Married, or maybe not
Increasing numbers of couples today are resorting to urfi or unofficial marriage, presenting legal and religious experts with a host of new challenges, reports Riham Adel
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Actors Mona Zaki and Ahmed El-Saqqa played two young undergraduate students who decided to engage in a urfi marriage in Gawaz Ala Waraq Solofan (Marriage on Rice Paper), a television series produced in the late 1990s
Marriage has many definitions, but at its core is the idea of two people bound together in a legal union. In card games, a "marriage" is a combination of the king and queen of the same suit. While many couples may feel like a king and a queen on their wedding day, growing numbers of them are choosing to forego the legal part of the ceremony, engaging instead in a urfi marriage that is not officially registered.
Even comparatively recently it would have been considered insulting to ask a woman to get married in a urfi marriage, but it seems that today such marriages are no longer seen by many as problematic. To address the issue, Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) recently organised an international symposium in collaboration with the German think tank the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.
For two days in November, legal experts, judges and lawyers met with religious figures, representatives of women's organisations and diplomats to discuss the problems of urfi marriages, as well as their possible effects on society. The experts also tried to find solutions for the increasing number of such marriages.
According to Deputy Chief Justice of the SCC Adel Omar, the court's interest in urfi marriage comes from the importance of marriage as a basic constitutional right.
"Marriage involves several basic human rights, such as privacy, the choice of a spouse and the right to establish a family. These are protected by national law and by international instruments. The topic of urfi marriage is therefore a constitutional one," Omar said.
The aim of the symposium was to promote awareness of such issues among scholars, the media, policy-makers and the public in general. A further topic of discussion was the possible international implications of urfi marriages, given that some of them at least may involve foreign spouses.
Since urfi marriage is by definition an informal phenomenon, accurate statistics are not available. However, researchers have suggested that the number of such marriages may be even higher than expected. At the same time, the number of conventionally registered marriages is itself on the decline, and the government has been forced to begin to tackle the problems caused by the lack of official status of urfi marriages, such as the possibilities open to a woman in such a marriage to seek a divorce.
In his speech to the opening session of the symposium, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, stressed the meaning of urfi marriage. "If we understand the real meaning of the word religiously and linguistically," Tantawi said, "it becomes easier to comprehend what is halal and what is haram [permitted and forbidden] in marriage."
Tantawi said that a woman had once consulted him for a fatwa (religious ruling) on such issues when he was grand mufti of Egypt, asking for his opinion particularly on urfi marriage. She was a widow, he said, and if she had registered her marriage in the legal way, then she would have received her dead husband's pension, which she needed to help her survive financially.
"I was at a loss," Tantawi said, "since all the conditions needed to make the marriage halal were covered, including acceptance on both sides, the dowry, witnesses and the necessary announcement, although the marriage itself was not legally registered." Tantawi said that the marriage could not be forbidden as a result, "but my advice was, and still is, to avoid this type of marriage, if only to ensure that rights are protected in the future."
However, Tantawi cleared up some of the confusion afflicting many people regarding the fact that society still tends to look down on urfi marriage by emphasising that in urfi marriage the conditions making the marriage halal can be respected. Each unregistered marriage has to be considered on its own merits, he said.
According to Mahmoud Ghoneim, head of the Commissioners Body at the SCC, as late as the earlier decades of the last century oral agreements were as acceptable as written ones in marriage contracts, but then the legislators stepped in.
"In August 1930, the legislators prevented the judges and courts from accepting any cases of unregistered marriage as legal, in order to oblige people to register their marriages. But then fast forward to the year 2000, when urfi marriages were introduced, and the problem has reappeared in Egypt," Ghoneim said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
As a result, the courts are having to reconsider the possible problems of such marriages, since there are no official papers registering this kind of marriage, the courts are sometimes at a loss to know how to intervene in the event of divorce.
One problem that Ghoneim pointed to was how best to protect women in such marriages. He said that he had gone through an unforgettable experience in trying to find out how to protect women in urfi marriages, especially marriages between young Egyptian women and Arab men. Ghoneim said that he had "gone undercover" at cafés in the Al-Hawamdeya area in Cairo, one of the city's lower-income districts that has become known for a high number of urfi marriages.
"I have seen myself how fathers sell their underage daughters to Arab men, despite the restrictions the government has been introducing to protect the rights of these young women," Ghoneim said.
Some of these restrictions require that the Arab men provide certified papers from their countries clarifying their medical, social and financial situation, in order that any marriage contract entered into Egypt is registered. Furthermore, girls under the age of 18 are not allowed to marry in urfi marriages.
"The kind of fathers I saw only care about the amount of money they will gain from such deals, which is why they sell their daughters under the name of urfi marriage," Ghoneim said, adding that he was shocked and saddened when he heard one "suitor" ask about the body types of the brides available, as if regressing hundreds of years back to a slave market.
The problem, as Ghoneim sees it, is that some people are exploiting religion, since urfi marriage can meet all the conditions that make a marriage halal.
For some girls caught up in such marriages, after the summer marriage season is over, the men they thought they were married to go back to their own countries and disappear, leaving their wives in a difficult situation. A crisis can emerge if the wife is pregnant, and in such cases it is the wife and child who pay the real price of such marriages.
What really frustrates Ghoneim is that he spends his time finding ways to ensure the security of Egyptian women and to safeguard their rights, while at the same time, "I am sorry to say that some people choose to waste their rights."
While religion has a clear definition of marriage, urfi marriages in Egypt are of many types. One type of urfi marriage meets all the religious conditions for marriage, but is not registered. This type is usually for couples who want to avoid the legalities of marriage -- a divorced woman, for example, who wants to get married but would lose the custody of her children if she registered her new marriage, or a widow who would not be able to receive her former husband's pension if she remarried.
However, another type of urfi marriage, falling into some 30 sub-types, is the customary marriage entered into by young people or students, who have created strange names for their marriages, including "blood marriage", "Adam and Eve marriage", "post-stamp marriage" and "tattoo marriage".
Mohamed Awadein, professor of Islamic law and vice-dean of Cairo University Law School, has some alarming figures for this type of marriage. "Seventeen per cent of university students are 'married' under urfi marriages, and today there are some 14,000 fatherless children from such marriages, in addition to the phenomenon of street children," he said.
In an interview with the Weekly, Awadein said that part of the problem comes from the fact that Egyptians have been raised on films that promote the idea that if parents refuse to allow their children to get married to the person of their choice, then they can elope. In the films, such elopements tend to end happily, something that is not necessarily the case in real life.
"I call this kind of marriage between university students immoral, and adults who act as teenagers, being in a urfi marriage in secret, for example, are simply running away from responsibility in my opinion, something that is encouraged and allowed by the law."
Such liaisons lead to huge damage, Awadein believes, and for this reason he argues that the phenomenon of urfi marriage should be attacked at the root. He cites the belief that many people have that the home life of those involved is the number one factor that can hinder the choice of urfi marriage and that fathers have an important role to play in influencing the choices of their children.
According to Ghada El-Shahawi, a chief justice, the relationship between fathers and daughters is the key to preventing young women from entering into urfi marriages, and this relationship can have a positive effect on forming her personality as a whole.
"An open relationship between a father and his daughter builds up a sort of faith and respect towards themselves and their parents in young women. As a result, a daughter would not even think about doing something behind her father's back," El-Shahawi says. She says that she believes that fathers are so concerned about enhancing their families' financial lives today that they have less time to put into moulding their children's behaviour. "Some fathers do not have the time to befriend their kids," she adds.
El-Shahawi remembers that her own family's favourite time for discussion was around the dining table, but she says that the concept of having meals together as a whole family is not common as it used to be.
Many experts agree that the spread of urfi marriages between young couples has a lot to do with a lack of parental guidance. For Hoda Badran, for example, chairperson of the Alliance for Arab Women, social values are derived from principles given to children through their families.
"For some people, not registering their marriage is the easier choice to make due to economic and social issues when compared to actually facing the real reasons that make them go under the radar," Badran says.
The negative consequences of urfi marriages are clear for all to see, Badran says, and she cites "mothers abandoning their children due to the secrecy of the marriage, court cases, and, most dangerous of all, the degradation of the sanctity of marriage." As a witness to the aftermath of many urfi marriages, Badran says that behind every woman who has entered into a urfi marriage there is constant worry and concern.
"The solutions to this phenomenon lie in the hands of the media, civil society and families, as well as in a new law that will limit such marriages," Badran says.
Among the many organisations interested in finding solutions to the problem is the National Council for Women, whose secretary-general, Farkhonda Hassan, also attended the symposium. According to research carried out by the council, difficult economic conditions and the weight of traditions, especially in the countryside, are the main reasons why families choose to push underage girls into urfi marriages.
Some such girls do not have state identification cards, Hassan said, adding that her organisation has "succeeded in registering more than 1,000 cases of urfi marriage in Aswan, and we are trying our best to get over the obstacles that prevent people from registering their marriages."
According to Awadein, the main problem preventing better regulation of the area as a whole is the law as it stands. "If we reviewed the legislation, we could limit unregistered marriages," he said, adding that other areas of law, including the law governing insurance, pensions and personal status, should also be reviewed in order to arrive at a better balance between the needs of society and the needs of individuals.
Zeinab Radwan, deputy speaker at the People's Assembly and former dean of the School of Arabic and Islamic Studies in Fayoum, also believes that there are many issues that need to be resolved in order to solve the problems of urfi marriages. The law prevents those under 18 from getting married officially, for example, but does not consider such marriage to be illegal, meaning that people naturally resort to urfi marriages.
"Either we should allow them to register their marriage, or we should prevent them from getting married," Radwan says. In the past, she adds, marriages used to be "registered" by word of mouth, but today things should be put on a firmer footing, since rights can easily be lost if marriages are not registered in writing.
Adel Omar said that he agreed that all marriages should be registered. As long as unregistered marriages continue to produce problems, pressure should be kept up for their registration, though he admits that some Islamic scholars disagree with this opinion, as they believe that this would effectively prohibit what is already permitted by Islam.
Finally, the symposium suggested that there were many possible definitions of urfi marriage. One definition is of a type of marriage that is valid under Islamic law, but that lacks official registration. Another is to include any type of marriage that is not registered and lacks certain features of an official marriage, making it halal, if imperfect, under Islamic law. The symposium suggested that further research was necessary in order to ascertain all the possible sub-types of urfi marriage.
There was agreement that participants at the symposium would continue to study the problem and hopefully hold a follow-up session to report research on the types of urfi marriage and the causes, problems and repercussions of the phenomenon.
arriage without formal registration is not limited to Egypt. In Saudi Arabia, the concept of a misyar, or visiting, marriage is common, whereas in Iran, Shia law allows mutaa marriage to be practised, this sharing some of the characteristics of urfi and misyar marriage, as well as exhibiting important differences.
In misyar marriage, couples agree to live separately but get together regularly, often for sexual relations. Both urfi and misyar marriage are halal, if four main conditions are observed, being the presence of acceptance, dowry, witnesses and public announcement.
Mutaa marriage is a kind of commitment made only for a certain period of time, with couples agreeing that their marriage will not last beyond the period that they decide together. According to Sheikh Tantawi, mutaa marriage was practised before Islam.
"Marriage in Islam is based on an everlasting not on a temporal relationship. For this reason, mutaa marriage is forbidden," Tantawi says.