Egypt: Denying Women Inheritance Is a Crime Subject to Imprisonment

2018-02-22    |   

Egypt: Denying Women Inheritance Is a Crime Subject to Imprisonment

In an important step towards achieving equal rights and eradicating the prevalent phenomenon of denying women their legitimate inheritance  in the governorates of Upper Egypt and some Delta cities, an amendment to Inheritance Law No. 77 of 1943 was published in the Official Gazette on December 30, 2017.[1] Egypt’s Parliament passed the amendment on December 5, 2017.[2] The amendment adds Article 49, which stipulates that anyone who denies an heir their legitimate share of inheritance shall be punished by imprisonment for a minimum of 6 months and a fine of up to LE100,000 [US$5,645]. The article adds that any person who withholds a document proving a person’s legal right to inheritance shall be punished by imprisonment of 3 months and a fine of no less than LE10,000 [US$564].

This move has been described as a response to the wish of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who attacked cultural norms that deny women their inheritance rights. “We must change these norms and put an integrated program in place to redraw the real image of women and promote their status”, el-Sisi stated during the World Youth Forum.[3] The pre-amended 1943 law did not penalize withholding inheritance. Recently, several bills have been submitted to amend it, including two by the Council of Ministers and the National Council for Women, submitted in January and December 2016 respectively. A number of civil associations also proposed a draft law in September 2017, in addition to other bills submitted by MPs.[4]

The ratified amendment is an application of Article 11 of the Egyptian Constitution. Under this article, the state has an obligation to achieve equality between men and women in all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, and to protect women against all forms of violence. There should be no discrimination against women with regard to inheritance, pursuant to Article 53 which is about elimination of all forms of discrimination.

Norms Rule:Only Males Receive Inheritance

According to a study prepared by sociologist Salwa Mohammed al-Mahdi, families in Upper Egypt follow a custom called “Radwa” where the female is appeased with a sum of money in lieu of inheritance.[5] The study revealed that 95.5% of women in the governorates of Sohag and Qena do not receive their proper inherit under norms and customs that do not favor inheritance for women out of fear their husbands and children would take the inheritance. Thus, it would be transferred to strangers from outside the family. Moreover, traditionally a girl is not entitled to any inheritance since her father has already provided her with an education and paid, in accordance with custom, for her wedding.[6] Some fathers and brothers resort to scams to make sure their daughters and sisters do not get inheritance: they may sell their property to someone fictitiously; abuse the father’s fingerprint on his deathbed or after his death in order to sell all his property to themselves or their brothers, or forge official documents proving the sale.

However, the key factor in the continuation of this phenomenon is women’s ignorance of their legal and legitimate rights. Such ignorance makes them think that men have the right to deprive them of inheritance. Moreover, most cases of inheritance denial mentioned in the previous study are motivated by mothers who  fear their sons-in-law would share in the inheritance of their sons. Additionally, women give up their inheritance rights to protect their family ties. Some villages in the governorate of Sohag in Upper Egypt even adopt the principle: “women who claim inheritance get killed”. According to a 2008 study conducted by the Ministry of Justice, nearly 8,000 murders are committed annually against females and males among family members due to inheritance disputes in Egypt.[7] The study also revealed an increase in the number of court litigation cases, amounting to 144 thousand cases per year, and 2,750 interdiction cases against parents on grounds of incapacity.[8] Such cases take a long time in court, discouraging women from claiming their right to inheritance through the judiciary.

Some judges and clerics are also involved in depriving women of their inheritance rights, according to a study issued by South Valley University in Qena.[9] “Unfortunately, the imams of mosques in Upper Egypt refuse to address this issue from their pulpits because they themselves have denied their aunts and sisters their share of inheritance”, sheikh Sayyed Abdul Aziz, a member of the Fatwa Committee in Assiut, told Aswat Masriya.[10] The situation of Christian women is not very different: according to a statement to Al-Monitor by Father Andraus Faraj, patron of St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Menia, “the church receives many grievances from women due to deprivation of inheritance and their families’ greed under the pretext of customs and traditions, especially in Upper Egypt, even though the right to inheritance is given to women and men equally in Christianity. Despite the mediation of the church, women do not have full rights and often do not claim their share of inheritance in order not to jeopardize their relationship with their families and to avoid disputes”.[11]

How Effective is the Law in Combating Discrimination Against Women?

For the first time ever, the new amendment ensures a deterrent punishment against those who deny women their legitimate right to inheritance. It is hoped that this amendment will contribute to putting an end to the issue of inheritance deprivation that has been going on for decades, especially in Upper Egypt.

The State Council’s Legislation Section referred to this in its observations on the legal infringement.[12] However, the amendment has been criticized for not providing  sterner punishment, especially since  the social factors that result from a male-dominant culture may result in many people risking imprisonment for months or a year rather than be subjected to shaming by their social environment. Furthermore, the amendment states the possibility of reconciliation between the woman and the expropriator at any stage of the case, bringing the proceedings to an end. A woman may choose reconciliation to keep her family ties in return for appeasement with a sum of money, leading her to waive her inheritance of land and real estate that are worth a lot more than said sum.

In the absence of clear tools for changing social and cultural norms, the law on its own cannot change these practices and traditions. This makes women apprehensive about claiming their rights, leading them to accept things the way they are, especially in the absence of bodies they can turn to for help. Thus, this amendment will be a tool for women to obtain their rights without the hassle of spending years in court without results.

Millions of women – especially in Upper Egypt – are still waiting for real efforts and serious approaches by the state to eliminate social, legal, and judicial obstacles with the help of civil society organizations, to get their legitimate right to inheritance. In order for the amendment not to seem like a mere response to the Egyptian president’s wish, there must be clear mechanisms set in place to change society’s deep-rooted cultural norms, even for state officials who pass the law. Such cultural norms were evident in a statement made by Ali Abdel Aal, speaker of the House of Representatives and professor of constitutional law, who is from Upper Egypt. He stated at a press conference that “what is said about women deprived of inheritance in Upper Egypt is not true” and that women there “receive their [inheritance] rights fully”.[13]

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] Law No. 77 of 1943 is the law regulating the inheritance of Muslims, as well as Christians, in the Egyptian legislative system.

[2] The press release was published in Youm7 on December 5, 2017.

[3] See Aida Radwan’s, “Al-Sisi: Maʿakom Fi Ay Ijraʾ Liʾiʿadat Rasm al-Sura al-Haqiqiyya Lilmarʾa”, in Masrawy, November 8, 2017.

[4] See: Aya Aman’s, “Hal Ystateeʿ al-Qanun al-Masri Waqf Herman al-Marʾa Min al-Mirath Wa Muwajahat al-Mawruthat al-Ijtimaʿiyya?”, press release in Al-Monitor, December 12, 2017.

[5] Salwa Mohammed al-Mahdi, professor of sociology at the Faculty of Arts of South Valley University in Qena, prepared a study entitled: “Mirath al-Marʾa Fi Saʿid Misr Bay al-Waqeʿ Wal Maʾmool”, issued in 2009. The study addressed the phenomenon of depriving women of inheritance in the governorates of Qena and Sohag in Upper Egypt.

[6] See: Khaled al-Ghwait’s, “Dirasa: 95.5% min Nisaʾ al-Saʿid Mahrumat Min al-Mirath”, press release in Al-Watan, September 19, 2017.

[7] See: Amina Talal’s, “Al-Radwa Badalan Min al-Qanun: Mirath al-Marʾa…Al-Haq al-Daʾeʿ Bayn al-Qawanin Wal ʿadat Fi Saʿid Misr”, press release in Aswat Masriya, December 29, 2016.

[8] An interdiction case is a lawsuit filed by a relative who has an interest against the person, claiming that they are mentally ill or incapable (of using their funds). Such cases are adjudicated after experts evaluate the person interdicted and without referring thereto.

[9] Ibid 4.

[10] Ibid 6.

[11] Ibid 3.

[12] See: Mahmoud Hussein’s, “Al-barlaman Yuqirr Qanun al-Mawareeth Bidawr al-Inʿiqad al-Thaleth…Tawafoq Bayn al-Hokuma Wal Nuwwab Wal Muʾassasat al-Diniyya ʿala Taghleez ʿoqubat al-Imtinaʿ ʿan Taslim al-Mirath Lilwaratha…Wal Mashruʿ Yujeez al-Solh Hifazan ʿala ʿadam Tafattot al-Usra”, press release in Youm7, August 25, 2017.

[13] See: Mohammad al-Mansy and Mohammad Hosni’s, “ʿabd el-ʿal Yarfod Ittiham al-Saʿid Bihirman al-Marʿa Min al-Mirath”, press release in Veto, November 19, 2017.

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