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High-Profile Paternity Case Highlights Risks of Common-Law ‘Urfi’ Marriage in Egypt


Hind El Hinnawy scandalized Egyptian society by dragging a famous actor to court to prove he was the father of her baby. Now, after finally winning her case on appeal, she hopes her willingness to take a public stand and fight for the rights of her daughter will encourage other women to press forward with paternity cases for thousands of illegitimate children who have no legal rights under Egyptian law.

Hind El Hinnawy was working as a costume designer on the set of a television sitcom when she met Ahmed El Fishawy, a handsome young actor from a famous family of Egyptian movie stars. The attraction was immediate and mutual, El Hinnawy says, and within months the two decided to marry in secret.

"We were happy until I got pregnant and when I told him, he didn't like it," Hinnawy says. "He didn't want to be a daddy, he wasn't prepared to be a daddy. And at that time he said anyway he should register our marriage and he took the paper from me and then he disappeared."

Without any proof of marriage, El Hinnawy faced the stigma of unwed motherhood and the prospect of illegitimacy for her unborn child. In conservative Egyptian society, where sexual relations outside of traditional marriage are considered taboo, women in El Hinnawy's situation often resort to abortion and silence. Some are even disowned, or physically attacked by their own family members.

But not only did El Hinnawy decide to have her baby, she also went public with her fight by defending herself in the media, and suing El Fishawy to force him to acknowledge their daughter Leena. Although Fishawy and his family now refuse to speak with the media, he has previously admitted to having a sexual relationship with El Hinnawy, though he denied being married to her or fathering Leena.

Under Egyptian law, tens of thousands of children like Leena do not officially exist because they do not carry their fathers' names. They cannot be issued birth certificates, passports, or receive vaccinations. Considered illegitimate, such children are often discriminated against, and have trouble registering for school and marrying. El Hinnawy says it was her determination not to let this happen to her daughter that made her press on, even when El Fishawy refused to take a DNA test, and the case against him was dismissed.

El Hinnawy admits she was discouraged by the verdict. But the petite 28-year-old mother was not ready to give up. She appealed, and late last month the judge ruled in her favor, forcing El Fishawy to recognize both his relationship with El Hinnawy and his paternity of Leena, who is now 19 months old. El Hinnawy was so moved by the ruling that she burst into tears in the courtroom.

"I almost fainted and the lawyer came and took me in her hands, in her arms, and she told me, "Hey, you won the case, stand up! Stand up, try to talk, all the media are around you," Hinnawy says. "And I cried for long, and you know, cameras were in front of me and I was just crying, I wasn't even talking and I was just saying, "I got your rights, my baby! I got your rights, my baby!"

El Hinnawy's legal fight may now be over, but Egyptian tabloids and talk shows remain obsessed with the case. On a recent episode of the popular TV program, The Hala Show, a panel of religious experts and writers sparred over whether the offspring of Hinnawy's and Fishawy's secret relationship can be recognized by Islamic law, which requires a marriage be public knowledge for it to be legal.

This debate over so-called "urfi" or "customary, common law" marriage is an important one in Egypt. Of 14,000 paternity cases pending in Egyptian courts, at least 9,000 of them are the result of "urfi" marriages like Hinnawy's. Such unions are hidden from friends and family and not registered with authorities. They are becoming increasingly common among young Egyptians who cannot afford the rising costs of marriage or who want to legitimize sexual relations without committing to traditional matrimony.

Sociologist Madiha El Safty says El Hinnawy's case has shed much-needed light on the phenomenon of "urfi" marriage and the plight of illegitimate children in Egypt, but the long-term impact on society remains uncertain.

"I can say it's almost the first time that something like that is brought into the open," Safty says. "Definitely people have been talking about it everywhere, social gatherings and everywhere, but my point, my question actually is, will it help other women to follow the same trend or the same way that she's done, or will it not? I don't know. We'll have to wait and see."

For now, all of Egypt seems to be buzzing with the case. At a café in downtown Cairo, 26-year-old Raheb Salwa and her girlfriends debated the Hinnawy case over cappuccinos. They agree Hinnawy's relationship with Fishawy was probably a sin, but they admire her for fighting for her daughter's rights.

"Society often lets men get away with such relationships, while women take most of the blame," Salwa says. "This is wrong, because God judges both men and women the same, she argues."

El Hinnawy has become so famous that she is often stopped on the street and scolded or praised by perfect strangers. She puts up with it, taking comfort in knowing her experience has inspired a draft law that would make DNA tests mandatory in paternity cases.

Laws may prove easier to change than taboos, but in the meantime, El Hinnawy hopes that her high-profile case will inspire thousands of other Egyptian mothers to fight for the rights of their own children.

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