In Egypt, a real-life soap opera has come to life.
It all started when a pious soap star has been hit with a very public paternity suit by a young woman who claims she bore the actor’s child after having a relationship with him. Subsequently, the mother filed the paternity suit, stirring an unprecedented scandal and prompting national debate over the issue of secret marriage contracts young people are using in order to have sexual relations in a religious society.
Hind el-Hinnawy, 27, says she and Ahmed al-Fishawy, a 24-year-old TV star, met on a television set and entered into an Urfi marriage, an unregistered contract often used as cover for affairs. This unofficial arrangement has become popular as a way to evade Islam’s ban on premarital sex.
To make things even juicier, Fishawy is a public moralist and follower of Amr Khaled, a charismatic Muslim televangelist. Al-Fishawy is an actor known for public piety. Son of actor Farouq al-Fishawy, he is famous for his role in soap Amma Nour, sitcom Shabab Online and host of Yalla Ya Shabab, in which he gave advise to Muslim youth. It seems, however, that this time around he is in need of some good advise…
Hind el-Hinnawy's story might have provoked little more than gossip in other places. But in Egypt with its widespread taboo on sex talk and deep respect for family values, she generated a full-blown scandal when she went public with her decision to bear a child as a single mother and try to prove a popular young actor was the father. Almost nine months after she sued, a judge has ordered DNA paternity tests.
Urfi marriages have no official contract and are often kept secret. Although a document is signed in front of witnesses, the marriage can be broken simply by destroying that paper. Such marriages have become more frequent, often for poor Egyptians who cannot afford to marry or as temporary unions for people who want to legitimize their sexual activities in a Muslim society, which has restrictions on premarital sex.
In an Urfi marriage, couples repeat the words, "We got married" and pledge commitment before Allah. Usually a paper, stating that the two are married, is written and two witnesses sign it. The Egyptian government did not recognize Urfi marriages until 2000 and the paper could be used only to prove the relationship in court. A woman could not get a divorce since the government did not recognize the marriage in the first place. Under the new personal status law passed in January 2000, however, divorces from Urfi marriages are now recognized.
Undocumented Urfi marriages are increasingly popular among Egyptian youth. The skyrocketing costs of marriage force many young couples to wait several years before they actually tie the knot. Egyptian society forbids sex before marriage, so many young people consider the Urfi marriage an ideal solution.
Urfi marriages are conducted by a Muslim cleric in the presence of two witnesses, however, they are not officially registered and are not financially binding on the man. Couples married in this way often meet in secret and avoid the expense of renting an apartment.
The Urfi marriage, however, can be problematic for the wife. If the husband leaves her without granting her a divorce, she had no legal right to seek a divorce since Urfi marriage was considered illegal under the old status law. Her husband could remarry. The wife is in a more difficult position. If the wife remarries, she can be accused of polyandry which is punishable by seven years in prison in Egypt, or she could remain single for the rest of her life.
The new Egyptian law, passed in 2000, recognizes the woman's right to seek divorce from an Urfi marriage. However, the law denies her alimony and child support.
There are also controversial, unofficial Urfi marriages, where a couple signs documents declaring themselves married. The couple does not inform their families of the marriage. Many Egyptian clerics are against this type of Urfi marriage calling it a mere cover for pre-marital sex.
El-Hinnawy, a costume designer, said when she told the actor she was pregnant, he refused to admit he was the father of the child or even that the marriage arrangement existed - so she hauled him into court. In February, a judge ordered DNA testing to prove whether el-Fishawy is the father of four-month-old Leena.
El-Hinnawy, a woman wearing a nose ring and no makeup, told The AP her choice to raise Leena on her own has been difficult, but her face lights up when she talks about her daughter.
She said that she was pressured by el-Fishawy and his family to have an abortion. "Even if I wasn't married, I would have kept the baby," she said. "I never considered abortion, which I believe is punished by God. I was dying to be a mother."
Several attempts to call el-Fishawy went unanswered. His lawyer, Mamdouh el-Wessimi, told The AP, "We respect the court's decision, and Ahmed will submit to the test and to its result."
Feminists in the North African country viewed the case as a chance to fight what they see as the double standards of Egypt's male-dominated society.
"We are living in a very, very hypocritical society," el-Hinnawy said. "I'm not justifying wrongs or demanding deviation. I just decided to stand up for my rights, and tell women they shouldn't be weak and tell Egyptian men to think twice before abusing women this way."
Others also have spoken for her. Mufti Ali Gomaa, head of Egypt's highest theological authority, Dar al-Ifta, urged el-Fishawy to recognize Leena, saying that the marriage had been valid because it had had a witness and that he had a responsibility to the child. Others defended el-Fishawy, seeing him as a pious man due to the religious programs he hosted, which have since been cancelled amidst the heated scandal.
El-Hinnawy and Leena live with her parents in their villa in a Cairo suburb. She said her parents, both university professors, were initially shocked and angry to learn she had been secretly married and was pregnant, but eventually came to support her decision. She said the events of the last year gave her the inspiration to fight. "I want to devote my life to human rights and women rights issues," she said. She is writing a diary to answer her daughter's questions when the child is old enough to start asking about her father. "I will be her friend; I will teach her to be responsible for her decisions," el-Hinnawy said.
By filing the public suit, el-Hinnawy surely broke a strict social taboo in her country, and brought into the spotlight yet another challenge Egyptians, as well as other traditional societies, face today.