PM Pick

A Very Public Affair

Ursula Lindsey

Egyptian women face social stigma over failed urfi marriages and the paternity cases that often result from these marriages, but one woman has put herself at the feminist forefront.

Hind Al Hinnawy is a 27-year-old costume designer in Cairo. An attractive, petite young woman, she wore high heels, a knee-length skirt and a nose ring on the recent day I interviewed her. We were in her family's suburban house, located in the affluent desert development of Katameya, up a winding road through the stone escarpments that edge one side of Cairo. Hinnawy is famous in Egypt right now; she's involved in the country's most famous paternity dispute to date. She is suing a well-known young actor, Ahmad Al Fishawy, who she says is the father of her 7-month-old baby daughter, Lina. When Hinnawy met the actor a little over a year ago, she could not have predicted that their love affair would eventually turn her into an unlikely feminist icon, alternately championed and vilified.

"A woman always loses lots of things, having sexual relations or even a normal registered marriage," says Hinnawy. "She's always the loser. I don't want this to happen any more to women. I want women to stand up for their rights. I don't know if they will do this, but I'm trying to do this so other people can see me and can stand up for their rights, have the courage to do something different and to know that they are exactly the same as men, equal."

Hinnawy says she and Fishawy were married in an urfi marriage last year, after meeting on the set of a TV show. Urfi (meaning "customary, unofficial") marriages are a strange contemporary phenomenon in Egypt. Basically, Egyptian couples can get married both religiously and officially. Islam has a number of requirements for marriage (that both partners consent, that there be two witnesses, that a dowry be paid, that families be notified) but registering a marriage with the government isn't one of them. A friend of mine explained to me, for example, that he was married according to Islam for several months before he decided to legalize his marriage with the government.

Urfi marriages are unregistered marriages that meet some of the conditions of Sharia (Islamic law). In general, the couple sign a wedding contract in front of a Muslim cleric and two witnesses. But most often they do not tell their families, and sometimes they draw up the contract themselves with no cleric present. Such "marriages" are a way to give a relationship some legitimacy without diving into the incredibly costly and complicated process of an official wedding (which involves years of negotiations between families, and saving to buy an apartment and furniture). Urfi marriages are a controversial compromise that increasing numbers of young people are turning to.

But Urfi marriages offer women few guarantees. In theory, each partner keeps a copy of the contract, but in practice the man often obtains both copies, and can hide or destroy them, leaving the (no longer virgin) woman no way to prove she was ever married. A further double bind for her is that while she can't divorce (having no proof of marriage to begin with), if she remarries, her first husband can produce the hidden contract and accuse her of bigamy. Hinnawy says that when she became pregnant last year, she gave Fishawy her copy of the contract, thinking he was going to legalize their marriage. Instead, he now denies any wedding ever took place (he does admit that they had a relationship and that he may be the child's father).

There are tens of thousands of paternity cases in Egypt every year (the majority reportedly stemming from the ambiguous urfi marriages). What makes this one stand out is the fact that they are usually a last resort. Most young women with Hinnawy's background and means don't go through the public humiliation of a paternity case. Instead, they may resort to abortions and reportedly common hymen restoration operations. Or, if they do have the child, they can get a male relative to say he is the father (since only a father can obtain a birth certificate in Egypt).

Fishawy's own celebrity is the other obvious reason the case has made such headlines. The son of actor Farouq Al Fishawy — a famous womanizer and drug addict — Ahmad shot to popularity on several soap operas. He was also a publicly pious Muslim, and even hosted a (now cancelled) show that gave advice to young people. The public loved the idea of a famous, rich, young actor who was so humble and devout, and it was a key to his popular public person.

At 24, Fishawy is obviously a bit of a lost soul, caught between the vapid world of his parents and their friends, confused aspirations to be "a good person," and a life of privilege and zero consequences. Hinnawy herself, in an interview she recently gave Vogue magazine, gives an insightful and surprisingly affectionate analysis of his confused character, writing that "He was divided between his father's influence, his religious persona and the life we might have had together."

What is sure is that the young man has received and taken some monumentally bad advice over the last year. A sheikh he consulted reportedly told him that if he sacrificed five camels and fasted for 60 days, an abortion was forgivable. His parents have stood by him by and publicly insulted the Hinnawy family, saying Hind is a liar and a gold-digger and her baby is a "child of sin". His lawyer, who I've run into in court, is a pretentious prevaricator who likes to expound at length on the "illegitimacy" of the relationship and the child and dodge questions about why Fishawy has so far refused to take a court-ordered DNA test (the first of its kind).

The case has become a cause celèbre in Egypt, with hundreds of news articles and TV talk shows dedicated to the subject. Some support Hinnawy, some bemoan the collapse of family values, and some just relish dissecting a good celebrity scandal. Hinnawy's parents, and in particular her soft-spoken father, have made the unusual decision to support her, making many public appearances to champion her cause. Women's rights groups have also predictably supported Hinnawy, saying her case highlights the gaping double standard between men and women when it comes to sexual relations and responsibility before the law and society in general.

I've talked to young people about the case, and reactions have been mixed. In the spacious offices of a successful teen magazine, I talked to Rania, an editorial assistant in her early 20s who wears tight jeans and make-up. I expected her to feel some solidarity for Hinnawy. Instead, she tells me immediately, she's heard Hinnawy was "with a lot of guys before," and thus "it isn't [Ahmad Al Fishawy's] fault." What shocks and disgusts her most is the way the Hinnawy family has made a spectacle of themselves. "They are making a big fuss about it and they have to hide this, this is something they have to be ashamed about," she says. Another young woman says it would be better to die than admit to being an unwed mother.

On the other hand, many of Rania's colleagues, educated twenty-somethings, are uncomfortable but sympathetic. Hany, 24, says that he personally supports Hinnawy and "appreciates" the step she has taken. "It's a good start for people to think about it," he says. "Don't think about it as it's a shame to announce it, it's your right. Yes, you did something wrong, maybe, but it's your right, it's your right for your baby."

In general, Hinnawy faces the pervasive perception that women alone are responsible for their own "falls" from respectability, and that when a breach of acceptable conduct takes place, the best thing all involved can do is speedily cover it up. The unwillingness to address the sexual lives and needs of young people (the fact that under current economic conditions they must wait through interminable engagements before they can be together legitimately is becoming a major social predicament in Egypt) and the perversion of the notion of honor and responsibility, work against women's need to achieve full political and legal rights across the Middle East. Hinnawy's father is a rare voice to argue that the truly dishonourable thing to do its "let men run away without bearing responsibility."

The court that will rule on the case has postponed its final verdict till 26 July. If it rules in Hinnawy's favour, this may embolden other young women to be less afraid of the social stigma associated with such suits. If it rules against her, Hinnawy still has a bright if difficult future ahead of her - she's currently applying to masters programs in women's rights studies in the UK and the US, and will probably leave the country for a while. Yet it would be a setback for Egyptian feminism for this brave young woman to discover that the unusual step she has taken has placed her inexorably outside the boundaries of her own society.

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