Wealth created by women, claimed by men
January 24, 2023
“From 2017 until 2022, he traveled to Qatar. He made around one million Egyptian pounds [approximately $33,000], while I’m stuck here with the children. He used to come every two or three years without realizing the hardships I faced as he worked abroad, which is unfortunate and exhausting,” Rehab Salah, a writer, describes the situation she categorizes as economic violence after she shared in building the wealth that he now solely owns.
Since the beginning of her engagement to her husband, whom she is currently filing for divorce against, he complained about the lack of financial resources. Her family covered the costs of the wedding and the entire household, while Rehab did not receive any financial traditions of marriage, such as a dowry, a belated gift, or a list of household items, which are considered taboo in her Nubian culture.
However, this did not end after the marriage. Her husband always complained about his limited income, and she and her family bore the majority of the household and children’s expenses throughout the marriage. “I quit my job because he asked me to, thinking that there was no longer a need for it. I relied on the money provided by my father and mother,” Rehab narrates, adding that during the entire marriage, he did not take any responsibility for the household or the children, neither financially nor emotionally, as he was constantly traveling due to his work in Abu Simbel before leaving the country entirely for Qatar.
During this time, Rehab had to bear the responsibility of the household, taking care of the children and their education entirely. She also covered the expenses of her husband’s travel to Qatar, including flight bookings, visas, and even the clothes and food she bought for him from Egypt to save on expenses when he traveled. On the other hand, her husband never asked about her or the children during his trips, but he would return to Egypt every two or three years on vacation, where she also had to bear the expenses of the ‘open house’ for guests welcoming him back.
Throughout the marriage, Rehab never complained about the financial and emotional pressure caused by her husband’s absence. He hoarded money and lied about owning it for years until she accidentally learned that he had amassed a huge fortune from his work in Qatar, without contributing to the household or the children’s care, even though one of the children had a chronic illness requiring ongoing medical treatment.
She was also unable to continue her education due to her husband’s refusal. “He told me not to pursue my education. He had just finished his four years and became an engineer, and when I was in my last year in the Faculty of Commerce, he said he didn’t have the money to cover my college expenses.” As a result, Rehab was deprived of opportunities for education, work, and even normal married life, only to later discover that her husband was a ‘millionaire’ while none of her contributions to the household and children were considered part of his wealth.
Consequently, as the divorce approached, which she decided was the only way to escape this harmful relationship after her husband refused to divorce her, she also had to relinquish her financial rights to finalize the divorce.
Globally, approximately 16.4 billion hours are spent on unpaid care work every day, equivalent to around $11 trillion when calculated at the minimum wage per hour on a national level, according to a study conducted by the United Nations Women in 2020. In the Arab world, the study showed that the gender gap in the care economy is the highest in the world, with women performing unpaid care work 4.7 times more than men.
In Egypt, the study suggested that married women spend seven times the amount of time on unpaid care work compared to married men, while unmarried women spend 6.5 times more than unmarried men.
An Unpaid Secretary
While Rehab was able to pursue a divorce from her husband, May Fawzi [alias], a political development trainer, was unable to do the same due to concerns about financial difficulties after separation. This is especially challenging for her as she currently lacks a stable job, which adds a burden.
May participates in household chores and childcare and also contributes financially. She states, “I would spend all my income because I thought we were one.” She explains that her husband usually does not leave any money at home, so she is forced to use her own money to cover household and children’s expenses until she runs out of funds and asks him for additional money. Thus, the household depends primarily on her income rather than her husband’s.
Due to the pressure of household responsibilities, May occasionally seeks external assistance. However, this depends on whether her financial situation at the time allows her to hire help, as her husband also refuses to participate in household chores or support the presence of external help.
“The children need a secretary,” says May. “Household chores are not just cleaning or cooking; it includes managing their schoolwork, schedules, and other childcare tasks that take up a considerable amount of time.” She says, “Most of the day is dedicated to them.”
While May devotes most of her time to childcare, for which she has never received any compensation, her husband works outside the home and earns a salary, accumulating a significant amount of wealth. Although they married when he only owned a [Fiat] 128, he now owns two cars, one of which is the newest Mercedes. At the same time, he restricts her from driving, claiming to be concerned for her safety. They initially rented a house, but now he fully owns the house. May says, “I don’t know how much he makes, nor his financial situation, but I swear he definitely has much more money than when we first got married.” She adds, “I have a zero balance in my account and I have administrative expenses to pay, while he has around five million Egyptian pounds [approximately $161,000].”
A United Nations study showed that the time women spend on unpaid care work in Egypt is not significantly different from the time they would spend if employed for wages. While employed women spent thirty-four hours per week in paid work in 2006, non-employed women spent thirty-three hours per week in unpaid care work. In the case of married women, they spend even more hours working inside and outside the home because care work is a ‘strict constraint’ on women.
Consequently, the loss of income for women due to long hours of unpaid care work, known as the ‘opportunity cost,’ can be calculated. It refers to the deprivation of women’s right to paid work due to spending the same amount of time on uncompensated care work.
However, women’s unpaid work is economically invisible and not accounted for in the Gross National Product (GNP). This is what Katrine Marcal’s book ‘Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?’ argues, as economists around the world do not see women’s activities as essential for the economy or growth. But no one has bothered to quantify household work specifically to include it in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). According to the book’s citation of Statistics Canada, the value of unpaid work ranges from 30.6% to 41.4% of the GDP.
Therefore, May sees herself as a partner in the wealth accumulated during her marriage because her husband’s absence, both financially and emotionally, forced her to spend most of her time managing the household and caring for the children without compensation. Thus, if it weren’t for her presence in his life in their current relationship format, he wouldn’t have had a suitable path to accumulate the wealth he currently possesses, let alone form a family whose burden she bears and for which he ultimately receives credit. However, the reality is that her bank account is still at zero compared to her husband’s, which contains several zeros.
Jawaher Al-Taher, the director of the Access to Justice Program at the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, comments that the issues and difficulties faced by women after divorcing their husbands, following a long journey, are one of the main reasons that necessitate the demand for the sharing of joint assets after separation.
Based on her practical experience in monitoring cases brought to the center, many women have spent years using their financial resources for their household needs. In the case of divorce, they were unable to prove their rights to the house, car, or any properties acquired during the marriage.
For more than fifteen years, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights has been advocating for the necessity of sharing joint assets between spouses. The center has prepared a draft personal status law, which was adopted by Egyptian MP Nashwa Al-Dib in early 2022.
It introduces, for the first time, the principle of sharing joint assets in Egyptian laws. The draft law includes a specific provision stating that “the spouses may agree in the marriage contract to share the financial returns accumulated during the marriage in the form of savings or assets, in the event of divorce. The sharing can be equal or in the form of a predetermined percentage agreed upon by the spouses.”
Jawaher said that the paragraph regarding the division of wealth between spouses in the case of divorce was originally presented as a mandatory provision. However, during discussions of the proposed law in Egyptian governorates with different groups of Egyptians, strong objections were raised against this provision. As a result, it was suggested to make it an optional condition in the marriage contract, specifying the percentage of division between spouses. This proposal has already been included in the final version of the draft law, which has been submitted to Parliament and is currently being discussed in the legislative committee after receiving sixty signatures from the MPs.
For many years, there have been misconceptions about the principle of wealth division prevalent in Western countries. Many people still believe that in the case of divorce, the wife automatically receives half of her husband’s wealth, as promoted in various media outlets and movies or series.
Oumnia Farrag, 27, explains that most of the information being circulated is completely untrue. What actually happens is that wealth is divided between spouses in the event of divorce, which she knows from her marriage to an Englishman under English laws.
“What is being divided is what we acquired during our marriage. It is based on the principle that I earn more than my partner because I work longer hours, while the other partner takes on more family responsibilities,” explains Oumnia. “Even if we hire someone to help with household chores, the responsibility of raising children necessarily falls on the person working fewer hours.”
Therefore, Oumnia believes that in the case of ending a marriage, which is based on partnership in everything essentially, it is logical that the spouse who made a greater effort in sustaining this partnership, whether in managing the household or raising children, while working fewer hours outside the home, should receive a larger share of the financial returns. This applies regardless of whether either spouse works outside or inside the home and irrespective of which spouse earns a higher income.
She adds, “The one who works fewer hours will have a lower salary, whether they are male or female. If I am the woman and my career is a priority, and I travel more while my salary is twice as much as my husband’s, and in return, my husband reduces his working hours to manage the household, when we divorce, what I have gained will be divided equally between us.” However, what is promoted, on the other hand, is that the woman in the West receives half of her husband’s wealth after divorce, which is completely untrue, she noted.
In the same context, Jawaher believes that the principle of shared wealth is a just demand that can alleviate injustice against many women and ensure compensation for their contributions, whether financially or through effort or work, both inside and outside the home.
As for May, she often contemplates divorcing her husband but is also concerned about many obstacles that prevent her from making this decision. The main obstacle is the lack of financial security, as she states, “I am afraid of ending up in a difficult situation, and I am afraid that my children will abandon me for their father’s money.” In addition, she fears the lack of support from her family, who often take her husband’s side and always encourage him at her expense. “I am afraid that I won’t be able to survive; despite the absence of stable and available income, I relatively have a decent life.”
By Esra Saleh