Egyptian Fatwa Gives Neighbors Right to Dissolve Marriages

According to Italian news agency AKI, Egyptian scholar Sheikh Jamal Qutb, head of the prestigious religious institution Al Azhar University’s head of fatwas, issued a religious edict saying that “a community, including family members or neighbours, should have the same right to end a marriage as the couples themselves.”

The adage says that when you marry someone, you marry their family, too. It doesn’t say anything about neighbors. Despite the old saying, a marriage is between two people, no matter what others may think. Opening up a private relationship to public debate (a neighbor or family member can bring his/her case for the couple’s divorce to court) is intrusive and will not solve a couple’s problems.

Predominately Muslim societies have a heavily collectivist bent, to put this fatwa into context: everyone looks out for others, especially close people like family and those in your neighborhood. However, Sheikh Qutb seems to be ignoring the fact that, despite living in a collectivist society, people still have very selfish tendencies.

It’s not such a far-fetched idea that a member of a husband’s family would not want their relative to marry such-and-such a girl. Said relative, in thinking that s/he knows what’s better for him, sabotages his marriage so that s/he can introduce him to someone “better for him”, despite his own desires and decisions.

Nor is it a far-fetched idea that a neighbor might want the wife next door for himself, and so attempts to break up the happy marriage next door in the hope of meeting his aims. These may sound like soap opera plots (and they have been, I’m sure), but they’re also possible.

While well-intentioned, opening up this can of worms into a society where your business is everyone else’s will definitely do more harm than good. When issues that actually need outside intervention arise, such as in the case of domestic violence or child abuse, many neighbors and family members in any culture are often quick to sweep these issues under the rug rather than deal with them, even if a family member asks for help. Something tells me that this fatwa will not change the mindset that rejects these issues and meddles in other, less important affairs.

While collectivist societies often have a strong sense of community and neighborliness, this story and last week’s arrest and sentencing of an elderly woman in Saudi Arabia for having two younger men in her home while she was alone prove that predominately Muslim countries need less community intervention in their private lives. Especially if community intervention comes in the form of punishments, shaming, and a lack of privacy, rather than support, uniting against a common problem, or help in a time of need.