The new Egyptian television series "Al-Qasirat" (Minors)  is taking a hard look at the problems of underage marriage, which is still prevalent in parts of Egypt and a number of Arab countries.
The MBC series, which began at the start of Ramadan, includes some realistic and shocking scenes, said Cairo University psychology professor and family relations consultant Waliyuddine Mukhtar.
It condemns the "reactionary ideas prevalent in many societies that treat females as mere commodities to be bought and sold", he told Al-Shorfa.
The practice of underage marriage  is widespread in Upper Egypt and in other parts of the country, he said.
In some cases, young girls are temporarily married to wealthy older men or foreigners for a designated period of time, particularly during the summer vacation.
PROLIFERATION OF UNDERAGE MARRIAGES
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) defines child marriage as a formal marriage or informal union that takes place before the age of 18. According to a 2010 UNICEF report, 18% of the female population in the Middle East and Africa are married before this age.
Poverty and illiteracy also contribute significantly to its spread, he said.
Egypt's Ministry of Family and Population put the number of underage marriage cases in 2011 at 150,000, or 11% of all marriages in Egypt that year, Mukhtar said.
"Al-Qasirat" star Salah al-Saadani told the Middle East News Agency that the series' boldness in confronting the issue compelled him to accept the role, though he knew some might find its scenes and events shocking.
What most interested him was the realistic portrayal of the issue, he said, explaining that the series is set in an Egyptian village where a wealthy man exploits poor families in order to marry their daughters.
AGAINST EGYPTIAN AND ISLAMIC LAW
"Underage marriage is illegal and a crime against humanity that is being committed in the name of sharia," said Al-Azhar University sharia and law professor Sheikh Nayef Abd Rabbu, who serves as an advisor at the Ministry of Social Solidarity.
"Egyptian law, which stems from sharia, prohibits the marriage of girls under the age of 18," he said.
There is a common belief that Islam legalises child marriage, though this is an explicit distortion of religious texts and the hadith, as it is actually old customs and traditions that drive these marriages, Abd Rabbu said.
"Islam stipulates safeguarding the rights of women in marriage," he said. "In the case of minors, their rights in marriage are slim to non-existent. Sharia legislators agree that a marriage must be entered into with an intention of continuance, and that it not be a temporary contract, as it is in many of these cases."
Under Egyptian law, which prohibits exploiting children in any form, forcing a girl into marriage is a punishable offense, said Fayez Shukr of the Egyptian Ministry of Justice's department of legislative studies and research.
Additionally, he told Al-Shorfa, under a 2008 child law, "no marriage contract shall be authenticated if either party has yet to attain the full age of 18 years".
PSYCHOLOGICAL AND HEALTH PROBLEMS
Dr. Fahim Farhan, a gynaecologist and obstetrician, said he follows the television series with interest.
It is one of the "most important works shedding light on this blight in Arab societies, and in Egypt in particular", he said.
Underage marriage exposes girls to numerous health and psychological problems , including infertility, miscarriage, preeclampsia, anaemia and premature childbirth, he said, noting that there is a rising incidence of death among these girls and their babies.
"Al-Qasirat" is directed by Magdi Abu Emera, written by Samah el-Hariri and stars al-Saadani, Dalia al-Buhairi, Yasser Galal, Menna Arafa, Malak Ahmed Zaher and May al-Gheiti.
By Waleed Abu al-Khair.