Christian women in Egypt being converted to Islam by force, witness says

By Katherine Veik

Washington D.C., Jul 23, 2011 / 11:35 am (CNA).- The U.S. Helsinki Commission gathered on July 22 to discuss the increase in violence against Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt, specifically young women.

Reports of kidnapping and forced marriage and conversion began cropping up in 2007, but remained “unsubstantiated,” said Michele Clark, an adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

“I am here to confirm these allegations,” Clark said. “These are not isolated incidences.”

Clark and other witnesses testified July 22 before the independent U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The commission is also known as the Helsinki Commission because it is tasked with monitoring compliance with the Helsinki Accords, a 1976 agreement between 56 countries that involves cooperation on issues related to human rights, democracy, economics and security.

Jean Maher, president of the France-based Egyptian Union for Human Rights Organization, said that nearly 800 Coptic Christian women have been kidnapped, raped and forced to convert to Islam since 2009.

That number has only increased since the revolution in February, Maher said.

He said that before the revolution, Muslim kidnappers would have to “seduce” their victims. Now, they “just put them in a taxi and go away with them.”

Christian women are an obvious target because they do not wear a veil, which makes them easily identifiable as Christian, said Clark.

Clark said some women are no longer leaving their homes, for fear of being attacked.

Clark and Maher suggested that one of the greatest contributors to the abductions is the inactivity of police.

“Dozens of family members are reporting this,” he said. “They are very badly treated by police.”
Maher said most families of victims are already reluctant to come forward because taking away a woman's virginity also strips the family of its honor. He said families of victims can also be accused of neglecting their daughters.

“As these victims recognize their voices aren't being heard, they will no longer come forward,” Clark said.

Clark suggested this leads to a “cloak of silence, which only exasperates the problem.”

She added that in most cases, victims will know the names of their attackers.

In light of this, Clark urged the international community to tie financial aid to Egypt's upholding and protecting the fundamental human rights listed in its constitution.

“Unconditional financial aid would be an error,” she said.

Bride kidnapping accepted as norm in Kyrgyz society

Though illegal, abduction of women is rarely prosecuted in the Asian nation.

Chicago Tribune
Thursday, July 28, 2005

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – After three months of dating, Melis Aliyev thought it was time he and Ainur Tairova married. Tairova balked. So Aliyev turned to a practice held up by many Kyrgyz as a tradition, but viewed by the rest of the world as a crime.

Tairova said Aliyev and a crew of friends tricked her into entering a car, kidnapped her and kept her corralled in his house for two days. A gaggle of Aliyev's friends and relatives hovered around her like hornets, repeatedly trying to force a white scarf signifying her acquiescence onto her head.

Wearied by the ordeal and convincing herself that Aliyev was "not a bad person," Tairova, 28, eventually gave in to the man who is still her husband four years later.

Bride kidnapping is practiced throughout Kyrgyzstan, from the former Soviet Republic's capital of Bishkek to mud-hut villages at the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains. Kidnapping is a crime in Kyrgyzstan, but the abduction of women to coerce them into marriage has become so ingrained in the country's male- dominated society that it is rarely prosecuted.

Because the custom is so widely embraced, an abducted woman finds herself alone in her bid to fight back - confronted not just by her captor's friends and female relatives, but at times by her family members who try to convince her that stealing a bride is the Kyrgyz way.

She may have casually known the man kidnapping her, may have dated him or may never have seen him before. Nevertheless, women submit to the pressure in many cases, convincing themselves they eventually will grow to love the abductor.

In some cases, women who steadfastly refuse are raped by their captor, a crime men know likely will go unreported because filing a case with police would brand the victim and her family with scandal.

"The woman is all alone in a very difficult situation," said Bubusara Ryskulova, director of the Sezim Crisis Center for Women in Bishkek. "That's why they usually decide it's better to keep quiet."

The custom remains almost exclusively a phenomenon of Kyrgyz society and parts of southern Kazakhstan, though incidents of bride kidnapping have been recorded elsewhere in Asia and Africa. At the Sezim Crisis Center, three or four women victimized by bride kidnappings appear each month to seek counseling and shelter, Ryskulova said. The center's hotline also gets about five calls each month from women describing themselves as bride-kidnap victims.

Kyrgyz nongovernmental organizations have toured the countryside with public awareness campaigns aimed at convincing villagers that bride kidnapping is a crime. Their efforts have made little headway.

"We get a lot of resistance," said Elmira Shishkarayeva of Winrock International, a nongovernmental organization that has conducted such campaigns. "People say, 'We live in a patriarchal society, and this is the only way. Our young people do not have opportunities to meet or date each other. If you say this is such a bad tradition, suggest something new,'" Shishkarayeva said.

ISLAM encourages tribal customs

The roots of the bride-kidnapping custom are murky. Many Kyrgyz scholars believe that centuries ago, when Kyrgyz tribes led a nomadic existence, men from one tribe would steal women from nearby enemy tribes to weaken their rivals, according to a research paper co-written last year by Russell Kleinbach, a sociology professor at American University in Bishkek.

Kleinbach's report estimated that more than a third of married Kyrgyz women are victims of bride kidnappings.

During the Soviet era the practice became more frequent, though scholars haven't determined why. When Kyrgyzstan gained its independence after the Soviet collapse in 1991, instances of bride kidnapping rose steadily.

Brides of Islam

Trudy Harris

IT was a tense time for staff at the Australian embassy in Lebanon. A 14-year-old girl had shown up on the doorstep alone, with her suitcases.

Through tears, she said she wanted to return home to Australia to her mother, after effectively being imprisoned at the home of her new husband's family.

She revealed to embassy staff that she had arrived in Lebanon a year ago with her father, ostensibly for a holiday. But that was a ruse. Despite her protests, she was soon married to an older man, a distant cousin, in the country's traditional north.

"Dad just couldn't cope with the Western nature of Australian life, the independence of Australian life," a government official familiar with the case says. "He became concerned that his daughter may be running around with boys, so he took her to Lebanon as a means of protecting her."

The embassy swung into action; its staff has handled 12 cases, seven of them involving minors, in the past two years. Although the fundamentals are always the same -- Australian teenagers fleeing arranged marriages set up by their parents -- ambassador Stephanie Shwabsky says each case is different, and involves intense negotiations with local officials and families.

"The cases that come to our attention are very serious. The young people involved are very upset and want our assistance and protection," Shwabsky says.

Arranged marriages are an important part of many Asian, European and Middle Eastern cultures, and the practice has long existed in multicultural countries such as Australia.

However, concerns have arisen that marriages are being arranged in Australia for teenagers too young for such commitments.

Welfare workers say there are several hundred cases across the country, mostly in Sydney and Melbourne, of girls dropping out of school to get married. Although it varies from state to state, the average legal school-leaving age is 16. In Australia people under the age of 18 need a court order to marry legally.

Concern centres on Australian-Arab communities, although not all the teenagers involved are Muslim. Some girls happily consent to these arrangements. Others find their own fiances. But a few -- such as those handled by the embassy in Lebanon -- are forced into it.

Australian embassy staff eventually put the 14-year-old girl on a plane back to her mother in Australia. The girl says her husband never touched her sexually and agreed to end the marriage. But other cases are not so simple, sparking long, bitter legal battles.

"Where a marriage is arranged, which is the majority of cases, and the parties are willing, then the embassy does not get involved," Shwabsky says, adding it is important to remember that the legal age for marriage is 18 in Australia and 16 in Lebanon.

"But when a girl of any age comes to us and says that they are being forced into a marriage against their will or pressure is being placed upon them, such as their passports have been seized and they are told they won't be able to leave Lebanon until they agree, then it's a very different and difficult position," she says.

"And the embassy will go a long way to try to protect and help those girls. These are Australian girls asking for help."

Back home, welfare workers tell a similar story of girls dropping out of high school to get engaged to their peers or slightly older men. The Victorian Islamic Women's Welfare Council is concerned these girls, who legally marry after turning 18, seem unaware of, or uninterested in, other options such as further education, work and careers.

They and their families feel they don't belong in mainstream Australian society, which they think distrusts Muslims, the council says. So rather than try to integrate and participate in society, they isolate themselves on the fringes.

"Because of the ongoing tensions after September 11, rightly or wrongly they think that whatever chances they had of integration [no longer exist]," says council manager Joumanah El Matrah. "And it's not a sense of blame or anger, it's being pragmatic. They are going to just live quietly and exist on the fringes. It's quite bleak.

"Our experience has been that Muslim women can almost be divided into two groups. One is high achieving with good education levels, good careers and good participation in their community. And the other drops out of school early and then drops out of their community. There really is this crude division, there is no in between.

"That's not what you see in other communities."

The council is among grassroots groups tackling the problem, speaking to career advisers in high schools with significant numbers of students of Arab and African background. It also runs workshops for female students, addressing self-esteem, empowerment, leadership and cultural identity.

"Girls in Year 10 are telling their career advisers, 'Don't worry about helping us, because we are just going to get married'," says one of the council's youth workers, Moona Hammoud, 21.

"Their expectations are not high and they think they have few options. They are not encouraged to continue their schooling or it's all getting too hard," says Hammoud, who has helped produce community newsletters discussing the issue.

"I know one Iraqi girl who has been allowed to finish high school but then she will marry a local Iraqi boy. She doesn't really have a choice but she sort of likes him and is going along with it.

"She says, 'My friends are all getting married so what's the big deal?"'

The big deal is whether they fully comprehend the responsibilities of marriage and parenting. Besides, dropping out of school restricts their employment options and financial independence.

"Their future health and wellbeing is dependent largely on the kind of person that they marry," says El Matrah.

Victorian Arabic Social Services manager Leila Alloush says many arranged marriages, especially among older couples, are loving and successful. But if they do break down, the suffering can extend beyond the couple in question. Families on both sides, often friends beforehand, are torn apart in communities that frown on divorce.

"What we try to tell parents is yes, the kids have consented, but the kids are so young, and kids change their minds about relationships 10 times before they get married," says Alloush, adding that VASS seeks to inform parents about the legal age for marriage and leaving school.
Parents often pressure their children to find a partner or accept one they suggest, because marriage is the best protection against Western vices.

"Protecting teenagers is pretty scary for all parents. They worry about drugs, violence, sexuality, prostitution," a community worker says. "But it's scarier for these parents because their cultures are more conservative to begin with: their dress code, their behaviour, almost everything."
Other parents are concerned about their Australian-born children losing their cultural identity or religion.

"Parents are scared their children are adopting an Australian way of life. For some [marriage is] the only way [of maintaining] control over their kids, of holding on to their cultural identity. And of course they are scared of their daughters becoming promiscuous," another community worker says, adding that sex before marriage is taboo. "There's a cultural clash going on here."

Alloush worries about publicising the problem, which could embarrass and stigmatise communities already reeling from a backlash against Muslims in the wake of terrorist attacks overseas. She fears parents as well as their children may then stop seeking out support services, thereby driving the problem underground.

Instead, grassroots groups need more funds to work with clerics and community leaders to educate families about the pitfalls.

Some groups say their pleas for funding from the Victorian Government have been consistently ignored.

Australia's most senior Islamic cleric, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, says he is doing all he can. Opening a cabinet in his office in Sydney's Muslim heartland, he points to a manila folder containing details of marriages, some of them arranged, that have gone wrong.

He worries about girls heading to Lebanon to marry men suggested by their families. He says often husbands agree to marriage just to obtain a visa for Australia.

"We have automatic visa stamped on our heads," says one woman who has been a victim of the scam.

Another young mother waits patiently in Hilali's office for counselling about her failing marriage. She wed her husband, who is 10 years older, when she was 18. She saw him about three times in Sydney's Lakemba before he asked her father for her hand.

"I didn't know him at all, we had never spoken," says the woman, who does not want to give her name for fear of shaming her family.

But she explains she agreed because she wanted to please her parents; besides, the idea of starting her own family seemed exciting at the time. Now in her mid-20s with two young children and a husband she doesn't understand, she fears she made a mistake.

"I feel like I've lost so much of my life," she says. "When you are 18 or 19, you haven't thought through the marriage, what it means to start a new life."

Arabian Sex Tourism

by Daniel Pipes
October 7, 2005

Indian media have been publishing exposés documenting the foul behavior of Gulf Arabs in the southern Indian town of Hyderabad " Fly-by-night bridegrooms," by R Akhileshwari in the Deccan Herald and " One minor girl, many Arabs," by Mohammed Wajihuddin in the Times of India are two important examples. Wajihuddin sets the stage:

They are old predators with new vigour. Often bearded, invariably in flowing robes and expensive turbans. The rich, middle-aged Arabs increasingly stalk the deprived streets of Hyderabad like medieval monarchs would stalk their harems in days that we wrongly think are history. These Viagra-enabled Arabs are perpetrating a blatant crime under the veneer of nikaah, the Islamic rules of marriage.

(I have silently corrected some typos). Wajihuddin then specifies the problem:

Misusing the sanctioned provision which allows a Muslim man to have four wives at a time, many old Arabs are not just marrying minors in Hyderabad, but marrying more than one minor in a single sitting. "The Arabs prefer teenage, virgin brides," says Jameela Nishat, who counsels and sensitises young women against the malaise.

The Arabs usually "marry" the girls for short periods, sometimes just a single night. In fact, Wajihuddin reports, marriage and divorce formalities are often prepared at the same time, thereby expediting the process for all involved. Akhileshwari notes that "their girl children are available for as little as 5,000 rupees to satisfy the lust of doddering old Arab men." Five thousand rupees, by the way, equals just a bit over US$100.

An Indian television program recently reported on a show-casing of eight prospective brides, most of them minors, at which they were offered up to their Arab suitors. "It resembled a brothel. The girls were paraded before the Arab who would lift the girls' burqa, run his fingers through their hair, gaze at their figures and converse through an interpreter," recalls one of Nishat's assistants.

Wajihuddin also offers a specific case history:

On the first of August, forty-five-year-old Al Rahman Ismail Mirza Abdul Jabbar, a sheikh from the UAE, approached a broker in these matters, seventy-year-old Zainab Bi, in the walled city, near the historic Char Minar. The broker procured Farheen Sultana and Hina Sultana, aged between thirteen and fifteen, for twenty thousand rupees [DP comment: that equals US$450]. Then he hired Qazi [DP comment: an Islamic judge, usually spelled qadi in English] Mohammed Abdul Waheed Qureshi to solemnise the marriage. The qazi, taking advantage of an Islamic provision, married the girls off to the Arab. After the wedding night with the girls, the Arab left at dawn.

So much for that "marriage."

Sunita Krishnan, head of an anti human-trafficking organization, Prajwala, makes the only too-obvious point that girl children are not valued. "If a girl child is sold or her life ruined, it is not a national loss, that's why this is a non-issue, both for community and to society." With the exception of Maulana Hameeduddin Aqil, the head of Millat-e-Islamia (a local organization, apparently not connected the notorious Pakistani terrorist group), who speaks out against these sham marriages ("They are committing a sin. It's not nikaah, it's prostitution by another name"), the Islamic authorities in India are almost all silent about this travesty of the Shari'a.

For their part, Muslim politicians in the city of Hyderabad apparently could care less. "It's not on the poll agenda of any politician," says Mazhar Hussain, director of a social welfare organization, the Confederation of Voluntary Associations. The Majlis-e-Ittihadul Muslameen, the main party of Hyderabad's Muslims, is blissfully unconcerned: "You cannot deny that the fortunes of many families have changed through such marriages," MIM's president, Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi, cheerfully points out.

(1) Ironically, the girls thus proffered appear all to be Muslim – no Hindus or others need apply.
(2) The behavior of Arabs in India in some way parallels that of Japanese and Westerners in Thailand, with the notable difference that the Indian case involves marriage, an emphasis on virginity, and local authorities seemingly pleased with providing their minor girls for sex tourism.
(3) Arabian sex tourism is not exclusive to India but also takes place in other poor countries.
(4) This trade in persons is merely one dimension of a problem that prevails through Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (for another dimension, see " Saudis Import Slaves to America").
(5) Concubinage, forced labor, indentured servitude, slavery – these deep problems are nowhere near being addressed in the Gulf region, much less solved. Indeed, one prominent Saudi theologian has gone so far as to state that "Slavery is a part of Islam" and whoever says it should be abolished "is an infidel." So long as such attitudes can be articulated publicly, without censure, abuses are certain to continue.
(6) The hypocrisy of this trade is perhaps its vilest aspect. Better prostitution, frankly acknowledged, than religiously-sanctioned fake marriages, for the former is understood to be a vice while the latter parades as a virtue.
(7) Wajihuddin compares the Arabian men to "medieval monarchs" and the analogy is apt. These transactions, involving Muslim minors and conducted under the auspices of Islamic law, point yet again to the dominance of premodern ways in the Muslim world and the urgent need to modernize the Islamic religion.

Community split over forced marriage law

Peterborough Evening Telegraph
Peterborough, England, UK
07 September 2005

PLANS to prosecute families who force their daughters into marriage have provoked mixed reactions from the city's Asian community.

If proposals for a crackdown – unveiled by the Government yesterday – proceed, parents and community elders may end up in court for forcing young people to get married against their wishes.

Ministers believe the specific offence of "forcing someone to marry" could be an important deterrent for parents and relatives, and protect hundreds of young British Asians from abuse.

A consultation on the proposals is due to be launched shortly by Home Office Minister Baroness Scotland.

The news has been warmly greeted by counsellors at the Peterborough Women's Centre, in Broadway – who help about a dozen women in the city each year, who are trying to escape from a forced marriage.

A spokeswoman told how these young women become trapped in a marriage with a distant relative, while visiting family in countries, such as Pakistan and India.

She said: "Women will often find themselves pressurised into marriage when they visit family abroad – it is often very hard to say no in these situations.

"When they return home, they are stuck in an unhappy marriage, and then come to us for help. We have had a few such cases in the past few months.

"One decided to go back to her husband and make the best of it, while the other is now filing for divorce. Another 18-year-old woman arrived at our door, last month, after fleeing a forced marriage in Manchester. I don't know how she found us, but we were able to put her in contact with the right support services.

"We normally pass these cases on to the charity, Forced Marriages Abroad, who have the expertise in this area."

Asif Rehman, spokesman for the Islamic Society of Peterborough, based at the Cromwell Road mosque, also backed the proposed legislation. He said: "I'm sure the Muslim community of Peterborough supports this action.

"Forced marriages are totally alien to Islam, which forbids anyone pressurising a couple into marrying each other.

"One of the processes of Islam is that a man and a woman have to both give their full consent for the wedding to take place."

However, some Muslims feel the law is misguided and unworkable.

One 20-year-old Muslim woman, from New England, who did not want to be named, said: "The so-called 'forcing' that we hear about is often emotional blackmail by parents. You cannot really prosecute someone for expressing disappointment with their children's choices.

"This law is trying to change the traditional views of older Asians, which will never be changed like this.

"It is unnecessary interference in private family affairs.


Necla Kelek, 49, best-selling author

International Herald Tribune

Necla Kelek, 49, a Turkish-born German sociologist, thinks she was lucky to be born without good looks. "It meant I didn't get married off, like the other Turkish girls," she said. "There were no bidders."

She found solace in school, but her life was bound by prohibitions: no swimming, no sports, no playing outdoors and no German friends because they were infidels. At age 17, Kelek could no longer bear it. She ran away the day her father threatened her with an ax.

Years later, she investigated the forced marriages of thousands of Muslim girls in Germany, many of them "imported" for that purpose.

Her book "The Foreign Bride" became an instant best seller this year and focused attention on a widely ignored issue. Up to 15,000 girls, many of them between 14 and 18 years old, are forced into marriage every year to Turkish boys living in Germany, Kelek said. The imported brides become the transmission belt for other relatives who join them in the name of "family reunion."

Often poor and uneducated, the "imported brides" are treated like domestic slaves in Germany, virtual property of their in-laws, Kelek writes. They stay in Turkish ghettos, inside their homes, cannot learn German and bring up their children in the same anti-German isolation. By importing brides, Turks in Germany perpetuate segregation and thwart integration, Kelek warns.

Her interviews with girls have prompted her to campaign for changes in the law, notably to require "imported brides" to be at least 21 years old, and preferably 24, as in Denmark and Sweden. She also calls for tougher sentences for "honor killings."

Putting the spotlight on the immigrant world has earned her wide praise in the German press, but a smear campaign in Germany's Turkish newspapers.

"They said I was insulting Turkey and Islam," she said. But Kelek insists she criticizes not Islam but hypocrisy.

"Educated Turks, just like many Germans, close their eyes and say that imported brides are a private issue. It isn't. It undermines the values of our own democracy. We European women are free to choose. But we accept the abuse of women in our midst supposedly because we must respect the customs of a different culture."

Kelek said she would not stop until the law changes. "The situation is sickening."

Muslim cleric barred from performing marriages

Kolkata: A Muslim cleric who conducted the wedding of an abducted 12-year-old girl has been stripped of his right to conduct marriages by the Calcutta High Court.

The court Monday restrained Sabina, 12, and Zulfiquar, 32, from leading a conjugal life while barring the qazi from conducting any more weddings.

Sabina had allegedly been abducted by Zulfiquar. On Dec 1 last year, the two got married in the presence of qazi Abdur Hannan of Diamond Harbour in South 24 Parganas district.

The judge said: "Zulfiquar will not be permitted within 500 metres of Sabina's house. Police will arrest him if he violates the order."

On Feb 16, Sabina's mother Mumtaz Bewa had moved court alleging that Zulfiquar and his friends had forcibly picked her when she was on her way to a doctor.

"They took Sabina to Hannan's house and he conducted the marriage in the presence of Zulfiquar's father," her lawyer told the court.

Police later rescued Sabina and her mother filed the complaint.

Award for those who marry and convert indigenous animists to Islam

28 June, 2006

The state of Kelantan, run by Islamic extremists, will provide money and a free vehicle and house to Muslims who draw the animist Orang Asli to Islam. Many describe the move as a violation of human rights but political leaders said: “It’s a only a way of helping young couples.”

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews/Agencies) – In Malaysia, those who marry and convert to Islam members of the indigenous, semi-nomadic population will receive an award. The northern state of Kelantan made a provision stipulating that Muslims who marry Orang Asli – the country’s traditionally animist indigenous inhabitants –will receive a lump sum of 2,707 dollars, as well as free accommodation, a vehicle and a monthly allowance of 1,270 dollars per month.

The law in Malaysia, a Muslim majority country, stipulates that whoever wants to marry a Muslim must convert to Islam. Kelantan is the only state led by the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party, a political party born of Islamic extremism, in Opposition at national level.

The Kelantan Religious Affairs Committee chairman, Hassan Mohamood, said: "We were not satisfied with the low numbers of Orang Asli that have embraced Islam and that's why we thought of several measures to motivate them.” He said out of 12,900 Orang Asli in the state, only 2,902 had converted.

The measure has come under fire from members of the Muslim community and others too, because it is held to be a violation of basic human rights. Colin Nicholas, director of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, said: “This policy discriminates against the indigenous people and shows a great lack of respect for their culture and religion.”

Most of the 180,000 Orang Asli in Malaysia, the country’s original inhabitants, live in poverty and marginalization. Some are still nomads and others live in settlements run by the government, earning a living selling natural products.

The human rights lawyer A.Sivanesan said the government of Kelantan had gone too far by interfering in such a manner in people’s private lives. “The system of awards is a form of corruption and a waste of tax payers’ money,” he said. “What will stop a Muslim man from marrying an Orang Asli just to get the award, only to divorce her to marry another?”

Even Kelantan’s Muslim authorities opposed the initiative but the leader of the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party claimed the award-giving was justified. “Money, house and car,” said Mahfuz Omar, a member of the governing party, “are only a way of helping young couples and not discrimination.”

Landmark paternity case highlights dangers of urfi marriage

05 Jun 2006
Source: IRIN

CAIRO, 5 June (IRIN) - Activists and experts working on women's rights issues warned of the dangers of a general lack of information regarding urfi marriage, a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common in Egypt.

"It's the lack of understanding of what exactly urfi marriage entails that ends up creating a host of problems for the female party," said Heba Loza, expert on women's issues and writer with semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram.

Urfi marriages, commonly defined as marital unions lacking an official contract, are often carried out in secret. For the most part, those who choose to be married by way of an urfi contract are young couples who do not have parental consent or who cannot afford a wedding. "In reality, most of those who resort to urfi marriages are young couples seeking to legitimise a sexual relationship," said Heba. "Many cannot afford a wedding, while many others don't have the consent of their parents. To them, urfi marriages provide an alternative."

Although urfi marriages are sanctioned by Islam, Egypt's majority religion, conducting them in secret – without the consent of couples' families – is not.

In urfi marriages, conducted by a Muslim cleric and usually in the presence of at least two witnesses , only two copies of the marriage contract are produced – one for each party. "Hence, there is always the danger that one party will deny the marriage ever took place," said Heba. "In most cases, it's the man."

This is especially common when a child is born. "Unless witnesses are present while the contracts are being signed and the marriage has been announced publicly, the marriage is effectively null and void in the eyes of the law," Heba said. "Therefore, the woman's rights in marriage cannot be protected, nor is the father automatically bound to share responsibility for the child."

Such was the case in the high-profile case of Hend al-Hennawy and actor Ahmed al-Feshawy, whose story of urfi marriage and a disputed child became the centre of national controversy last year. It finally came to a close on 24 May, however, when a Cairo appeals court ruled in favour of al-Hennawy, who, by way of witnesses' testimonies, established al-Feshawy's legal paternity of the child. "The outcome of the trial was very positive," said Huda Badran, chairman of the Cairo-based Arab Alliance for Women. "The result enshrined the rights of the child, who up until then had none."

According to Huda, the case should serve as a warning to young people considering urfi unions as an alternative to officially sanctioned marriages. "Perhaps this case has made both young men and women a little more aware of the risks involved in urfi marriages," she said. "Al-Feshawy must now comply against his will to the responsibilities of fatherhood, which he believed he could escape, while al-Hennawy had to fight hard to secure her rights and those of her daughter."

Government statistics show that approximately 14,000 similar paternity cases are currently pending trial. "Activists tell me they believe the number is actually closer to a million," said Heba.

Married at two, spurned, Muslim girl battles dilemma


Jaipur, May 20 (IANS) Controversy has erupted in the Muslim community in Rajasthan over a 19-year-old girl, Mafia, who was married off at the age of two, tying the knot again.

Her father Babu Khan, a resident of Bhilwara town, solemnised her wedding with Firoz May 8, 1990, when she was barely two. She was married along with two other sisters - with Mafia and one older sister marrying into the same family.

As per tradition, Mafia's older sister was sent to her in-laws' house while Mafia, being a minor, stayed at her father's place. Mafia's nikahnama, or marriage contract, was also signed by her father.

But with the years, the relationship between the two families soured following marital strife between her sister and her in-laws. Later the in-laws not only threw her sister out of their house but also refused to accept Mafia as their bride.

The developments prompted Babu Khan to sue the in-laws for torturing his daughter and demanding dowry.

But the real trouble started when Mafia decided to marry Idris, another youth from her community, in spite of objections from some quarters on March 17, 2006.

People from her community started to question the legality of the marriage. Because of objections from clerics, Mafia is still living with her family and has not been allowed to live with Idris.

Some say that as per Shariyat, Mafia cannot remarry when she has not been divorced by the earlier groom.

"Though it is wrong to marry a minor, it has been done. But she has not been divorced, how can she marry again? It is against our laws," said cleric Mufti Akhla-Ur-Rehman Kazmi.

What has increased Mafia's troubles is Firoz's refusal to divorce Mafia.

"Firoz has denied me a divorce. Besides, he has even announced he will marry another girl next month. I have heard that he is ready to keep me as his second wife. I know this is being done to exact revenge from our family. Where would I go?" asked Mafia.

She pointed out that she was married off when she was barely two years old, which is not a marriageable age.

"I don't want to spend the rest of my life with Firoz. I should be allowed to live with Idris. Laws can't be different for individuals," she said.

The cleric accepted that the girl had been wronged but said she should visit a cleric in her area and seek a divorce by sending a formal request.