Analyzing Egypt’s long relationship with underage marriage

Engagement party for a 10-year old girl and her teenage cousin sparks alarm

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Images of a party to mark the engagement of a 10-year old girl and her teenage cousin prompted angry reactions among activists and rights organizations – but was just the latest in a long line of cases of underage unions in Egypt.

The cousins, Wagih and Noha al-Banna, are not yet married – the main reason given for their families not have faced legal action, local media reported.

But the fact that the party, at the couple’s hometown in the province of al-Gharbia in northern Egypt, was attended by hundreds of guests left some with the impression that the issue of underage marriage – unions between those under the legal age of 18 – is not being taken seriously by the public or state institutions.

Mervat al-Tellawi, director of Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW), condemned the union, which she said proves that the phenomenon is far from being eliminated, especially in rural areas.

“There are many reasons for parents allowing their minor children to get married, on top of which are poverty, illiteracy, religion, and lack of awareness,” she said in an interview with the Egyptian daily independent al-Masry al-Youm.

“Many parents marry their children without official documents because they are under the legal marrying age, and this is a crime.”

Tellawi added that underage marriages usually fail, with the mother and any children often left without any support, contributing to the number of children on the streets.

“Even if the marriage continues the wife and children always suffer from severe psychological disorders,” she said.

According to Tellawi, underage marriages are the main reason behind girls dropping out of school, noting that the dropout rate in the Delta region, in which al-Gharbia is located, has reached 60%.

She added that after the latest engagement, NCW will start an initiative in coordination with the Ministry of Justice. “This initiative will raise awareness among teenagers about the dangers of underage marriages and will offer legal support to minor girls who are being forced to marry.”

While admitting that the recent engagement party is disturbing proof that underage marriages are not receding, Hani Helal, secretary general of the Egyptian Coalition for Children’s Rights, pointed out that no legal action can be taken against the parents.

“So far, this is only an engagement and there are no official records of the marriage,” he said in a statement. “We can take the parents to court when the marriage contract is signed, yet what we can do now is charging them with endangering the lives of their children.”

To solve the engagement issue, which is seen as a way of going around the law, the Union for Egyptian women issued a statement calling for a legislation that penalizes any step taken towards the marriage of minors.

“Anybody who proves to have taken part in facilitating a marriage between minors has to be prosecuted,” said the statement, adding that the engagement of the couple in al-Gharbia showed how this phenomenon is deeply rooted in a large segment of the Egyptian society, and how stricter laws are required to prevent any attempts at marrying minors. “These laws should protect both boys and girls who are subjected to this experience.”

According to Taher Abdel Hakim, professor of jurisprudence at al-Azhar University, engagement is a marriage promise, which makes it invalid if it happens between children. “People cannot get engaged until they reach the age when they are capable of making choices and knowing what is in their best interest,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian daily independent al-Watan. “Therefore, engagement between minors is against Islamic principles.”

When asked why he decided to become engaged, teenager Wagih al-Banna – whose age has been given variously as 14 and 16 – said that his 10-year-old cousin had too many suitors and he had to “reserve” her, as he put it, and denied that she had no choice.

“Of course she approved our engagement. I would never marry her against her will,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian satellite channel Dream TV. In the same interview, the bride-to-be Noha al-Banna, who said that she still plays hide-and-seek with her friends, said the marriage will not stop her from getting an education: “I want to be a doctor,” she said.

Noha’s uncle Moustafa al-Shal refused to call this a marriage of minors. “This was just an engagement and they still have seven years to go,” he said on the same Dream TV episode. “We did this now so we can make sure she doesn’t marry outside the family.” Shal added that Noha will still live her full childhood despite the engagement. “Everything will be normal and the marriage will not be consummated until the right time comes.”

Psychologist Alaa Ragab saw the celebration as a dangerous development which presents the practice as desirable. “When girls see the photos and the video, they would start conceiving the idea as fun and might even ask to be brides like Noha,” he said in a phone interview with the same program. “The idea will gradually become more acceptable than it already is. The same would happen with boys.”

Ragab argued that neither Noha nor Wagih are actually aware of what marriage is about. “If you ask them now about the duties marriage entails, none of them would know. Those are children and this is a crime against childhood.”

Journalist Sylvia al-Nakkadi criticized the way the story was presented in the media. “The story was run as a piece of interesting news that provides entertainment for readers but it lacked serious analysis of such a flagrant violation of children’s rights,” she wrote in Al-Masry al-Youm, arguing that the media had not done its proper job.

“News of the celebration should have been accompanied by a thorough explanation of the physical and psychological damages such a practice entails and different ways of eliminating it.”

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