Religious freedom at stake in Egypt

If you don’t fast during Ramadan in Egypt, lie about it and hide it. If not, you might land in jail.

Tarek Elshabini, a 21-year-old engineering student, is Muslim, but only according to his personal ID card. Every year when Ramadan comes, he faces a dilemma: he doesn't fast because he's an atheist, but everyone, including police officers, expects him to fast because he was born into a Muslim family.

In order to avoid any possible clashes between Elshabini and his family due to his non-religious credo, he decided to move away for a while until his relatives are able to live with the new reality. Most families in what Gallup has called the most religious country on earth would find it too bitter to swallow the fact that a son of theirs does not believe in the existence of God.

Elshabini managed to make his getaway by finding a job in Hurghada as a bar tender at a nightclub, and on his second day in the Red Sea tourist city, he had to go to the police station to verify his criminal record, as required by his new employer. After a few hours of struggling with government bureaucracy, Elshabini managed to get a copy of his clean record sheet and was out of the police station at noon.

To kill his thirst, he stopped at the kiosk across from the police station to buy a drink. He stood there, bought a can of soda and lit a cigarette. He had no idea that last Ramadan at least 150 people were arrested in Aswan and Hurghada, where he had just arrived, for eating, drinking or/and smoking in broad daylight during Ramadan. It was the first time this had happened in Egypt.

It wasn't the last time, though. This year, two micro-bus drivers were arrested in Cairo for the same reason. A Ramadan crackdown was also carried out by police officers in Hurghada to arrest anyone caught eating, smoking or drinking in public before sunset.

As Elshabini was smoking his cigarette and downing his soft drink, a plain-clothes officer came up to him and asked what his name was. He then invited him back into the police station. "At this point, I thought I might have forgotten something inside while getting my papers, and this very nice man was going to help me get it," Elshabini recalls.

Who is responsible?

The officer knew from his middle name, Ahmed, that Elshabini was "Muslim".

In Egypt, personal ID cards state the citizen's religion. The government of Egypt recognises only the three Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. As such, atheists such as Elshabini have to state one of these religions in their ID card.

The officer then told him he was under arrest on a charge of "public breaking of the fast", and locked him in the cells. For three hours no one would talk to him or tell him what was going on, until the officer who had arrested him came back.

"I kept telling him I was sorry, and that I forgot that it was Ramadan and that I was fasting . . . anything just to get myself out of this," says Elshabini.

Heba Morayef, a Human Rights Watch researcher, explains that there is no such crime as "public breaking of the fast" and that it violates both Egyptian and international law. "The arrest of people for smoking in public during Ramadan is illegal under both Egyptian and international law. These arrests are arbitrary in the absence of any legal provisions under Egyptian law," she says.

After three hours of begging, Elshabini was finally released. "I'll believe you this time, and I'll let you out with no police report. How's that for a favour?" he says the officer told him.

Morayef also believes that the arrests seem to the product of initiatives by individual police stations, rather than a top-down policy pursued by the ministry of the interior. However, she argues that this does not absolve the government of responsibility for such illegal arrests.

"The government must clearly issue instructions that its security officers do not have the right to arrest people who appear not to be fasting," she says.

"Ramadan is the time of year that I would very much like to disappear from the face of the earth," says Elshabini. "Everybody is badly infected with this mass religious hysteria, and people start to interfere in other people's business."

Freedom is in danger

Elshabini's story shows how Egypt's relatively secular police are becoming increasingly intolerant when it comes to freedom of religion. It also demonstrates the government's failure to acknowledge that there are people who might not believe in Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism.

Nor does Egyptian law address this issue fully. Until last year, members of the Baha'i faith had to write "Muslim" on their ID cards because the law does not recognise Baha'ism as a religion. Last year, the courts allowed them to choose to leave the religion field blank.

The arrests also show that freedom of religion and belief is in danger in Egypt, which has long been known for its relative religious tolerance, especially in contrast to the theocratic regimes elsewhere in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, most of the Gulf countries, Sudan and Iran. But it seems that, for the second year in a row, this ise changing, at least on an unofficial level.

"After three of the most humiliating hours in my life, I couldn't believe what was happening. At some point I thought this was a TV show or something -- that this was a trick. But unfortunately every part of what happened was real," Elshabini says.

However, many Egyptians are against the crackdown. A Facebook group called "Egyptians from all beliefs are against the arresting of non-fasters in Ramadan" attracted about 800 members in just a few days.

"Respect expected by people who fast should be based on personal choice," says Hany Freedom, the creator of the online group, choosing to go by his Facebook name. "Otherwise, how would the faster know if others are considerate out of conviction or only because they are forced to?"

Osama Diab is a freelance journalist based in Egypt.

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.