Aliaa Abou Shahba
Nada agreed to be engaged by the age of 15, taking her mother’s advice that “a good girl gets engaged and married early on”.
But days into her engagement, fear overshadowed her mother’s words; Nada got cold feet yet could not coax her parents into breaking off her engagement, or allowing her to play in the street with her friends.
Today 18, Nada recalls how vivacious she was years before her arranged marriage, when she shouldered immense pressure at a very young age. She now suffers from depression, and is undergoing therapy.
Nada was married months after being engaged. It was a so-called “Sunni marriage”, meaning an imam would marry off a minor and only ratify the marriage contract when the girl turns 18, the minimum legal age for girls to get married in Egypt.
This is why Nada could not issue a birth certificate for her baby girl right after she was born, a document that cannot be obtained without an official marriage. “I will never marry off my daughter,” said Nada — who once tried to commit suicide while being pregnant — vowing not to let her child relive her ordeal.
Nada is one of thousands who have fallen prey to child marriage under the auspices of their parents. In Sunni marriages, official imams would supervise signing of marriage contracts for hefty charges, this reporter found out. Lured by such lucrative deals, others would even impersonate imams to preside over child marriages.
Apart from a lack of supervision from the Ministry of Justice, attempts from the parliament to amend laws to increase punishment for child marriage were met with public calls to reduce the minimum age of marriage.
Authorities’ stance on Sunni marriages is anything but firm, even though some religious figures starkly oppose it.
Egypt’s Dar Al-Ifta, the official religious authority responsible for issuing edicts or fatwas for Muslims in the country, says Sunni marriages are legitimate and fulfill all conditions as per Islamic teachings, regardless of the wife’s age. Therefore, Sunni marriages are allowed to be documented when the wife turns 18, the loophole that more or less legalizes child marriage in Egypt.
“If a marriage meets all requirements [as per Islamic doctrine] then it is legitimate,” Dar Al-Ifta replied when asked about Sunni marriages. “But, it has to be documented by authorities to abide by the country’s law. This is in the best interest of those who have signed the contract.”
The 1994 child law was amended in 2008, increasing the minimum age of marriage from 16 to 18. Article 143 also stipulates that “a marriage cannot be documented” unless the husband and the wife are above 18. Breaking this rule is punishable, the article states.
“I’m full of sorrow and pain that this is called Sunni marriage,” said Sheikh Sayed Zayed, a member of Al-Azhar’s Fatwa Committee. “It has absolutely nothing to do with the Sunnah of the Prophet [Muhammad]…some of those who pretend to have knowledge claimed it’s the marriage stated by the Sunnah of the Prophet peace be upon him because [he] got married to our mother Aisha when she was six and he slept with her when she was nine… That was only applicable to the Prophet.”
Sheikh Sayed Zayed while giving a lecture to women on the dangers of child marriage.
Abdel-Fattah Yehia, a Lawyer at the Center for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance (CEWLA), says Egyptian law has “opened the door for urfi [unofficial marriages that are not officiated by an imam] and Sunni marriages”.
The wife in Sunni marriages, he explained, forfeits all her rights except for being entitled to a divorce. “She wouldn’t even inherit her husband’s belongings if he died before their marriage contract was documented. Children cannot take their father’s name,” Yehia said. In many cases, a girl would seek to register her son under the name of her brother or uncle.
A “Sunni marriage” in Egypt means an Imam would marry off a minor and only ratify the marriage contract when the girl turns 18, the minimum legal age for girls to get married
Egypt’s Dar Al-Ifta, the official religious authority responsible for issuing fatwas for Muslims, legitimizes loopholes for child brides
Reda El-Danbouki, another CEWLA lawyer, believes that Sunni marriage is “another face of urfi marriage that is criminalized by Article 80 of the Egyptian constitution”. Those under 18 cannot wed under any circumstances because it would be against the international treaties Egypt has penned, he added.
Some parents seek to preserve the rights of their daughter by asking the husband for a trust receipt, to make sure he would document the marriage when the girl turns 18. But in case the husband decided not to ratify the contract, the court wouldn’t uphold this receipt; it’s exactly like an urfi marriage and thus the husband would be found not guilty in the first session of the trial and the wife would lose her rights, according to El-Danbouki.
Lawyer Ahmed El-Masry says he receives hundreds or requests every year to document marriages, which would be impossible if the husband died and his family refrained from testifying that he was married.
In a narrow ally in the Upper Egyptian city of Beni Suef, a few meters away from the courts complex, a sign bears no name, yet reads “official imam”. It turned out that S.A. is not registered at the Ministry of Justice as an imam, yet he acts like one. This reporter asked him to marry an imaginary brother of hers to a 15-year-old girl.
Although he explicitly said during a phone conversation that such a marriage would be illegal, he did not mind presiding over it in a mosque with the groom signing a trust receipt to preserve the child bride’s rights. However, he refused to name his fees, which he said would be revealed when family members come to his office.
Also in Beni Suef, impostor imam S.T. first replied with jokes when asked to marry a 16-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl. He then agreed to officiate the marriage and provide a stamped yet undocumented contract, stressing that it would be halal, or permissible as per Islamic teachings.
Fake imams forge marriage contracts through private print houses, according to the Secretary General of the imam syndicate in Beni Suef, Mohamed El-Kholy. He says counterfeit copies bear a stamp that is identical to the one on original contracts. The only difference he spots is the type of paper, he explained, citing a lack of supervision and preemptive punishment to deter unofficial marriages.
Official imam Mohamed Abdo, also based in Beni Suef, says that the Ministry of Justice did not take action when he filed numerous complaints against imam impersonators. Sheikh Mohamed Salman, the head of the imam syndicate in Beni Suef, revealed that there are 4,618 syndicate members, and said that he prepared a list of unregistered imams and submitted to the general prosecution office. However, authorities were once again impassive.
Mohamed El-Fekki, another official imam in Beni Suef, said legislators hold imams presiding marriages fully responsible for any infringements, even though families are usually involved as well.
A mother in her 30s rued the marriage of her adolescent daughter, who was divorced before turning 15. “I did that to my daughter,” lamented the woman, whose child bride has suffered severe physical and psychological damage.
Manal, a pseudonym for a woman in her 40s who did want her real name to be disclosed, heard a Sheikh on TV saying that child marriage is a wrong choice, something she cannot agree more with based on firsthand experience. She got married when she was 17 after being briefly engaged to a man she barely got to know.
After she gave birth to their first daughter, Manal knew about his relationship with another woman who he eventually got married to, with Egyptian law allowing Muslim men to have up to four wives as per Islamic Sharia. She tried in vain to cope with the new situation, and eventually got divorced. She feels remorseful over her marriage, which she thinks was a result of societal pressure she and her ex-husband were subject to.
In another case, Thanaa, a mother of a baby girl named Heba, got married at the age of 14, dropping out of middle school as a result. She believes both of them were victims of her neighbor who was a renowned match-maker. “The marriage lasted for only two months,” she said, adding that her ex-husband had put his signature to a trust receipt worth EGP 130,000 (around $2,340) “that we did not get a dime of”.
On her wedding night, Thanaa suffered internal bleeding and a cut in her vaginal area that required stitches, he mother recalled. For two months after, she was treated like a “maid” in her husband’s house. “She constantly complained and I encouraged her to go back to her house,” she said. At the beginning, the mother thought her daughter’s reaction was normal, until she told her that she would commit suicide if she returned to her husband. “I agreed on a divorce, which has not happened so far”, the mother stated.
Married at 16, Hanaa still carries scars of her previous marriage. “I was psychologically and physically hurt,” she said, adding that her brother-in-law stole her gold jewellery and sold it. “He didn’t even spare my wedding ring.”
Manal, a pseudonym for a woman in her 40s who did want her real name to be disclosed, says she will never marry off her girl.Hanaa still carries scars of her previous marriage.
Margaret Azar, a member of the parliament’s human rights committee, suggested increasing the minimum age of marriage to 21. She believes that many people circumvent the law, and thus penalties have to be harsher. “Child marriages in rural areas take place upon proclamation, without documentation, and that means the girl’s rights are lost,” Azar explained, saying that in such cases parents should be punished because a minor cannot get married on her own.
Conversely, MP Ahmed Samih called for reducing the minimum age of marriage from 18 to 16. “I didn’t come up with something new because the law had stipulated that girls can be married from 16 and boys from 18 since 1923,” he said. “When the minimum age was increased to 18 in 2008, a large segment of the Egyptian society refused the amendment.”
Samih also pointed out that numbers of child marriage are not accurate because many of them have not been documented. “Sometimes I get invited to weddings and I see that the bride is 14 years old,” he said.
The Maat Foundation for Peace, Development and Human Rights issued a research paper in July 2016, titled Child Marriage Between Legal Reality and Practice. The paper has suggested increasing punishments for falsely testifying that either the bride or the groom is old enough for marriage. It has also called for an article criminalizing urfi marriages to be added to the child law.
Sameh Mostafa, a member of the human trafficking prevention unit at the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, who is also in charge of the child marriage file, believes that ignorance and poverty as well as traditions play a great role in marrying underage individuals.
“We need awareness campaigns that would touch on health, social and legal aspects,” he said. “The lack of preemptive punishments and the dominant tendency to circumvent the law also need to be underscored. Thus, a draft law protecting children from violations, including child marriage, was sent to the parliament.”
When asked about accusations of dereliction by the council, Mostafa replied: “The role of the council is to outline policies, make suggestions and draw up national plans to face violations against children. Our role is not to raise awareness and doesn’t involve field work.”
On the required legal amendments, Mostafa said: “We’re calling for issuing some articles that decisively criminalize unofficial marriages.”
Nermin Mahmoud, a representative of the National Council for Women (NCW) in Beni Suef, says there are already door-to-door awareness campaigns, during which campaigners came across many cases of unofficial marriages. “We often saw undocumented marriages involving individuals who were way underage, not to mention legal problems of early divorces”, such as unregistered births, she said.
Lawyer Layla Abou-Akl, also an NCW member, believes that the remedy is to sentence the father who approves his daughter’s underage marriage to six months in prison and fine him EGP 10,000 (around $550).
Beheira, located northwest of Nile Delta, is one of seven governorates that have witnessed the highest rates of child marriage in Egypt, according to the National Population Council. Due to constraints and traditions in the society of Egyptian rural areas, it was extremely difficult to reach out to victims of child marriage. Therefore, this reporter sought help from Plan International’s representatives in Egypt.
“In rural communities, girls usually get married at 18,” said Nadia, who asked that her real name be concealed. “If a girl finishes her education without getting married, she will be seen as a spinster in the eyes of society”, she added.
Nadia during the interview.
Nadia got married at the age of 16. Totally clueless about marriage, she was told that love comes by time. However, disagreements with her husband lasted. She waited for love but it never came, and thus she resorted to unilateral divorce — also known in Arabic as khul — which drops most legal and financial rights that a female divorcee is entitled to in normal circumstances.
She ended a marriage that she had started while she was a juvenile; many other child brides are still stuck.
This feature was written in cooperation with the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) www.arij.net, and under the supervision of Mohamed Al-Komani.