Divorce, Egyptian Style: Oprah’s Episode on Marriage Around the Globe

I was thrilled when I heard that Oprah Winfrey interviewed Egyptian women about marriage for an episode of her show about marriage around the globe. Oprah has always been such an inspiration for a lot of women, me included. I was so excited for her to highlight my world and how women like me get married and the challenges we face.

Naturally, the episode has grabbed a lot of attention. The guest list included: Ms. Injy Elkashef, a 37-year-old journalist who wears the hijab; Ms. Heba Shunbo, a 33-year-old interior designer who doesn’t wear the hijab; environmental economist Dr. Hala Abou-Ali; and Dr. Heba Kotb. All of these women (with the exception of Dr. Kotb) are divorced. The entire report was narrated and moderated by Danish Nanna Norup.

The choice of the guests was very smart—I can say I meet women like these in my daily life. Their different careers and backgrounds represent Egypt well. Elkashef commented on the choice of guests by saying:

The producers’ choice of interviewees had settled on Heba Shunbo and me — each of us representing a different Egyptian female voice, for a more realistic demonstration of the complex fabric of current local society.

Unfortunately, discussions about Muslim women often settle on hijab, and Oprah was no different. When Oprah’s first question to both ladies was about hijab, I was like “What? What does this have to do with anything related to marriage, divorce, and sex?!” But Elkashef found this to be “expected:”

I had already answered questions about my Hijab during the Stage One discussion, and knew I should expect more to pop up. I was right. The local disagreement about the necessity of hijab in Islam, the women who wear it without any conscious understanding of it but out of cultural conformity, the girls who adopt it over highly suggestive clothing and heavy make-up, those who take it to self-imposed extremes never required of them and the back and forth judgments cast among them all understandably confuses the West.

Between Nanna’s comment on how contradictory she felt when she saw veiled women with tight clothes and make up, Shunbo’s comment on unveiled women as more “open-minded” and Elkashef’s explanation of how multi-layered the nature of Egypt is, the first part was challenging, interesting and honest. The ladies were asked about their own perspectives and that’s what we got.

But with the second part, tension started to appear. The discussions mainly centered on injustice between men and women regarding divorce and premarital sex. It seemed that the proper introduction for the two more guests was missed—something that Dr. Kotb later commented on—and discussions were broadcasted as edited statements with no harmony or context. But considering the nature of the segment and the shortage of time, this is understandable—that segment was supposed to be only eight minutes.

The next day after the show aired in Egypt, Dr. Kotb appeared to be everywhere on TV and in newspaper interviews, attacking the other guests and mentioning Oprah’s intentions to make Islam “look bad.” She insisted that “Oprah wanted to tarnish the image of Egyptian women from the start.”

Dr. Kotb mentioned that everything was set from the start, starting from not presenting us properly and mentioning our academic background, making us look as just Egyptian women, I was surprised during the interview that we are talking not only about marriage, as I was told, but about sex, religion, and the veil. The questions were directed to all of us as guests, but they deleted from the positive responses about the veil and religion and kept the negative connotations only!

I’ll give her the right to be presented with her academic background, though her title as a doctor was mentioned. But what is it with this “just Egyptian women”? You are an Egyptian woman, Dr. Kotb, and you were interviewed because of that!

In another interview titled “Heba Kotb, a victim of Oprah Winfrey!” she said:

We began by talking about divorce and how women in Egypt are facing difficulties in getting it compared to men, which was the opinion of the interior designer [referring to Shunbo], who faced such conditions in her divorce, but my response was that Islam gives women the right to divorce in return for money [the dowry] and that she can add the right of divorcing herself in the marriage license, then the Danish woman replied that we were supposed to pay money for our freedom, so I told her that they [the Danish] were used to paying half of their wealth for separation, but this response was not broadcasted and was deleted.

First of all, it’s not a competition about who pays less for divorce. The segment highlighted Egyptian women who want to get divorced. It does not make it any easier or more fun to know that Danish women suffer like us or more, so I personally don’t think it was relevant.

One of the comments shown on the Oprah website says:

Hey Oprah!! I’m a big fan of you and love you sooo much but I was deeply disappointed when you deliberately cut out a lot of Dr. Heba Kotb’s talk, and thus showing Muslim Egyptian women as if living in total contradiction and oppression, which is not at all the case.

Was I watching another show? Do they expect women to appear on TV to say Egypt is Utopia on earth and women here have no problems whatsoever? Let me tell you this: a lot of Egyptian women in Egypt are oppressed, many Egyptian women go through years of legal hassles to divorce, and even laws are not able to protect them, and so many Egyptian women are far beyond adding the right to divorce in their marriage license because they were not brought up with the culture of having rights to begin with. And one of the guests represented some of these problems. What is so wrong about that?

I’ll quote Elkashef’s comment on Oprah describing the conversation as fascinating:

The world now has a clearer perception of today’s Egypt. My wish is that my fellow countrymen, briefly in the global spotlight by proxy in every home around the world that watches the Oprah Winfrey Show, would seize this opportunity to take an objective glimpse at themselves through the answers provided on the show — whether they agreed with them or not — by attempting to answer them themselves.

Exactly! The point is never weather the picture was “good or bad,” the point is how “clear” the picture was. And from the perspective of an Egyptian woman who has lived all her life in Egypt, I can say it was very clear indeed!

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