In Egypt, like many Arab countries, family matters are governed by Islamic law, meaning marriage and divorce are guided by religious rulings, traditions and social norms in the male-dominated society. As a result, a man can unilaterally end his marriage by stating his intent; women largely are left to appeal to notoriously slow-moving courts.
Egyptian women are left with "two equally distressing options," Human Rights Watch said.
"Many Egyptian women ... either remain in an unwanted marriage and possibly endure physical and psychological abuse, or beg their husbands to divorce them, giving up everything they own and cherish in return," the report said.
Officials in the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Justice Ministry would not comment on the report.
However, one senior official said on condition of anonymity that women have adequate access to secure a divorce. To divorce as easily as her husband can, a woman need only have it written into her marriage contract that she has the right to make that decision, the official said.
Human Rights Watch said many women are not informed of their right to negotiate such conditions. One of the report's recommendations is legally requiring clerics to inform all parties of their right to negotiate contract conditions and punish those who do not. Spouses who were not informed of this right, the report said, need legal recourse to retroactively demand such a condition.
However, such a law, if ever passed in conservative Egypt, could be hard to enforce. Islamic law is widely interpreted to give men dominance in all family matters, and some conservative clerics consider women too emotionally unstable to be entrusted with such decisions.
But prominent Islamic scholar Gamal el-Banna said reform of Islamic laws regarding divorce is possible.
"Justice and fairness are the main sources of Sharia (Islamic law)," el-Banna said. "To achieve them is not a violation of Sharia, neither in letter nor in spirit."
The report was based on 112 interviews conducted in Egypt in June and July with divorcees, married women seeking a divorce and government officials.
Other report recommendations include:
Egypt has made some changes in recent months, including setting up family courts to handle and speed the divorce process.
But, in general, for a woman to secure a divorce through the courts, she must show evidence of harm, and Human Rights Watch said the process was fraught with "difficulties, delays, high costs and varying standards."
The New York-based group called the new courts "a step forward in some respects" but said they would "implement the same discriminatory laws and practices as the previous system."
In 2000, Egyptian law changed to allow a woman to file for divorce if she agreed to forfeit her financial rights and repay any dowry. The law also took steps toward ensuring payment of child support. Unless a judge grants an exemption, mothers are granted custody of sons until age 10 and daughters until age 12.
The legal change followed years of pushing by Egyptian activists. Though hard-line clerics considered it a threat to social stability, rights activists called it pioneering. It also received a religious nod of approval from the country's top cleric, Grand Sheik of al-Azhar Mohammed Sayed Tantawi.
Human Rights Watch said the move spared women from specifying grounds for divorce and provided for a speedier process for those who could afford to forgo alimony. However, it did not resolve the fundamental problem of discriminatory laws, the group said.
"Regardless of whether it is rooted in religious or secular law, a divorce process should be established in Egypt based on equality," the report said.
By Susan Sevareid