Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2005
Issue No. 747
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Patrimony blues

One high-profile case brought Urfi marriage to the limelight: Yasmine Fathi follows in the footsteps of the media

Click to view caption
El-Fishawi; El-Hinnawi and her daughter as featured in Vogue

Stylist Hind El-Hinnawi shocked the entire Arab world by filing a paternity suit against TV actor Ahmed El-Fishawi, the son of two of Egypt's best-known actors. El-Hinnawi, 27, claimed she was his partner in a Urfi (based on the urf, or custom, as opposed to officially registered) marriage -- a secret mode of amorous consummation increasingly prevalent among Egypt's young.

They had met on the set of a sitcom in which he was playing the lead and, falling in love, she claimed, drafted a matrimonial contract (the sole copy of which, El-Hinnawi was to insist, remained with El-Fishawi, thereby depriving her of any evidence of the marriage). It was when El-Hinnawi became pregnant that the trouble started: El-Fishawi demanded an abortion, she refused; he denied the he was the father, she took him to court...

Nine months later, a judge ruled that a DNA test should be conducted to settle the claim. Though not recognised by the government until 2000, Urfi marriage is, in common with official marriage as we know it today, in accordance with Sharia (Muslim law) -- "so long as it abides by the rules of matrimony", according to Montasser Ibrahim, head of the legal department in the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW). These are mutual consent, the presence of a walli (the bride's guardian or benefactor), a dowry and either two male or two female and one male witnesses.

"The walli is not required if the woman is a widow or a divorcee" (for which read not a virgin), so elaborated Sanaa El- Shami, a women rights lawyer, "in which case she can be her own walli ". Nor is the dowry a vital part of the contract: "The bridegroom can read out a few lines of the Quran -- and that works as a dowry." If not for mutual consent and witnesses, by contrast, the marriage would be batel (null and void). The state apparatus did not incorporate Muslim marriage until 1929, in fact. "Which means that all our forebears were technically in Urfi marriages," Ibrahim smiles. With a smaller population, he elaborated, people lived in social and cultural proximity. Contrary to the present, when "you can live in an apartment building for 15 years and not know who lives in the adjoining flat, everyone knew who everyone was married to: a man was never in any position to disown his legitimate child." To this day many tribal communities continue to practise customary marriage, but since 1929, with the urban population explosion, the concept of Urfi became the secret mode of amorous union it now is, imbuing a largely unacceptable social practise with a false sense of legitimacy. Fatma El-Kellini, the Ain Shams University Sociology Department head, the custom began to spread in the mid-1990s, in response to deteriorating economic conditions -- unemployment and inflation -- which had acted to delay the marriage age. In comparison to its by now conventional counterpart -- a project in which families play as much of a part as the bride and groom -- Urfi marriage is both fast and inexpensive. In a Vogue interview published in May, El-Hinnawi said as much, explaining that she preferred "privacy and expediency" to months of inter-familial negotiation. "Many young couples do it on a whim. They think they're making their dream come true," El-Kellini commented. "They don't realise how devastating it can be for their lives -- especially for the girl, who will end up pregnant..."

Economic hardship is not the only factor, though. Ola, 26, was brought up by her aunt after her parents were separated; and none of her four siblings had any part to play in her life. At 15 her cousin Mohamed, 20 years her senior, proposed to her -- only to be turned down brutally by her aunt. When her parents died, one after the other, Ola felt even more isolated; she would reject one suitor after another, "because I couldn't trust them not to abuse me, having no one as I was", and when Mohamed, by then married with two children, proposed a Urfi arrangement, she conceded despite her aunt's refusal: "He said he hated his wife, but didn't want to separate to protect his daughter; he was a wonderful father." Mohamed bought Ola a flat in 6th of October City, and they had a brief honeymoon before he failed to show up at his usual hour; when Ola called to find out what was wrong, she had the shock of her life: "He'd been so nice, and loving. Everything I had imagined. Now he divorced me right there on the phone. He had just wanted me for sex, he said, and now he was satisfied. We were married for a total of 10 days." Like El-Hinnawi, Ola could not prove that she had been married: "This was his condition, that the paper should stay with him." Desperately, she filed a proof-of-marriage suit, which was eventually rejected: "No evidence."

While Ola blamed her choice of Urfi marriage on difficult circumstances, Mahmoud Ahmed, head of the Hope Village rehabilitation centres, the incidence of Urfi marriage is rising among street girls -- the focus of the organisation's work for the last four years: "We had initially planned to use the rehabilitation system we had been applying to boys since 1989, but we were suddenly faced with a dilemma: many of the girls were pregnant and needed different treatment." A shelter was established for "young mothers": inaugurated on 25 May, it had already accommodated them for a month. Hoda, one such residents, was only 15 when she gave birth to Ali five months ago; her father had forced her into a Urfi marriage with a rich old man from the Gulf. Once pregnant she was brought back to her father, again with no evidence of marriage, and he registered the child as his own. When she left the house, therefore, she could not take Ali with her -- her father having refused to let her have him: "I have no official proof of anything. But let him have the child if he wants it," she smiled. "I'm not into this baby business anyway." For Nermeen, 20, another resident, Urfi marriage was her only way out of street life, which she had suffered since her stepmother threw her out of the house: "I used to hang around Ramses Square; and that's where I met Ahmed." Many of her friends, married in the same way, were about to leave her...

"I was afraid," she said. "So I thought I'd do as they did." She was below the minimum legal age for marriage (16), and Ahmed did not possess an identity card; Urfi was the only option. Three months later she was pregnant, but Ahmed wouldn't hear of having a conventional wedding: "He tore up our contract. A few days later while I was sleeping on Ramses Road, he came and took away my child. I haven't seen him since. He's two now. Some people say he died, but my heart tells me he's alive." Yet as if this was not enough, very shortly afterwards, Hoda had her second Urfi wedding: "I wanted someone to protect me and Yehya promised he would." Having beaten her on their first day as husband and wife, however, Yehia continued to do so -- until, while three months pregnant, she fled back to the street. The baby soon died: "It was cold and I had nowhere to go." To be grateful for a burial licence -- "I had no proof of marriage and [vice squad] could've made a debauchery case against me" -- was all she could do. Indeed in the absence of evidence of marriage, many such young women have been unable to obtain birth certificates for their children. And in the light of the fact that a paternity suit can take months and even years to be concluded, as Ibrahim puts it, "they remain nameless beings -- as they emerged out of thin air." They have neither rights nor privileges. As these women learn, the hard way, a life without a birth certificate is no fun. Zeinat came to Cairo from Luxor along with her mother following a divorce. Living on the street, the mother sought Urfi marriage to obtain shelter for herself; and so did Zeinat. When she was three months pregnant the husband tore up the paper and left -- never to be seen again. As a result Basel, Zeinat's son, remains officially nameless -- without a birth certificate -- and Zeinat has come to discover some of the consequent problems: "When I tried to have him vaccinated at the age of nine months like every other baby, I was sent away. They said they couldn't be certain he was really nine months. They wouldn't take my word for it at all."

There are countless circumstances that lead to Urfi marriage. Ibrahim tells of a woman turning up to file a divorce suit -- whose contract turned out to be Urfi. To dodge the minimum age requirement, the maazoun (religious authority responsible for marriage and divorce) "had made it look so like an official contract only an expert could tell the difference". Many widows, besides, choose Urfi marriage in order not to lose pensions they receive. But aside from circumstances, it is proof of marriage that remains at the centre of the issue. On 29 January 2000, women were given the right to seek divorce by, among other ways, filing an authenticity-of- signature suit at a family court. As El-Shami points out, however, winning such a suit does not give the marriage official sanction -- far from it: "It simply allows the woman to file a divorce or a paternity suit -- that's all." Proof-of-marriage suits are different altogether, as Ibrahim explains: they can be based on the contract or any other evidence including letters or witnesses. What many fail to realise is that, according to Sharia, tearing up a Urfi contract does not amount to divorce. El-Hinnawi had told Vogue, "I figured that if things didn't work out, we would simply agree to destroy the contract, which is tantamount to a divorce." Besides the complete termination of any existing copies of the contact, Sharia requires the man to say the words, "I divorce you"; otherwise, on seeking another marriage later on, a woman could be accused of polyandry. Where a child enters the scenario, it is only given a first name until a paternity suit is concluded -- something all the more complicated by the fact that, according to the present laws, DNA tests remain optional: it is up to the judge to decide if one is necessary; they are also expensive. El-Shami is calling for both making the test compulsory and postponing payment until the results are out and a verdict pronounced: "If positive, the man pays; if negative, the woman does..."

According to the law, any woman can file a paternity suit, whether or not she is married. But if it turns out she is lying, El-Shami goes on, "the woman is subject to being fined or even a prison sentence". Many women rights organisations -- El-Shami's among them -- are seeking an answer to the Urfi dilemma. To eliminate them altogether, one would have to "allow some time for all present cases to be presented to court", but even then, people would in all probability continue to engage in the practise, the way they did before 2000, when women didn't even have the right to file a proof-of-marriage suit. More effective, perhaps, would be giving the female partner in an Urfi marriage all the rights of a conventionally married wife. Ola agrees with the latter: "Men seek Urfi marriage as a way to dodge the responsibilities of a conventional marriage. If women have the same rights, men would think twice before doing it. But until then it will remain a backdoor for all men, a marriage of convenience -- no fighting, no problems. You can quit once you've had enough."

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