June 18, (Christian Science Monitor)-- A prominent Egyptian feminist and novelist goes to court today in a case that will determine whether or not she will stay married to her husband of many years.

But this is no ordinary divorce court. Nawal Al-Saadawi is accused of breaking Islamic law, and if found guilty, she would be required to divorce her husband. Her crime: making statements construed as a renouncement of Islam.

Ms. Saadawi's dilemma began when a weekly independent newspaper published some of her controversial opinions. In the article, she said the Islamic-based inheritance law that gives women half of what men get should be abolished, that the Koran doesn't require women to wear the veil, and that the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia is in fact a pre-Islamic ritual. Egypt's Mufti later deemed her comments anti-Islamic.

A hearing for opening arguments begins today in the case, which was filed by civil lawyer Nabih Al-Wahsh.

The case against Saadawi has provoked outrage among intellectuals, writers, and human and women's rights groups worldwide, many of which have started support campaigns and written letters urging the Egyptian government to block the case.

That one person could bring charges so easily against someone for expressing controversial opinions raises serious questions about freedom of speech here, many say.

And for a legal provision that is rarely used in this society, this case also shows the increased power of Egypt's Islamic conservatives and the growth of religion in the society at large.

"This is a very inhibitive atmosphere," says Walid Kazziha, political professor at the American University in Cairo.

"The danger is that it's not an inhibition imposed by a political Islamic group only, but it is imposed by the new cultural twist of society itself," which is growing more religious. "It is very operative and it could lead to the stifling of innovation in literature, art, politics, even in religion."

Founder of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association - which was dissolved by the Egyptian government in 1991 - Saadawi is known worldwide for her progressive viewpoints on women's rights issues.

She has written 30 books - 28 of them later translated into other languages - and recently finished a stint as a scholar at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

"This punishment [of divorce] is not reasonable, ... it is used as a discouragement of freedom of expression, which is the right of everyone and the special duty of the writer," the International PEN Women Writers Committee said in a letter to Egypt's general prosecutor.

Nonetheless, with her signature white mane of hair and broad smile, Saadawi is as feisty as ever and doesn't seem at all cowed by her present ordeal.

"We're not separating," says Al Saadawi, "and we'll not leave the country."

Her husband, novelist Sherif Hetata, agrees: "If they say we're separated and then we come home and live in our flat, what are they going to do?"

Recently in the media, journalists and citizens have called for her death. But even these threats are not new to Saadawi. While her writings and ideas have won her acclaim abroad, they have marginalized her in traditional Egyptian society, led to her imprisonment by the regime, and to the death threats from Islamic extremists.

"We are ready to die for what we believe," she says defiantly. "I'm not afraid."

Does law protect or persecute?

Mr. Wahsh, the lawyer, is bringing the case to court under a part of the Islamic law, called hisba , that allows citizens to file a court case on behalf of the community to defend their religion.

"Nawal Al Saadawi is a respectable person, a writer and a thinker, and she has her rights," says Wahsh, "but let her not touch religion. Talk how you please. Write books as you please. But don't mess with religion."

For many Egyptians, this case conjures memories of the 1995 trial that ordered Cairo University Professor Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid to divorce after his writings were deemed against Islam. The couple are still married and living in voluntary exile in Holland. To curtail the use of this law, a 1996 amendment to the law required Egypt's general prosecutor to approve and prosecute all hisba cases.

Political analysts, intellectuals and human rights advocates, however, want the law eliminated completely. They say it allows citizens to sully the names of others, puts people's lives at risk, and could open the door to rampant stifling of free speech.

"It means silencing anyone who has an opinion," says Hisham Qassem, publisher of the English-language weekly, The Cairo Times. "There was no argument. There was no debate. There was just some interview published with Al-Saadawi in Al-Midan [newspaper], and before we know, it's going to court."

Beyond concerns this case raises about free speech here, it also shows the growing power of Egypt's Islamic fundamentalists and the growth of religion in the society at large.

Ever since defeated Islamic extremists stopped their violent campaign to overthrow the government in the late 1990s, moderates have been gaining ground through the ballot box.

In last fall's parliamentary elections, moderates won 17 seats - more than all the opposition members combined. Also, over the years Egyptian society has become more religious: more people go to mosque, fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. These two currents embolden people like Wahsh to actively defend Islam as he did.

As for the chance that the government would eliminate hisba cases to help protect freedom of speech, analysts won't bet on it.

Just last month a state security court sentenced prominent sociologist and democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim to seven years in prison for allegedly defaming Egypt, illegally accepting foreign money, and embezzling donated funds. Rights activists around the world were stunned by the verdict and accused the court of violating international justice standards.

"I don't think the government wants to take a clear position, to say they will tolerate any ideas whatsoever," says human rights activist Gasser Abdel Razek.

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