“Live with them Equitably”: Al-Azhar Institute & Social Networks as Platforms for Lowering the Divorce Rate in Egypt

Michael Barak analyzes the online campaign led by the Al-Azhar Institute, with the encouragement of the Egyptian government, to reduce the high divorce rate in Egypt, and the ambivalent attitudes among Egyptians users of social media towards the campaign.

On September 8, the Al-Azhar Institute launched a network campaign entitled “Live with them Equitably” (#وعاشروهن_بالمعروف), with the aim of reducing the high divorce rate in Egypt ,and strengthening the stability of the family unit. [1] The launch was welcomed by the establishment, because it considers the campaign to be part of its effort to eliminate the scourge of divorce in Egypt. In contrast, the online discourse surrounding the campaign reveals that the Egyptian public has an ambivalent attitude towards the involvement of Al-Azhar in the realm of family life. On the one hand, the discourse was characterized by praise for the initiative, and on the other, there is a lack of confidence in the Institute’s ability to bring about a fundamental change in this area. Moreover, many citizens accuse Al-Azhar of supporting family laws that discriminate against men. A conspicuous component of the discourse is the traditional struggle regarding the status of women in the family, between forces of progress who promote processes of modernization in this area as well, versus conservative forces that wish to sanctify tradition.

According to a February 2018 report published by Egypt’s official Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, Egypt has the third highest divorce rate in the world, with 192,000 divorces registered in 2017 alone.[2] Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi has expressed great concern about the high divorce rate, and called for its eradication on several occasions. For example, last July, he declared that the high rate of divorce (44%) threatens Egypt’s social resilience and leaves millions of children without a father or mother, as he put it. [3]In September 2018, the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity initiate d a meeting with the Al-Azhar Institute, in order to the examine ways they could cooperate on reducing the divorce rate. [4]Al-Azhar launched its online campaign following this meeting.

As part of the campaign, Al-Azhar uploaded to social media over ten videos dealing with the causes of divorce, and which provided advice on how to maintain the stability of the family unit. For example, an authority on religious law from Al-Azhar pointed out that some couples choose to divorce because they lack suitable tools for dealing with various obstacles in their lives, such as the severe economic crisis that has gripped Egypt.[5]Another video referred to parental involvement in their children’s marriages as a central cause of divorce, and stated that preserving the institution of marriage should be the highest priority, even at the price of disobeying parents.[6] Still another video emphasized that during a quarrel, it is important to discuss the dispute, and not rush to divorce as a “solution.” [7]Al-Azhar further warned couples to not publicize details about their private lives in order to show-off and brag, because this threatens the stability of the family unit.[8]

Sheikh Ahmad al-Taib, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, declared that the campaign expresses a broad effort to strengthen the institution’s ties to Egyptian society. Through the campaign, Al-Azhar seeks to “go to street level” and offer a response to the social problems that plague the ordinary citizen.[9] It should be noted that this desire was already evident in April 2018, when Al-Azhar established a new “Family Unity” department for mediating disputes between spouses through telephone and home visits. Further to this general goal, social networks serve as a public platform for strengthening values such as solidarity among family members, and the importance of devotion to the family unit. [10]

Although Egyptian citizens praised the online campaign, they also expressed criticism of Al-Azhar. Khaled Montasser, a prominent Egyptian journalist who praised the Al-Azhar initiative on his Facebook page, added that it is insufficient given the Institute’s firm refusal to accede to Al-Sisi’s request to require that divorces made by oral proclamation (prevalent in Islam since the days of the Prophet Muhammad) be officially registered with competent authorities in the legal system, in the presence of both spouses.[11] Montasser‎ stressed that the renewal of religious discourse by Al-Azhar ought not be expressed by videos but rather through creative legal rulings adapted to the challenges of the present day.[12] Other users argued that the conservative nature of Al-Azhar is unchangeable, because Islamic law (“shari’a”) will always be the basis for its thinking and rulings. Therefore, its ability to influence change in religious discourse is limited. In their view, the solution is for the Egyptian parliament to balance their influence by enacting appropriate laws that suit the spirit of the times and meet the needs of citizens.[13]

Many Egyptian users, including divorced fathers, even accused Al-Azhar of encouraging divorce, in light of its support for family laws that strengthen the status of women at the expense of the husband’s. Since the Sadat era, and especially during Hosni Mubarak’s time, attempts were made to improve the status of women in the family. For example, a law passed in 1985 granted a woman the right to apply for divorce if her husband married a second wife. A user from Cairo said that under the current family laws, a woman can rebel against her husband and the existing order, and not fulfill her obligations.[14] A user, from Alexandria, claimed that the law allows a women to leave her home, kidnap her children, and prevent them from seeing their father while still claiming alimony. [15] Others demanded that Al-Azhar change the law that allows divorced mothers to have custody of their children until age 15, and some sought to reinstate the previous family laws that stipulated that divorced mothers were entitled to guardianship of their children only up to the age of seven or eight.[16] One user from Ismailia even called for the adoption of Saudi family laws in Egypt, because of their compliance with shari’a, thus ensuring, from his perspective, balanced family law for all members of the family. [17]

In the opinion of some users, the Al-Azhar Institute is betraying its intended role;  rather than being faithful to the teachings of Islam it instead chooses to follow the dictates of the government,[18] and those of other countries and various international organization that are supposedly meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs.[19] As background for this claim, users cited the cooperation between Al-Azhar and the National Council for Women that was established by Suzanne Mubarak (wife of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak) to promote the rights of women, and which they think destroyed the Egyptian family. [20]According to these users, the campaign was aimed at a society other than traditional Egyptian society. [21]

In response to such criticism, the voices of both men and women who defended the family laws were prominent. Egyptian women claimed that men are stronger than women in many ways, and therefore the law is intended to benefit women and prevent their humiliation.[22] One user from Sawhāj noted that Egyptian society depicts women in a sexist, stigmatized way, “As if she has no opinion, any subject, cannot discuss any subject with her husband, as if she was not at home....” He claimed that movies and television series instill and perpetuate this perception in Egyptian society. In his view, the solution lies in redefining the meaning of masculinity, with an emphasis on positive qualities such as the fair treatment of women.[23]

In conclusion, the Al-Azhar Institute’s online campaign to prevent divorce exposes the dissatisfaction of Egyptian citizens and their lack of confidence in the Institute’s ability to bring about real change in this area. On the one hand, it views the principles and traditions of Islam as binding; on the other hand, it does the regime’s bidding by promoting women’s rights in society, inter alia, by supporting laws some consider discriminatory towards men. They accuse Al-Azhar of actually increasing the rate of divorce. This discourse reveals a struggle between two schools of thought regarding family law and the status of women in Egyptian society. The first promotes the status of women through the enactment of appropriate laws, while the second supports the restoration of women’s traditional status. It seems that this struggle will be exacerbated by Al-Azhar’s willingness to continue supporting laws guaranteeing women’s rights.

[1] @AlAzhar, Twitter.com, 8 September 2018.  Last accessed 1 November 2018.

[2] “Despite the decline in rates during 2017, Egypt occupies the third place in the world’s divorce rates... 190,000 cases last year… A lecturer in sociology: the decline in the rate of separation is “slight”... non-marriage better than divorce.” Al-Yawm al-Sab'a, 18 May 2018.

[3] Youtube.com, 28 July 2018. Last accessed 1 November 2018.

[4] "Wazirat al-Tadhamun Tabhatu ma' Sheikh al-Azhar wal-Mufti Muwajahat Dhairat al-Tallaq”, Masrawi, 17 September 2018.

[5] Youtube.com, 8 September 2018.  Last accessed 1 November 2018

[6] Youtube.com, 21 September 2018. Last accessed 1 November 2018. 

[7] Youtube.com, 7 October 2018. Last accessed 1 November 2018.

[8] Youtube.com, 30 September 2018. Last accessed 1 November 2018.

[9] “Live with them Equitably… New Campaign by Al-Azhar to Limit Divorce,” Al-Watan, 8 September 2018

[10] “Everything you want to know about the Family Unity unit of Al-Azhar for Limiiting Divorce,” Al-Yawm al-Sab'a, 9 August 2018.

[11]  In July 2018, al-Sisi made it clear that he was not angry at Al-Azhar's refusal to grant his request, but emphasized that reducing divorce must come from society, not necessarily from the laws of the state. See this article: “250 cases every day... Why does al-Sisi want to study and analyze the reasons for the increase in the rate of divorce,” Sawt el-Amma, 31 July 2018.

[12]  @khmontaser, Facebook.com, 9 September 2018.  Last accessed 14 October 2018.

[13]  @OfficialAzharEg, Facebook.com, 8 September 2018. Last accessed 14 October 2018. 

[14] @OfficialAzharEg, Facebook.com, 3 October 2018. Last accessed 14 October 2018.

[15]  @OfficialAzharEg, Facebook.com, 5 September 2018. Last accessed 14 October 2018. 

[16]  @OfficialAzharEg, Facebook.com, 20 September 2018.  Last accessed 14 October 2018. 

[17]   @OfficialAzharEg, Facebook.com, 28 September 2018. Last accessed 14 October 2018.

[18] @OfficialAzharEg, Facebook.com, 14 September 2018. Last accessed 14 October 2018.  

[19]  @OfficialAzharEg, Facebook.com, 20 September 2018. Last accessed 14 October 2018. 

[20]  @OfficialAzharEg, Facebook.com, 8 September 2018. Last accessed 14 October 2018.

[21]  @OfficialAzharEg, Facebook.com, 3 October 2018. Last accessed 14 October 2018.

[22]  @OfficialAzharEg, Facebook.com, 14 September 2018. Last accessed 14 October 2018.

[23]  @OfficialAzharEg, Facebook.com, 19 September 2018. Last accessed 14 October 2018.