Earlier this week Fox News posted an online story about an American woman, Kalli Atteya, and the dramatic "rescue" of her son in Egypt. The son, Khalil Mohamed "Niko" Attetam, was reportedly "kidnapped" by his father, Mohammed Atteya, in August 2011. The article included a photograph of Kalli, her slate blue eyes shining from beneath a black "burka," as she is described bravely returning to the coastal city of Alexandria to retrieve her son. According to Kalli, her now ex-husband said that "we lack the morality and the values that their system has," claiming that America was a "rotting society."
This story has it all: Islam, head-coverings, kidnapping, and a threat to American values. But the real story is a legal system that favors men, and favors its own citizens in custody battles. The rest is just window dressing.
The overwhelming picture of Kalli in this article is of a helpless American woman "lured" to an exotic and backwards country, where her son was taken from her. The son is quoted as saying: "My dad forced me to be Muslim." The threat of conversion and Islamophobia looms large over the story. To further exoticize the account, Kalli wore the niqab, inaccurately named as the Afghan burka, to hide her identity as she set in motion plans to recapture her son.
Child abduction is a common issue in Egypt, especially in the case of foreigners marrying Egyptians, and especially when these foreigners are women. This article, rather than explaining the legal context that allowed such an event to take place, focuses on the black head-covering and the kidnapping. While this author has not spoken with Kalli Atteya, certain details of the case could benefit from a legal explanation.
The article does not immediately state that Kalli was married to her son's kidnapper. The fact that she shares her husband's surname in the article furthermore suggests that her marital status may be unclear despite the custody dispute, and it is not stated whether the divorce was sought in the U.S. or in Egypt, which would effect the outcome of the case if the child was brought back to Egypt.
Custody and divorce laws in Egypt differ dramatically from those of the United States, by way of their general adherence to the Hanafi school of Islamic Shari'a and the patriarchal structures of power in charge of codifying the law and practicing it. Many spouses are unaware of these differences before they marry, making them unprepared to deal with the consequences of divorce.
Under the Personal Status laws of 1929, the husband receives full custody of sons at the age of ten, and daughters at the age of 12. Therefore, Kalli was probably unaware of her husband's legal rights when she returned to Egypt with her son, who is written as being 12 at the time of writing (meaning he would have been ten when he was taken by his father). She most likely didn't know that her husband Mohamed would be completely within his rights to take his son once they returned to Egypt. Indeed, under an oppressive legal concept called Bayt al-Ta'a, or "The House of Obedience," Mohamed would have the legal right to force his wife back into his house, if she had failed to begin divorce proceedings and could adequately prove duress or neglect within Egypt.
This is a common story. This author knows many women who were forced to leave Egypt with their children to retain custody of them. And the truth is, for the most part, the U.S. has absolutely no legal right to intervene in another country's legal system unless neglect or abuse against a national of the U.S. can be proven, which also probably explains why Kalli sought the help of a Norwegian company. So while this tragic story is played out as extortion (American VISA), and forced conversion, the truth is a lot simpler: a custody battle, and a real legal disadvantage.