Egypt cracks down on the 'live in sin licence'
- Egypt cracks down on the 'live in sin licence'By Carolynne Wheeler in CairoLast Updated: 2:15am BST 28/04/2008In the back rooms of trinket shops, hidden in the snaking alleyways of Cairo, licences for love are signed, sealed - and sold.Young, middle-class Egyptians are buying so-called "urfi", informal marriage contracts, in growing numbers to get around religious strictures against having pre-marital sex.Without documentation it is almost impossible for couples to live together or stay in the same hotel room, and the whiff of impropriety can bring down the wrath of parents, friends and neighbours.advertisementNow Egyptian legislators are preparing to outlaw the contracts and impose fines or jail sentences on the couples involved, and on anyone who acts as a witness. The government fears that urfi marriages have become the country's equivalent of common-law marriage, while conservatives warn that the practice is against Egyptian morals and senior clerics say it is irreligious.The contracts offer the promise of marriage according to the teachings of God and the Prophet Mohammed and once one is bought - sometimes for as little as 50 Egyptian pounds, or around £5 sterling - a couple can effectively behave as if they are married.However, as some couples admit, urfi marriage is not always taken seriously. "It's for sexual life or just for fun," said Sayeed, 30, a musician on his second such relationship, arranged through a lawyer friend.The contracts are issued discreetly, some with more official pomp than others. A photocopy shop manager close to Cairo University said: "People used to sit outside with a little table and sold them there, but then some people got annoyed so they stopped it." Behind him, a fast-talking university student offered to draw up a contract for 50 Egyptian pounds, though the usual rate is twice that.An estimated three million urfi marriages have been officially registered with notaries, but the unregistered number is much higher. Some of the contracts are no more than handwritten statements, one copy for each partner.The cost of a traditional wedding, including a lavish dowry, expensive gifts and a furnished flat, is an added incentive to take the urfi option. Traditional weddings have declined in Egypt, from 592,000 in 2000, to 506,000 in 2006.For some, the urfi marriage is a step towards a permanent arrangement; for others, it's a licence to live together without a more formal commitment. But there are cases where contracts are abused, often by wealthy men from Gulf countries who take a temporary "wife" for the duration of a holiday in Egypt, then dump her, leaving her in disgrace with her own family. Siham Ali, who runs a help hotline for these women, said: "There is still a taboo against this in society."In the most serious cases, Ms Ali said, women who become pregnant are abandoned by their urfi spouses. Illegitimate children in Egypt are not eligible for birth certificates until adulthood unless their father applies for them, condemning them to a lifetime outside the education and health-care systems, and to later difficulties in finding work.Egypt's most famous urfi case involved Hind al-Hinnawi, a costume designer who became pregnant by a television actor. When he abandoned her, taking with him what she said was the only evidence of their urfi marriage, she sued for recognition of their union and an appeal court made a landmark ruling in her favour.