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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  • James

    I think Heba is right and has her right to be upset over the Opera editing. Ultimately even if real issues are highlighted it is NOT balanced one only the negatives are shown. It was not ever mentioned the many other ways people deal with divorce and that certain situations are not typical or Islamic. So she would be upset that the full picture or perspective is not displayed.

    You make it sound like as if the majority of Egyptian women are in the same boat and have problems, when it is far more complex and isn’t the case.

    So your post and glee at the fact that some issues have been highlighted, doesn’t mean that its a fair portrayal. Egypt is not a utopia, but it is far too easy to make a sweeping statement about it.

    And why in the world does any of it come down to Hijab at all? Just shows how pathetic and fixated western media is still with the Hijab.

  • http://www.organicmuslimah.blogspot.com Organica

    For example, when one of the women decided to JUDGE Heba for not being religious (because she chooses not to wear hijab), I felt the dumbness setting in. I don’t understand how any one has the right to judge someone’s religiousness.

    Now, obviously, the Danish host had an agenda because she compared everything to Denmark. She was pretentious in her speech instead of accepting what things in Egypt are like. I was extremely disappointed in her judgments of women in tight clothes, make up and scarves. What’s her business?

    Truth be told. Egypt oppresses women, especially when it comes to the legal system. Women have no rights without a man. A few things were highlighted in the show.

  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    “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”

    How do you talk about marriage in a Muslim country (or any country for that matter) without talking about sex, religion, and the the veil (or gender relations)?

  • http://www.gwillowwilson.com Willow

    What people living in democracies don’t seem to understand is that in an autocracy, *everyone* is oppressed…man, woman, chicken and child. The lack of balance in reporting makes it seem as though Egyptian men live in a lothario’s paradise while women labor as virtual slaves. But men and women both face a collapsing economy, police brutality, the threat of arrest for any kind of political activity, no free speech, no freedom of association, obscene crackdowns on labor unions and other workers’ right associations, prisons so bad not even the Red Cross is allowed inside, and on and on…

    In light of that, it’s a miracle life in Egypt is as rich and energetic as it is. To single out one aspect or another and try to paint a picture of the whole country with it is unfair.

  • Lumos

    I agree 100% with James.
    What on earth,for instance,does the hijab have to do with marriage in Egypt?
    And should only the negative things be highlighted?
    Why not talk about the marriage process in Egypt? The average age women marry at?What a wedding in Egypt looks like?
    Why does anything pertaining to the Middle East always have to be negative?

    I’m all for portraying a “clearer image”,but not one that is biased. There are tons of problems in Egypt(I should know since I live here),but what country is without them?
    A “clearer” image,in my opinion,is one that shows a slightly better picture for a change.One that shows the positive aspects along with the negative,not only the negative.

  • Aliyah

    What are the positive aspects of divorce in Egypt, considering the women barely have any rights regarding divorce- the legal system does not protect women but abuses them in process. Do u even know what legal hurdles lie ahead for women who want a divorce, or the discriminatory child custody they face if the proceed with a divorce.

    It sounded like one could cut the tension with a knive when it came to the annoying H topic (hijab) between those who wore it and those that didn’t. Can someone tell me why there was that tension. Why was there the need attack each others believes on it?

  • http://answeringlife.blogspot.com candice

    I saw this episode when it aired a bit back and I really thought it was about divorce, not marriage. It makes it a bit disappointing to find out that it was supposed to talk about marriage in Egypt. For a divoorce segment, I thought it was good (minus focos put on hijab). It showed how difficult it is for a woman to obtain divorce in Egypt, which is really nothing more than the truth! I enjoyed the interviewees and thought they portrayed the different views of Egyptians pretty well.

    Now that I learn it was supposed to be about marriage, it really feels like the emphasis was put so much on the negative (a *failed* marriage – divorce). I still don’t agree with Kotb and her outrage. Even if it wasn’t so much about the marriage itself in the end, what it *did* talk about was well-presented given the time constraint for the segment.

    I have to mention that the Danish woman really didn’t get it. She was pretty darn useless and simply didn’t understand Egyptians and it showed.

  • Shameema

    I didn’t get to watch the segment in it’s entirety but from the short clip and the post, it seemed completely off topic.

    Being clear and unbiased reporting, negative or not si what we should all strive for.

    This, however for me didn’t quite manage that.

    Personally, I didn’t get the choice of a Danish reporter and why there was the need to compare Egypt at every point to Denmark.

    The episode was meant to talk about marriage but it seemed like it became fixated on the hijab. Why the debate about wearing the hijab or not wearing it even made it to air is beyond me. The focus was on Marriage in Egypt and not women in Egypt. For me it should never have come to that and so in that regard I have to agree with Dr Kotb, that there seemed to have been an agenda.

    There are alot os issues in regard to womens rights and equity in Egypt that we can spend days discussing but I don’t wish to do so here simply because I think it’s not what the focus of this should have been.

    There is alot of beauty,joy and happiness in weddings and marriage in egypt and I think that should have been highlighted in this episode.

    I think that the questions were posed encouraged a very competitive/playing on against the other kind of discourse. Im going to take a guess and say that in another situation, having these women sit and talk about this over a cup of cofee they might have held the same opinions but it would have come across quite differently

  • http://emanhashim.wordpress.com/wp-admin/ Eman Hashim

    I think Shameema you need to view part 2 because I have a feeling that You only watched part 1