Egypt: Landmark paternity case highlights dangers of urfi marriage

Activists and experts working on women’s rights issues warned of the dangers of a general lack of information regarding urfi marriage, a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common in Egypt.
“It’s the lack of understanding of what exactly urfi marriage entails that ends up creating a host of problems for the female party,” said Heba Loza, an expert on women’s issues and writer with semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram.
Urfi marriages, commonly defined as marital unions lacking an official contract, are often carried out in secret. For the most part, those who choose to be married by way of an urfi contract are young couples who do not have parental consent or who cannot afford a wedding. “In reality, most of those who resort to urfi marriages are young couples seeking to legitimise a sexual relationship,” said Heba. “Many cannot afford a wedding, while many others don’t have the consent of their parents. To them, urfi marriages provide an alternative.”

Although urfi marriages are sanctioned by Islam, Egypt’s majority religion, conducting them in secret – without the consent of couples’ families – is not.

In urfi marriages, conducted by a Muslim cleric and usually in the presence of at least two witnesses, only two copies of the marriage contract are produced – one for each party. “Hence, there is always the danger that one party will deny the marriage ever took place,” said Heba. “In most cases, it’s the man.”

This is especially common when a child is born. “Unless witnesses are present while the contracts are being signed and the marriage has been announced publicly, the marriage is effectively null and void in the eyes of the law,” Heba said. “Therefore, the woman’s rights in marriage cannot be protected, nor is the father automatically bound to share responsibility for the child.”

Such was the case in the high-profile case of Hind al-Hinnawy and actor Ahmed al-Feshawy, whose story of urfi marriage and a disputed child became the centre of national controversy last year. It finally came to a close on 24 May, however, when a Cairo appeals court ruled in favour of Hind, who, by way of witnesses’ testimonies, established al-Feshawy’s legal paternity of the child. “The outcome of the trial was very positive,” said Huda Badran, chairman of the Cairo-based Arab Alliance for Women. “The result enshrined the rights of the child, who up until then had none.”

According to Huda, the case should serve as a warning to young people considering urfi unions as an alternative to officially sanctioned marriages. “Perhaps this case has made both young men and women a little more aware of the risks involved in urfi marriages,” she said. “Al-Feshawy must now comply against his will to the responsibilities of fatherhood, which he believed he could escape, while al-Hinnawy had to fight hard to secure her rights and those of her daughter.”

Government statistics show that approximately 14,000 similar paternity cases are currently pending trial. “Activists tell me they believe the number is actually closer to a million,” said Heba.

5 June 2006, IRIN