianship Law is a shame on whoever took part in this outrageous draft and anyone who did not act to stop this absurdity.” Groups have also been set up on Facebook, with hundreds of thousands of members calling to halt the proposed amendment, under names such as “Custody of Children is the Mother’s Right”. Criticism was voiced also on the part of angry divorced fathers who object the suggested bill and promote joint custody. Supporters of the amendment voiced their stance through social media too, in separate groups.
Just a few months earlier, social media outraged in Egypt after a governmental draft law to amend the Personal Status Law was transmitted to the parliament on 15 February and leaked to the media. Though the bill covered a wide range of topics, the clause that stirred by far the most debate is that related to women’s right to guardianship of their children. According to Egypt’s Personal Status Law of 1929, the male husband was accorded the right and duty to guardianship of his children in terms of parental authority, while the custody, meaning the day-to-day care of children, remained the right and duty of mothers until a certain age.
A series of amendments to the law during the 2000s recognized women’s right to initiate the divorce and retain custody of the children; moreover, an amendment introduced in 2008 modifying the Child Law limited the father’s right to guardianship of the children. The bill, however, proposes that a mother will have no authority over her children in anything related to education, finances, health, travel, and the issuance of official papers. A married or divorced woman, for example, is not allowed to travel with her children without the written consent of the husband, a restriction that does not apply to him.
Simultaneously, the al-Azhar institute –– which is considered to be the most prominent and influential educational institution in the Sunni Muslim world –– also issued a comprehensive draft law of Personal Status, according the father the exclusive right to supervise the child’s finances. In matters of child education, the authority lies in the hands of the father and the mother to decide together, and in the father’s hands in case of a disagreement between the spouses. Both drafts have given rise to a long-standing conflict between the state authority and the religious authority concerning the adjudication of personal status.
On Egyptian social media, however, both bills met widespread resistance. Thousands of posts by Egyptian women and men have surfaced under tags such as “Guardianship is My Right”. Women began sharing personal testimonies about difficulties they experience in daily life at their children’s school, at the bank, in courts, and other institutions since they are not the children's guardians and the father has moved abroad, disappeared, imprisoned, or died.
Others, like Nagla Rizk, stated the absurd: being a university lecturer in economics, and yet unable to open a bank account for her children. On Egyptian woman’s day, she tweeted a call to “treat women as a fully qualified person with rights and duties, as a human being who has a brain, as an equal partner… who has a full right to guardianship over herself and her children.” Men opposing the suggested amendments posted stories of their mothers’ difficulties while raising them under limited power of guardianship.
Proponents of the bill, like the Egyptian popular preacher and former spokesman of the Ministry of Endowment Abdallah Rushdi, have tweeted under the same hashtag that they do not consider the draft law a discriminatory law against mothers, but a just law that conforms to Sharia law. Others expressed their support of the proposed amendment on the grounds that the existing law is a remnant of Mubarak’s regime which discriminates fathers and limits their visitation rights.
Following this social media storm, Egyptian government withdrew the bill. Parliamentary debate was postponed for the time being, demonstrating the social networks’ power and ability to influence policymaking, even at a time when freedom of expression is shrinking under draconian regulations of censorship and monitoring of the media and the internet introduced in Egypt in recent years. In Iraq, previous attempts to amend or repeal the Personal Status Law (such as in 2013) failed because of strong popular protest.
It remains to be known whether online campaigns will play a similar role this time too. In any case, these campaigns’ outcomes may affect other Arab countries, such as Sudan, where hundreds of women activists have recently marched in the capital city of Khartoum, while presenting a feminist communiqué, which calls for the reform of discriminatory laws that hinder gender equality, such as the Personal Status Law.
Limor Lavie is a lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar Ilan University. Her research deals with the study of social-political media and social media discourse on the relations between religion and state, the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in particular and the Arab world in general.
 Noga Efrati, “Negotiating Rights in Iraq: Women and the Personal Status Law”, Middle East Journal, vol. 59, no. 4 (Autumn, 2005), pp. 577-595; Zahra Ali, Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
 The mentioned hashtags, respectively: #كلا_لتعديل_قانون_الاحوال_الشخصية; #نرفض_لتعديل_قانون_الاحوال_الشخصية; #الحضانَة_للأُم; #لا_تحرموا_الاطفال_من_امهاتهم; #ضد_تعديل_الماده_٥٧ and #LeaveArticle57alone, Twitter.
 A group for the amendment of article 57 of the Personal Status Law and for joint custody, Facebook Group, 1 July 2021 [in Arabic]; accessed 27 July 2021.
 The amendment of article 57 of the Personal Status Law concerning child custody, Facebook, 14 April 2019 [in Arabic], accessed 27 July 2021.
 Nadia Sonneveld and Monika Lindbekk, “A Revolution in Muslim Family Law? Egypt’s Pre and Post-Revolutionary Period (2011-2013) Compared”, New Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 5 (2015).
 “After al-Sisi referred to it, the detailed proposal of al-Azhar for the amendment of the Personal Status Law”, Akhbar al-Yawm, 21 March 2021 [in Arabic]; accessed 27 July 2021.
 Baghdad Kasim, “The Personal Status Law and Political Tensions in Iraq”, 1001 Iraqi Thoughts, 14 February 2019; accessed 27 July 2021.
 “Sudan - The Muslim Personal Law Act of Sudan, 1991”, Equality Now; accessed 27 July 2021.