By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 19, 2008
CAIRO -- The Cairo woman stared in disbelief at the text message in her cellphone inbox.
She and her husband, an Egyptian army officer away on duty, had just hung up after quarreling on the phone. She ignored his return call, not wanting to continue the argument, the woman recounted in an interview this week.
The electronic chirrup of an incoming message signaled his response. "I divorce you," her husband had written. "That will teach you not to answer my calls."
Reconciliation followed, only to be broken by another quarrel, this one over the woman asking her family to mediate the couple's problems. "I divorce you," her husband wrote in another message. "Don't ask other people to interfere in our business."
Another reconciliation. Another argument. And another declaration of divorce from her husband, this time face to face, late last year.
Islamic law can make the act of divorce stunningly simple for men, even if the ensuing financial settlements often are not. A husband has only to declare to his wife, "Inti talaq" -- "You are divorced" -- three times, and mean it, to end their marriage.
But technology has introduced a complication that Egyptian religious authorities are now debating in the case of the 25-year-old Cairene, an engineer and an observant Muslim: How should Islamic laws that began to take shape in the 6th century apply to 21st-century text messages?
In Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, where some of the first text-message divorce cases have arisen in recent years, civil and religious officials have arrived at varying conclusions.
Until Egyptian courts and religious scholars decide the fate of the woman's marriage, she lives apart from the officer with their 4-year-old son, but still wears her wedding ring. She asked that her name not be used to protect her privacy, because such cases are so rare in Egypt.
"What hurts me most is I don't even know if I'm divorced or not," she said in an interview. The woman, slim and soft-spoken, wore a lavender head scarf to cover her hair and matching lavender shadow drawn carefully around her eyes.
Judicial officials confirmed her identity and the facts of the case, initiated in family court in December. Court officials could not agree on whether the case was Egypt's first or second text-message divorce. They said the army officer had not yet appeared in court.
Islamic institutions have adroitly adopted evolving technology to spread their message and tend their followers. Preachers abound on satellite television channels. Many religious institutions and sheiks offer Web sites that provide their followers with online fatwas, or rulings, on religious questions.
Egypt's state-appointed grand mufti, one of the country's highest religious authorities, recently began offering online imam training. Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa's fatwa Web site receives 3,000 hits a day, and a similar hotline gets scores of calls a day, according to his spokesman, Ibrahim Negm. Almost all the inquiries have to do with family matters, including divorce, he added.
Yet the proliferation of televised preaching and Islamic Web sites has produced a confusing array of voices competing for followers. Broadcast and Internet media can amplify hate or oversimplify a complex religious point. Technology offers modes of communication that the first practitioners of Islamic law never could have imagined.
Conservative and liberal streams within Islam each have used technology to get their messages across. In Egypt, young members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement used blogs last year to urge that the Islamic organization be more inclusive of women and less exclusionary of other religions.
Islamic institutions have adopted Web sites and other technology as a tool to show that Islamic law still provides "pragmatic solutions to contemporary problems," Negm said. "We also believe there has been abuse of technology," he added. "This does not lead us to say, 'Forget it.' That would not be possible."
But text-message divorces represent "a clear-cut abuse of the law," Negm said.
Religious authorities in at least two Persian Gulf countries, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, upheld divorce by text message in rulings between 2001 and 2003. Islamic officials in Singapore rejected it.
Government officials in Malaysia decried the first cases, promising big fines for any man who tried to shed his wife by impersonal text messages.
"We hope . . . that instead of sending messages, you should look at the beautiful wife that you are going to divorce," then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in 2003. "Maybe she would cry a bit, and you would change your mind."
Malaysia's religious leaders upheld the legality of text-message divorce, and government talk of bans and fines ended.
In Egypt, text messages strike many as far too frivolous a way to end a marriage.
"It has to be face to face, person to person," said Sanaa Mohammed, a 43-year-old woman standing outside a Cairo family court this week. She jabbed two fingers toward her eyes, symbolizing eye-to-eye contact. By cellphone, "it's not respectful."
Mohammed had opted for khola, a provision that allows a woman to divorce her husband without his agreement. Doing so, however, she forfeited the financial settlements that are usually due divorced women.
Government statistics indicate that a divorce occurs every six minutes in Egypt, said Ahmed Eid Ahmed, a counselor in Cairo's family court.
Even before the advent of text messages, divorce was too easy in Egypt, said Hoda Badran, chairwoman of the Cairo-based Alliance for Arab Women.
Quick divorces, especially among poor families, often allow husbands to bully less-educated wives out of divorce settlements, leaving the women without enough to support themselves and the children, Badran said.
"Ninety-nine percent of the children out on the streets are there because of divorce" and polygamy, Badran said. "What's the actual cost, the economic cost, of the unlimited divorce?"
For the 25-year-old engineer, text messages have made the costs impossibly high.
Her husband wants her back, the woman said, but the religious scholars she consulted tell her she is divorced in the eyes of God and would be returning to him out of wedlock.
But if she refuses to return, and the courts rule the text-message declarations invalid and her marriage intact, she risks losing her claim to her young son.
With the text messages, she said, "the doors of hell have opened on my life."
Special correspondent Nora Younis in Cairo and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.