“Till death do us part ... ”
Throughout my childhood years, that was the sentence that intrigued me most whenever I watched a wedding ceremony in a Western movie. At the time, I wasn’t able to fathom how two people who decide to be together are suddenly stripped of this same free will when they are rendered incapable of deciding they no longer want to be together and would rather wait for death to take one of them or maybe take them both à la “War of the Roses.”
The situation grew even more bizarre when in Egyptian movies one of the lovers would tell the other, “Even death will never part us.”
What confused me more was that in almost none of the two cases did those vows materialize for more than a few months and usually much more trivial things than death do part them in no time and with much ease.
For a child who was beginning to realize that Santa doesn’t exist, both assumptions about death being the only force that separates lovers or, in the Egyptian film example, too feeble of a force to do so, were purely silver-screen jargon that did nothing but trigger an instantaneous feeling of “My heart will go on” creeping on me from the ruins of some sunken ship.
Less than a year after I had reached those sublime philosophical conclusions, I was introduced to “Henry VIII” in school and I found out that the church did not want to divorce him and that was why he decided to break away from Rome and establish his own church. That was the first time I heard that somebody other than the husband and his wife can decide whether they should break up or not, and that this somebody was as big of an entity as a church made the whole thing much more surreal than the cheesy proclamations of love that I naively assumed held water only in fairy tales and in the imagination of kids under five years of age.
It was then that I learned what a Catholic marriage is, and not a long time after that I also got to know our version of the inseparable bond between a man and a woman that only death can break – the Coptic marriage.
Before I go further into this, let me point out something: this is not about religion. When I praised Tunisian law for banning polygamy and hoped the same could be done in Egypt, several of my friends, male of course, nearly jumped down my throat and accused me of objecting to the laws of God. I always had more or less one answer for them: “I am not going to fall for this trap.”
Indeed, regardless of what the religion is or what kinds of laws it ordains and with all due respect to those who belong to this religion and follow those rules, I find it impossible for me to think about anything other than the purely human aspect of such situations.
The struggle of members of the Coptic Orthodox church to be granted a divorce is not new, and there has been quite a commotion over some who, seeing no other way out, had to convert to Islam when death seemed too unpredictable to count on and when adultery, the only case in which the church grants divorce, simply turned out to be just one of a zillion reasons, and maybe even the least occurring, for ending a marriage.
It is quite intriguing that the recent furor is in fact over an issue that dates back to 1938, when the Coptic Personal Status Law was passed, and to 1971, which witnessed the issuing of the amendment that did away with all but one of the several reasons the law permitted as good reasons for divorce, which included insanity, contracting a fatal disease, imprisonment, physical abuse, desertion for five years … and adultery. This means that if my husband is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, turns out to be HIV-positive, becomes a convicted felon, beats the hell out of me, or has abandoned me on the wedding day, this is still not an excuse for me to ask for divorce and I will be left praying that he cheats on me and that I am able to prove it … or I might even start thinking of fabricating some pornographic shots of him with another woman to get it over and done with.
With the number of Copts seeking divorce or applying for a permit to remarry reaching unprecedented levels – 300,000 cases are reported to be pending at the Clerical Council – and with Egyptians generally becoming more vocal about their grievances following the revolution, the long-overdue explosion eventually struck with full force as hundreds of disgruntled Copts signed a collective resignation from the church and hundreds, maybe thousands, more are expected to follow suit very soon.
I could not help but go back several years ago and think of the time I was willing to give up anything and do whatever it takes to get a divorce, and I keep imagining how I would have had no case at all had the fate of my marriage been contingent upon this law, the original or the amended. Even before going through an experience that made me realize that not wanting to stay in a marriage is enough reason for ending it, I was fully aware that being married to a man who could technically make a wonderful husband does not by any means coerce me into going on with the relationship if at some point I feel that I don’t love him anymore or that we are no longer capable of communicating or any of those reasons that cannot be proven in a court that acknowledges only bruised faces, medical reports, and documented cheating.
What I find really ironic is that the deserters who in the age of Photoshop could have faked adultery charges against their spouses or who could have committed adultery themselves to get out of a failed marriage and who are apparently principled enough not to do either have at the end of the day been called “adulterers” by the pope following their decision to leave the church.
Well, sounds to me like they have now acquired the label that grants them the divorce they have for so long been after and any attempts on their part to refrain from committing a sin have gone down the drain and they end up with the Scarlet Letter anyway. I am not sure they care what they are called at this point, for when you are desperate for regaining your lost freedom, you surprise yourself by how many sacrifices you are willing to make.
The movement that led the resignation campaign is called The Right to Live, and this wraps up in the simplest of words the cause all the Copts are rallying behind and which, unlike the church’s assumptions, is not about defiling a relationship rendered sacred by God nor promoting the disintegration of the family and discarding the values of the community. It is rather about refusing to waive one of the basic rights of any human being: to choose the life to live and whom to live it with. This right need not be supported by evidence nor regulated by law, and it is taking it away that wreaks havoc in society in a manner that is much worse than the scenario envisioned by the church in case whoever wants a divorce gets it, for living with someone you no longer stand might drive one of them to make the “till death do us part” prophecy come true either by inflicting it upon the partner or upon oneself or both. Quite bleak, yet not impossible!
Those who left the church have by no means renounced their Christianity, just like those women who refuse that their husbands take second wives do not renounce her Islam. It is a dignified life they are both after, and if what they fight for happens to be in defiance of God’s laws, then let them be duly punished in the afterlife, but don’t rob them of the right to enjoy the ephemeral here and now and let what “does them part” be what they choose to part for!
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: email@example.com)