— By:Alexandra Kinias —
Controversy erupted among Egyptian women activists over Chief Justice Ahmed El Zend’s decree that compels foreigners marrying Egyptian brides, twenty five years their junior, to issue them bank certificates worth of 50,000 L.E. On one hand, there are those who denounce the decree for putting a price tag on women, and thus facilitating prostitution and human trafficking. On the other, there are those, I among them, who hail the decree for finally addressing a subject that has been ignored for decades and taking the right step towards the protection of these women, who often are forced or lured into these marriages. A positive outcome of this controversy was that it also has exposed child marriages, a dark reality practiced in day broad light, and the failed government efforts to combat it.
Growing up in Egypt, I witnessed firsthand how poverty is the catalyst that drives many underprivileged women to marry incompatible foreign suitors from wealthy Arab countries, some with age difference that exceeds twenty five years. Once settled in their spouses’ homeland, some find themselves partners in a polygamous marriage, with a status slightly above domestic help, mistreated and often violently and sexually abused by the household. When sexual desire fades and the time comes to replace the wife with a new one, or if women rebel and ask for a divorce, they are sent back home with a suitcase, and often a child, or pregnant with one.
From the comfort of their sofas, the social media activists imprudently lashed at the government of Egypt from behind their computer screens. They ignored the fact that in Egypt, a country with extreme income inequality, this cash would enable women with no resources, a chance to start over, upon their return. Detached from reality and depleted from reason, some activists suggested that instead of putting a price tag on marriages, the government should rather intervene to stop them, quite a ludicrous statement since only a guardian (father, brother or uncle) can make such a decision.
The official marriage age in Egypt is eighteen, and the meager privilege of the 50,000 L.E., is denied to those whose marriages are unregistered, and that includes marriages of underage girls in rural villages across Egypt. Dwellers of these villages follow their own traditions and laws. In these conservative communities, people follow the guidance of the imams in the village mosques, whose preaching about girls’ eligibility to marriage when they reach puberty is to be blamed for the widespread practice of this crime.
In these rural communities, women are viewed as sex objects and breeding machines. The irony is that while some families marry their daughters at young age to protect their honor and releases the fathers from their financial responsibility, families on the other side of the spectrum marry their daughters for financial gains. For these families girls are their capital investments. But in spite of their different motives, the idea of marrying the girls at the age of fourteen is neither rejected nor negotiated. It is a status quo, a fact of life that has been passed on from one generation to the other.
The government’s incompetence to either fight or control underage marriages is because these marriages are undocumented, a manifestation of the power of the religious institutions over the government. Families draft urfi marriages, a religious contract between the girl’s guardian and the groom, signed by two male witnesses and blessed by the mosques’ imams. Urfi contracts are not official documents and don’t protect the wife’s rights in marital dispute. They are temporary vehicles till the girls are old enough for the marriage to be registered. If the marriage fails before the girls reach eighteen, children born out of them share the same fate and status as illegitimate children. If fathers walk away with the marriage contract, the burden to prove parenthood falls on the shoulder of women. Resorting to courts to issue a birth certificate to the child is a lengthy and costly procedure most can’t afford, not to mention that it exposes the families to the unlawful crime of marring an underage girl, a crime which if proven is punished by the law.
The same concept is used by families that marry their underage daughters to wealthy Arabs, or what they have become known as “seasonal marriages”, because they take place mainly during the summer season. Wealthy Arabs travel to Egypt in the summer, and through marriage brokers, they purchase underage girls for sex, a classic case of child sex trafficking. Because of the escalating rates of sex child tourism, the U.N. classified Egypt as a Tier 2 country for human trafficking, which means that Egypt is among the countries whose governments do not fully comply with the Trafficking Victim’s Program Assistance (TVPA) minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.
Child Marriages are sparked by poverty, illiteracy and greed, ignited by sexually sick societies and protected by the religious scholars. But in all fairness, poverty alone can’t be blamed because there are millions of poor families who don’t sell their girls. Civil laws can’t fight thousands of years’ old traditions, especially those that are shrouded with religious justifications.
Pedophilia is practiced in many countries around the globe. However, unlike elsewhere where it is criminalized, in the Middle East it is blessed by religious fatwas. People in rural areas in Egypt follow the preaching of their imams with disregard to the law. Wealthy pedophiles engage in child sex believing they are following in the footsteps of Prophet Mohamed, who allegedly married his wife Aisha when she was at the age of nine. Aisha’s age is highly debatable since her exact birthdate is unknown, and also because many historical events conclude that she was at least nineteen years of age when her marriage was consummated. However, because of the non-conclusive interpretations by various scholars, this crime continues and some girls are sold to one man after the other. In a horrid testimonial, a twenty four years old girl explained in televised interview how she was married eight times in ten years.
The crawling efforts by the NGOs and civil institutions to spread awareness against underage marriages are overpowered by tradition, culture, ignorance, financial gain, and above all medieval religious fatwas exploiting the innocence of these girls. Integrating these girls back into the society is also challenging. The entire society is responsible for stealing these girls childhood. What kind of future generations we expect to bring up?
3- A twelve years old girl engaged to be married in few months
4- A twenty four years old woman explains in televised interview how she was married eight times in ten years.