Paper parenthood

Observations on Egpyt

It's everyday stuff in Britain: baby born out of wedlock; errant father forced to provide DNA sample; result - a direct debit to the Child Support Agency. In Egypt, however, they do things very differently. When Hind el-Hinnawy went to court to get a surname for her baby, Leena, all she got for her trouble was abuse, even though the man in the case doesn't deny he is the father.

An Egyptian baby usually gets its surname when the parents' wedding certificate is produced after the birth and the father's name is copied into the relevant box. To have no wedding certificate and to go to court to get the child a surname is such high-profile proof of sex before marriage that few women have ever dared.

Hinnawy dared, and because she was a costume designer on one of Egypt's top TV soaps and the alleged father, Ahmed el-Fishawy, was a well-known television presenter and the son of a famous movie star, the case caused a sensation. While most of Egyptian society was predictably horrified, liberal film-makers and writers supported her, and American Vogue even took up her case.

The drama increased when, in a landmark ruling, the family court ordered Fishawy to undergo a DNA test. It seemed that Hinnawy might score a victory with far-reaching consequences: if Egyptian men knew they could face such scientific scrutiny in future, it might call time on hit-and-run lovers who get girls pregnant and vanish.

And when Fishawy admitted a relationship with Hinnawy on television and said Leena "could be" his baby, you might have thought the time had come to frogmarch him to Mothercare. But that is not what happened. He withheld his DNA and the court, instead of putting him in jail for contempt, simply chucked the whole case out.

Hinnawy's problem was not the DNA but the "urfi" marriage ceremony she swore they had gone through, for which she had no proof. Urfi marriage, a temporary union, is recognised in Shia Islam and involves simply a piece of paper signed by witnesses. A means of having sex without the expense of a big-bash wedding, it is increasingly common among young Egyptians. The law recognises urfi marriages so long as the paperwork can be produced, but Hinnawy couldn't do that. She said Fishawy had it and he denied it ever existed, or that there was any marriage. DNA or no DNA, the court found for him.

This leaves 15-month-old Leena with no surname, which means she has no ID, can't be enrolled at a school and won't get any immunisation jabs. Nor can she have a passport, so her mother can't take her to a country with a different view of single parenthood. One drastic option for Hinnawy now is to name her own father as her daughter's father, with the effect of making Leena, on paper, her sister.

Egypt, meanwhile, is left in the no less bizarre position that its law defines fatherhood in terms of paper and not genes.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Shamed