Does Egypt’s new tourist marriage law really ‘protect women?’

Commonly known as the “tourist” or “Seasonal marriages” law, it is directed at non-Egyptian men vacationing in the country

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya News
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Egypt’s new tourist marriage law requires a foreign man marrying an Egyptian woman, 25 or more years younger than him, to deposit 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($6,383) in his future wife’s name in the National Bank of Egypt.

Commonly known as the “tourist” or “Seasonal marriages” law, it is directed at non-Egyptian men vacationing in the country who marry girls much younger than their age. In many cases, the women have been divorced by the end of the vacation.

While the law is officially being presented as a means to protect the wife’s financial rights, should the husband make the marriage temporary, a large number of activists and rights groups see it as facilitating a disguised form of human trafficking. As the law is not entirely new, but a modification of an older one, it raises questions about the issue.

Women rights activist Nehad Abul Qomsan traced back the progression of the law, or rather “deterioration,” of it.

“The law, which dates back to 1976, originally banned marriages between Egyptian women and foreign men if the age difference exceeded 25 years. Then in 1993, under pressure from Islamist groups, this ban was lifted under the condition that the husband deposits 25,000 Egyptian pounds in the wife’s name,” she said.

“The amount was increased to 40,000 pounds in 2004 and then to 50,000 pounds in 2015,” Qomsan said.

She argued that Egypt’s judicial system deals with such marriages as it does more traditional pairings, when in fact tourist marriages should be viewed as “legalized prostitution.”

She added: “Foreign men only sign a marriage contract to avoid legal problems and the family of the girl takes the money. Sometime one girl can be married off two or more times in less than a month.”

Naglaa al-Adly, director of the Appropriate Communication Techniques for Development Center (ACT), argued that the law does not take into consideration the fact that such marriages are usually carried out in secret as some girls are under 18, the legal age for marriage.

“Even if the girl is not a minor, most these marriages are not registered to start with,” Adly added.

Thanaa al-Saeid, member of the National Council for Women (NCW), said the law only allows Egyptian women to be perceived as an expensive commodity.

“Regardless of the amount paid, the law encourages pleasure marriages. Plus, how would the 50,000 pounds benefit the girl if she gets pregnant?” she said.

According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, it is naïve to expect that the phenomenon of tourist marriage can be eliminated only by increasing the amount of money that has to be paid by law.

“Whoever paid before can still pay a little bit more. Brokers will find men willing to pay more and poor families that need money,” said a statement issued by the Initiative.

Hoda Badran, director of the Union for Arab Women, agrees that such a possibility always exists. “For many foreigners, 50,000 Egyptian pounds is actually nothing. Some pay similar amounts for a few dinner outings,” she said.

Professor of Islamic philosophy and Member of Parliament Amna Nossier argued that a completely different law should have been issued if the purpose is to eliminate this phenomenon.

“This law should totally prohibit this kind of marriage and should penalize fathers who agree to sell their daughters,” she said.

Abdel Hamid Zeid, vice-chairman of the Sociologists Syndicate, said that the law constitutes an admission of failure on the part of the state.

“The state is admitting that the phenomenon is spreading and that it is failing to address its root causes. Instead of improving people’s living standards so they won’t fall prey to human trafficking, the state is confirming that women can be treated as commodities,” Zeid said.

According to NCW member Azza Heikal, the law mitigates any damage sustained by the girl if the marriage comes to an end.

“This money will at least support her,” she said. “In fact, the amount should be raised to 100,000 pounds.”

Heikal objected to claims that the law endorses human trafficking with the money going to the family, not to the young woman.

“The girl’s family will no longer be allowed to get the money. The state will make sure this money goes to the girl.” She said the importance of this money going to the wife cannot be underestimated.

“Girls who are married off to older men are usually poor and they would need this money. How else can their rights be secured?” Heikal said, calling for a law that penalizes women who do not register the marriage, thereby compromising their financial rights.

Professor of Sociology Saeid Sadek said money deposited in the bank serves the wife’s best interest. “This way her family will get hold of the money and the husband cannot put pressure on the wife to give it up,” he said.

Hamdi Moawad, spokesman of the Ministry of Justice, says the law goes beyond increasing the amount to be paid by the husband and also introduces other modifications to protect wife’s rights.

“For example, the law stipulates that the husband submits documents from his embassy that contain information about him, his income, and his family,” he said. “In case any of the documents are missing, the husband-to-be needs to submit a request to the justice minister, who then decides if he can be exempt from providing documentation.”

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