Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
1 - 7 October 1998
Issue No.397
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

The double bind

By Gihan Shahine

Love in hard times: Who would have thought that the housing crisis, the skyrocketing costs of organising a traditional wedding and setting up a household, would come to play such a prominent part in relationships? Today, it seems, the pressure to marry, combined with impossible economic demands, are causing more young couples to choose "unofficial" ways of tying the knot -- with often disastrous results
"I was still a freshman in college when one of my friends suggested urfi marriage. She wanted us to get married secretly, without any legal procedures or financial responsibilities. I thought she was joking at first, but then I realised she was serious about it. For her, urfi marriage was a legitimate outlet," remembers Ahmed, a Cairo University student.

While Ahmed did not accept, increasing numbers of young Egyptians, faced by the difficulties of "traditional marriages" -- among them skyrocketing rent prices and the ever-growing expenses of setting up a household -- are turning to urfi marriage. The result, however, has most commonly been bitterness and animosity, often bred by men's abuse of the extraordinary rights urfi marriage grants them.

One woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had a child from an urfi marriage. Her husband, however, abandoned her soon after. The woman filed two lawsuits, one to prove her child's paternity -- which would have allowed her to obtain alimony -- and the second to prove that she and her husband had really been married.

She managed to win the paternity case, but the court threw out her marriage lawsuit because she had no official documents proving she had ever been married, and her ex-husband denied it categorically.

Urfi marriage is an unofficial way of tying the knot. No record of such a marriage exists in any government office. Neither of the spouses can thus file a lawsuit to document or prove the marriage if the other denies the existence of the relationship. Nor can a woman file for divorce or alimony or claim for any of her other legal marital rights. The court will only hear paternity cases, but even these take much time and effort.

The legitimacy of urfi marriage has also been contested on religious grounds. Some argue that it is religiously acceptable, since it fulfils almost all the conditions of ordinary marriages. Others, however, see it as a sinful relationship, almost on a par with adultery. Their argument is based on the fact that most urfi marriages are kept secret, women enter into them without the protection a guardian would offer, and the marriages are not meant to form a family but rather to satisfy sexual desire.

According to Sayed Abul-Futouh, professor of Islamic studies at Ain Shams University, an urfi marriage is religiously correct provided it complies with Islamic doctrine. In other words, it should be based on the partners' mutual acceptance of marriage; and two male (or one male and two female) witnesses must sign the contract. The payment of the dowry (a sum of money paid to the bride as a wedding gift) and the announcement of the marriage are also mandatory. Three of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence also stipulate that a woman who has not been married before must be accompanied by her legitimate guardian (usually her father) while signing the contract. Legal documents are not a condition of marriage in Islam, Abul-Futuh added.

"But if one or more of the previous conditions stipulated by the Shari'a are absent, the marriage is considered illegitimate from the religious point of view," he insisted. An illegitimate marriage, he explained, is considered invalid. "And unfortunately, that is the case of almost all urfi marriages now, because of the lack of religious awareness."

According to many sociologists and legal experts, as well as those who have acted as witnesses in urfi marriages, two witnesses usually sign a piece of paper, which serves as the only legal proof of a couple's marriage.

"The marriage is usually carried out in great secrecy, of course without the knowledge of the parents," noted Ahmed El-Magdoub, a sociologist and researcher at the National Centre for Sociological and Criminological Studies (NCSCS).

"The woman, in any case, is always the loser in an urfi marriage," added Azza Kurayem, a sociologist at the NCSCS. Kurayem explained that men usually opt for urfi marriage to avoid the financial responsibilities that a legally recognised marriage would entail. "In most cases the husband starts losing interest in the relationship once his sexual desires are fulfilled," Kurayem added.

The husband, of course, may destroy the only document proving marriage if he wishes to end the relationship. For the wife, considerably more is at stake: society places high value on virginity, and a woman who has been married secretly and whose marriage is over will find it difficult, if not impossible, to prove to other suitors that she did not have an extramarital affair. Nor can she sue her husband if he denies the relationship, or claim any of her legitimate rights, according to Kurayem.

"More seriously, however, in an urfi marriage a woman cannot get a divorce unless her husband agrees. Legally, of course, she cannot file for divorce if her husband denies the marriage. So she may spend the rest of her life unable to remarry [knowing that he may produce proof at any time and accuse her of bigamy]," adds Amira Abdel-Hakim, a lawyer at the Centre for Legal Studies and Information for Human Rights.

According to Ghada Nabil, a lawyer at the Centre for Egyptian Women's Cases (CEWC), children also pay the price of urfi marriages.

"If a man denies the marriage, it takes much time and effort to prove the paternity of any offspring," Nabil explained. "And there are many such cases."

According to the most recent statistics released by the Ministry of Justice, there are at least 12,000 paternity cases currently in the courts. Many legal experts and sociologists attribute 70 to 90 per cent of such cases to urfi marriages.

Although no accurate statistics on the number of unofficial marriages in Egypt are available, many people believe that the number of urfi marriages has increased significantly in the past ten years.

"The idea of urfi marriage started in times of war when the wives of soldiers who had died wanted to remarry without forgoing their pension," noted El-Magdoub. "Now, it is due to social and economic reasons that urfi marriages have proliferated among young people, especially among university students and among the middle-class. As a very conservative estimate, I believe there are at least 30,000 cases of urfi marriage in Egypt."

El-Magdoub has counseled university undergraduates, and has encountered many cases of urfi marriages. "My experience shows that most women think about urfi marriage when they become afraid of passing the proper age of marriage, that is the early twenties," he said. Recent statistics, he noted, indicate that young people are marrying later and later.

"For men, however, the reason for the delay is mostly economic," El-Magdoub added. "Most men are anxious that after graduation they won't be able to get a good job or afford the price of a flats. And meanwhile the media is focusing on sex and love, and the role of the family and religion is dwindling."

Siham Hashem, professor of psychology at Ain Shams University, agreed. "I believe that the young people who marry in this way are the victims of the widening discrepancy between the high costs of life and the increase in the demands of the bride's parents," she said. "Of course, it is very normal for them to want to get married. And for them, urfi marriage is the only affordable outlet."

Nabil explained that the CEWC's hot line service and legal awareness programmes revealed that "even highly educated women have barely any knowledge of their legal rights, even in official marriages. We receive many calls from women who want to know more about their legal status in urfi marriages. Most of them knew next to nothing about their losses in such a marriage. They were mostly concerned with religious rather than legal issues."

A two-part TV drama written by Iqbal Baraka, the editor of Hawwa women's magazine, focuses on the legal and social aspects of urfi marriages. The message is that urfi marriage can lead only to disaster for women. The drama presents the experiences of two university students who married two young men. In the second part of the episode, one of the woman, pregnant and abandoned by her husband, with no legal proof of the marriage, commits suicide. The second is forced to remain in limbo since her husband refuses to divorce her.

"The media has always dealt with the religious aspects of the subject," said Baraka. "That is why I insisted on focusing on way young people see urfi marriage, and the price girls pay in the end. My film is a message to families, to girls and also to legislators who ignore the rights of women in these marriages. It is high time that we stop burying our heads in the sand and start tackling such important issues openly. There are many cases where women have to stay unmarried because they are unable to file for divorce."

Soon, however, this particular point may change. A new law is being drafted that is an amendment to Article 23 of the Personal Status code, which stipulates that the court will not hear a claimant's demand for documentation, divorce, or any marital right in the case of an urfi marriage which one of the spouses denies. Paternity suits are a different matter, and can be filed even if the couple was never married.

While the amendment entitles the claimant to file for divorce in an urfi marriage, however, it still denies him or her the right to obtain legal proof of the marriage. Nor does it allow the woman to claim alimony.

"There is no doubt that the new law will solve many problems," noted veteran lawyer Mamdouh Riyad. "But how can it legalise paternity and divorce lawsuits without acknowledging the marriage? If the court grants the woman a divorce, does that not mean it acknowledges the marriage? In that case, she should be able to obtain her legal rights."

Abul-Futuh agreed that, if the marriage complies with Shari'a, both parties should be entitled to all their marital rights.

"And in this case," Riyad added enthusiastically, "young men will think a thousand times before getting involved in a relationship that may cause them to incur financial burdens, and to risk a prison term for defaulting on alimony payments. I would also suggest that the new law include strict conditions like a minimum age of 23 for urfi marriage, a high dowry and the stipulation that alimony must be paid in case of divorce. At least then, urfi marriage will be taken more seriously."

Others, however, still believe legislation alone cannot solve the problem. "Young people have the right to hope that after graduation they will get a job and get married. The government should consider reintroducing low-rent apartments for young couples. Parents should also be moderate in their demands. The media must play a role in increasing people's awareness of the dangers of urfi marriage. This is where we should begin," concluded El-Magdoub.


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