Partnership postponed

Secret marriages in Egypt

Berton Woodward

In Egypt, couples who want to get married face high financial barriers in a country where most young people’s incomes are low. Potential husbands must provide an apartment, furnish- ings, a ring and a large wedding. Prospective brides are supposed to cover kitchen equipment and the engagement celebration. if they can’t come up with this, they’re unlikely to gain the essential parental consent.

For many, the answer is a so-called “secret marriage”—also known as an ‘urfi marriage (in keeping with conventional tradition, but not state-registered). UTSC sociologist Rania Salem has pulled back the curtain of secrecy to study the characteristics of these marriages. The couples don’t live together. They meet in a separate location while continuing to live with their parents, and hoping one day to save enough money to get married properly. Their families are kept in the dark. But the pair do sign a contract in front of witnesses.

How common is the trend? “We don’t know,” says Salem. “The perception in the media is that it’s on the rise. There’s a kind of moral panic about it.”

For the couples, the arrangement offers some religious and legal cover for their sexual relationship. ‘Urfi marriage dates back to earlier times, before the state began registering marriages, and has its own category in shariah law. While ‘urfi contracts are not registered with the state, Egyptian courts will recognize them if a dispute arises.

The problem, says Salem, is that the practice adds more imbalance to a system already weighted against women. “in either formal or informal unions, you have a legal system which disadvantages women,” she says.

But in regular marriages, “you also have another sort of policing and arbitration mechanism, the family, which women in secret unions don’t have access to.” The wife’s father and brothers normally police the husband, making sure he treats her well and respects her rights. “These [secret] unions really create a class of women who are extremely vulnerable to abuse.”

Salem worked with research associate Amal Refaat, who inter- viewed 20 people in Cairo and 20 in Minya, 250 km to the south. All but one expressed moral ambivalence about what they were doing. But in essence, it was better than nothing. Still to be seen, says Salem, is how long it will be before they can formalize their unions. Given Egypt’s rocky economy and political turbulence, they may have to keep their secrets for a painfully long time.