UNITED ARAB REPUBLIC: The House of Obedience

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For Egyptian men, marriage has long been a most enjoyable custom. By tradition, any Moslem husband tired of his bride had simply to say thrice, "I divorce thee," and the marriage was over and done with. And there was a special added, non-Islamic benefit. If the wife left him and went home to mother, and her husband still wanted her, he had simply to appeal to the courts, and the judge would obligingly sentence her to the Bait al-Taah, the House of Obedience. Under this dread practice, the police would arrest the woman wherever they found her—on the street, in her parents' home—and hand her back to the aggrieved husband. He could then rent living quarters, usually below her usual standards, and furnish them minimally, having to satisfy the court that it is "between good neighbors." There he could keep her locked in her room, as in a prison.

One bitter Moslem woman recalls: "As I entered my husband's House of Obedience, he began to take revenge. He used to order me to stand naked most of the night, and beat me." The House of Obedience was the most important but not the only feminist objection to Egyptian customs. In the country districts. Moslem men often married and divorced as Western husbands buy and discard suits. There are more than 57,000 divorces annually. The deserted wife and her children were usually denied everything, and most country women, because of ignorance, did little except mourn their fate.

But last week a special judicial committee of the United Arab Republic decreed a restriction of the man's right of divorce throughout the twin provinces of Egypt and Syria. After Oct. 1, divorces can be obtained only in a court of law, with a fair provision made for the injured party. Even those husbands who wish to avail themselves of the Islamic privilege of having more than one wife (the Koran permits as many as four) must prove their need of an additional wife and submit to investigation by a social worker.

The best news of all for Moslem women was the complete abolition of the Bait al-Taah. After October, whenever a distraught wife runs home to mother, she can be won back only by a husband's pleading, not by a policeman. For diehard Moslem men, the new matrimonial methods will be a cruel blow, and they can find comfort only in such an Arabic proverb of resignation as: "Better a handful of dry dates and content therewith, than to own the Gate of Peacocks and be kicked in the eye by a broody camel."