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Eating up a woman’s inheritance

Youseef Sidhom | 11 July 2010

 Among the ugliest problems faced by Egyptian women and long placed on the hold is that of inheritance. No matter how modernised or aware our community has become, it still maintains archaic notions which allot females a trifle of the inheritance allotted to males—or none at all. Worse, the topic is generally treated as outside the boundaries of discussion.   I believe it is time to probe the file of the tradition of female inheritance—or disinheritance—in the Egyptian community. Since a masculine culture dominates our society, and since men stand to profit greatly on account of excluding women from inheritance, the status quo is staunchly maintained. Almost no-one possesses the courage or candour necessary to drag the matter out of the dark and move it, as one grievance long buried in the Egyptian conscience, into the circle of public attention.    The issue of the harsh discrimination against Egyptian women in the inheritance domain is especially inexplicable in view of the elevated position Egypt’s women enjoyed in ancient history. Ancient Egyptians revered their mothers and elevated their women to the point where several queens ruled Egypt throughout Pharaonic times. During the Coptic era, women’s inheritance was equal to that of men. Today, however, we hear such arguments as: “Men are the supporters of the family; they support women so should inherit more.” Others say that women are bound to marry into other families, and the original family wealth “should not go to strangers”. Worse, though, is that more often than not, men who seize their kinswomen’s inheritance do not offer them the least assistance or support when needed.   I recently received a letter which brings to life the painful reality of female inheritance. It came from a woman of Minya, Upper Egypt, whose initials are S.G and who asked to remain anonymous. S.G says she lost her husband some 17 years ago when her two daughters were four and two years old. Today, she says, both girls are Medical School students. “But this achievement did not come without its price,” she says. “I had to work hard for it, even though my husband owned agricultural land of which my daughters and I should have legally inherited 4.25 feddans (a feddan is 4,200square metres of land). My husband’s brothers, however, seized the land, and no amount of persuasion or pleading could make them hand it over to us.    “In 1995, I took the case to court. In 1998, the court ruled in our favour. My husband’s brothers appealed the case but, in 2002, another ruling was issued in our favour. These rulings, however, had been issued by the hisbi court—the court which handles cases dealing with the rights of fatherless children—and carried no power of execution. I had to go to the normal civil court which, in 2008, ruled to execute the hand-over of 1.5 feddans to my daughters and me. I had to accept the scaled down inheritance since my daughters were in a phase in their lives during which their expenses were increasingly growing. The hand-over date was set for 20 June 2010, but I was shocked when my husband’ brothers summoned me and my daughters and threatened us that, if we ever took over the land, they would seize it back by force. Being the males of the family, they said, the land rightfully belonged to them.”   S.G ends by wondering helplessly what was she to do? “Will the local political and security apparatuses defend us and secure our right?” she asks—in great doubt.   I, in turn, put the case before the local political and security establishments. But her letter remains a black spot on the Egyptian front, exposing the harsh discrimination practised against women for the mere sake of their being women. Whatever happened to Egyptian manly nobility? And whatever happened to Egypt’s collective conscience?

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