Outcry in Egypt over 'marriage tourism'

A campaign is launched to stop rich tourists taking girls from poor families as temporary brides.

August 15, 2009-Cairo, Egypt  Amina Shafiq & Malika Razzaz 
Claude Stemmelin for The National *** Local Caption ***  006.jpg
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CAIRO // Tourism is viewed in Egypt as a positive force, providing jobs and cultural interaction and driving the country's economy. But a sinister side to the industry has come to the fore again following the launch of a campaign against "marriage tourism", where a visiting Arab man pays to wed a young Egyptian girl, usually below the legal age of marriage. The marriages last any amount of time, from a couple of hours to years. Often they are simply a pretext for the man to have sex with the girl legally, while sometimes the man will take the girl back to his country, where they often serve as maids to other wives.

Last week, Moushira Khattab, the new minister of family and population, launched a campaign against underage marriages to Arab tourists in the villages of Cairo's 6th of October Province, about 40 kilometres south of the city, known for their high levels of poverty and unemployment and where marriage tourism is rife. A hotline has been set up to provide legal advice to parents who have taken, or are considering taking, money in exchange for temporary marriages of their daughters, as well as to raise awareness about the issue.

"We will raise awareness and tell these people [the parents] that they are violating the law - that actually they are committing a crime," Mrs Khattab said in a telephone interview with The Home is Yours, Egyptian state TV's main talk show, last week. "Poverty is no excuse to sell their daughters. "We are looking into a comprehensive solution that would include education, registering birth certificates, getting rid of poverty and the ignorance of the families," the minister continued.

"Religious leaders should undertake their role and explain and correct misconceptions about religion, that this is not marriage sanctioned by Islam." The programme was discussing a recent study by the ministry that surveyed 2,000 girls in three villages in 6th October - Hawamdiya, Badrashin and Abu al Nomros. It found 74 per cent of the girls below the age of 18 were married in this way to non-Egyptians, mainly Arabs.

"Al Hawamdiya used to be famous in the past for its sugar factory, now its has become notorious for its girls, who have become like golden chicks for their parents who use their bodies in shady marriages with rich Arabs," said Wael Karam, chairman of the board of the Menf Association for Development, a local non-governmental organisation. Mr Karam cited one case he found particularly shocking: "A father of a girl named Iman, 17, has made her marry 10 rich Arab men already. He didn't mind her moving from one man to the other as long as he was being paid in advance for each of these 'marriages', which is done under the pretence of keeping with law and religion."

A recent study by Menf found that 40,000 underage and young girls have been "wed" in tourism marriages in Egypt since 2006, which has resulted in the birth of 150,000 children. Ms Khattab said the "husbands" rarely recognise the children from these marriages and more often than not return to their home countries, never to see the girl or the child again. "This is so disgraceful to Egyptian women and Egypt," Magdi Afify, a member of the Shura Council, parliament's upper house, said at a press conference held by Menf on Saturday to launch a parallel campaign against the "dangers of touristic marriage in Egypt".

"The practices these men are involved in amount to rape and should be punished as such, by death sentence. "They are not only tarnishing Egypt's image, they are causing the spread of vice, as many of the 40,000 women involved in these deals are potential prostitutes in the making. This is a very serious issue." Malka Razaz, a female Islamic scholar and expert on marriage law in Egypt, said marriage tourism is not a new phenomenon and has grown considerably over the years.

"I started warning about such marriages about 15 years ago, but the problem is that nobody listens until a catastrophe takes place," Ms Razaz said, speaking at the Menf press conference. "Enjoying a poor young girl for a short period of time, in exchange for money and without any responsibility from the so-called husband, can't be called marriage; this is a trade, a very low one." The participants at the press conference said these "deals are conducted by a broker, a lawyer, the father of the girl, and the rich would-be husband, with the girls having no say in them".

Mr Afify of the Shura Council said Egypt's child laws should be amended to criminalise touristic marriages. Though Egypt's child laws were amended last year to raise the age of marriage for girls from 16 to 18, touristic marriages are not registered with the state. Most of these marriages are urfi or secretive marriages, where lawyers, who act as brokers and take money from the deal, write a contract with the father and the husband. The marriage is not registered and therefore not recognised by the state, and does not give the woman or her children any moral or financial rights beyond what is paid at the marriage.

Even worse, some of these marriages are conducted orally between the father and the husband, with no written papers. Analysts and rights activists say poverty is ultimately what leads parents to sell their daughters. "The issue has to do with economic circumstances," said the human rights lawyer Mohammed Abdullah Khalil. "For a father to sell his daughter, and a girl to sell her body, it's very similar to illegal immigration, where the youth are so desperate they sell everything they have and take the risk even though there's a 90 per cent possibility they will drown in the sea, just to escape poverty."

Amina Shafiq, a veteran journalist and a member of the National Council for Women who also attended the Menf conference, agreed. "Had we managed to eliminate dire poverty, those fathers would never have thought of selling their daughters like this, and the rich Arab tourists wouldn't have approached them," she said. nmagd@thenational.ae