Secrets and marriages

Observations on Egypt

It was to be another of the many Egyptian soap operas churned out for consumption across the Middle East. Daddy Comes Home featured a 25-year-old living in the 1940s who, on travelling in a time machine to the year 2000, met his grandchildren and suffered enough generational clashes to last a TV series. It was never commissioned but, a year on, those involved hold Egypt in thrall.

The costume designer, Hind el-Hinnawy, met and fell in love with the lead actor, Ahmed el-Fishawy, only son to two of Egypt's top movie stars. Two months later they had what el-Hinnawy says was an urfi marriage, whereby people marry in secret with just two witnesses and a contract for proof, avoiding the expensive and laborious fandango of proper marriage.

Then el-Hinnawy became pregnant. El-Fishawy, it is alleged, wanted her to have an abortion - forbidden in Islam but common - along with a hymen-repair operation to "restore" virginity, which is widely available and, as el-Hinnawy puts it, "becoming cheaper by the day, like mobile phones". But she refused, and el-Fishawy is said to have destroyed the documents and bribed a witness of the marriage to support his story.

Without a father, el-Hinnawy's baby would have no surname and, because Egyptian law requires the father's sig-nature on a birth certificate, no official documentation either. So el-Hinnawy took the fight to Egypt's family courts.

El-Fishawy claims he never met her off-set, but a portfolio of witnesses who had seen him and el-Hinnawy a deux was handed to the courts. El-Fishawy lost his job as a presenter of youth programmes on how to be a good Muslim. Now the courts have required him to take DNA tests to establish paternity of the five-month-old baby, Leena.

Secret marriages happen all the time. The enormity of marriage in Egypt, traditionally a circus of vetting and vetoing by families, made worse by modern costs of living, makes it - and therefore sex - impossible for many until their early thirties. El-Hinnawy says her marriage to el-Fishawy had to be secret because her parents would not have approved of his playboy pedigree. And she knew her parents were picky - she wears the engagement rings of the three suitors that went before el-Fishawy.

But while Egyptian society expects women to sit on the shelf until someone can afford them, it also places a sexual premium on those in their early twenties - the age at which tradition says they should marry. It is around then that young people increasingly turn to urfi marriages. These, according to Ahmed el-Magdoub, an Egyptian sociologist, "started in times of war when the wives of soldiers who had died wanted to remarry without forgoing their pension". Now, he estimates, there are at least 30,000 of them in Egypt, many involving university students. Roughly 70 to 90 per cent of the 12,000 paternity cases before the courts are attributed to the grey area of urfi marriages. As no record of them exists in any government office, neither partner can file a lawsuit.

Muslim theologians argue over the validity of such marriages. According to Sayed Abul-Futouh, professor of Islamic studies at Ain Shams University, an urfi marriage requires two male (or one male and two female) witnesses, the payment of a dowry, and an announcement. 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.

Whatever the religious semantics, Cairo's feminists are rejoicing and Baby Leena may be nearer to getting a sur-name. But the very public DNA demand on el-Fishawy will have raised the stakes for young men considering urfi marriages, threatening to close off a much-used valve for frisky young Egyptians.

Unless society can acknowledge that young people want sex before marriage, the problem of sexual frustration may now be added to the many concerns and frustrations of young Arabs.

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The Bling Bling List