Urfi delivers the goods, at half the price

Abeer Allam
February 18, 2000


"I got involved in a urfi marriage because I wanted to sleep with my boyfriend and feel good about it I mean not sinful - but it was tragic when he left me," said Rania, 30, whose eight-month urfi marriage left her in agony.

In a country where traditions prevent couples from having sex outside wedlock, Rania (not her real name) and her boyfriend, like thousands of other couples, found the urfi marriage the only psychologically acceptable means of having sex without the obligation or financial burden of an official marriage. It is not, however, socially accepted, and so they keep it secret.

Under the new personal status law passed on January 29, however, divorces from urfi marriages are now recognized, thus adding legitimacy to this much-maligned form of matrimony.

The urfi is a marriage without an official contract. It is a relation where couples utters the words, "We got married" and pledge commitment before God.

Usually, a paper is written and two witnesses sign it. For many years, it was not recognized by the government and the paper could be used only to prove filiation in courts, but women could not get a divorce, as the government did not recognize the marriage in the first place.

With the new law women can get a divorce if she has any evidence, like a letter for example, where her husband called her "wife." In the past, even if a husband left a woman, he could always claim they were still married with his signed paper.

The new amendment, as usual, was heatedly debated in the society, with some seeing it as a lifeline for women caught in an untenable situation, while others seeing it as no solution at all.

"I think this law rescues women because now men would know it is not a game, it is responsibility and obligation. He cannot just have sex and leave, he would think thousand times before doing it," said Rania, whose boyfriend walked out on her after a few months.

Rania had to accept urfi marriage when her boyfriend convinced her that his family did not approve of her and he couldn't afford to marry her without their help. He convinced her that marrying this way would force them later on to consent to their marriage.

"He was a big liar, who kept coming up with excuses and lies for not officially marrying me until I got fed up, and then he left without a word," she said.

According to Madiha Al Safty, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, the urfi marriage was always there but for different reasons. In the past, it was widespread among the widows of soldiers who had huge pensions and they did not want to lose it by officially re-marrying.

Now, however, it is mostly among university students and young couples who cannot afford the high cost of marriage.

"The problem is that couples cannot afford marriage and its consequences or obligations. They need sex, but they cannot afford the usual way of getting it. So they marry in a way that costs nothing. It is a problem that needs a solution, [recognizing urfi] divorce is the beginning," Safty said.

For some feminists, urfi marriage is the solution to sexual frustration young couples face in the Egyptian society.

"It is an Islamic solution young couples had to use to confront the complicated, rotten, outdated traditions and values that stands in the way of fulfilling their sexual needs," said Salwa Bakr, a feminist writer, who tackles women's problems in society.

In Islam, a marriage only needs both sides' approval, two witnesses, a dowry of any amount and publicity.

However, others do not believe that getting a divorce would help reduce the abuses of urfi marriage and consider the measure disastrous.

"[Urfi] is an unacceptable social phenomena. Divorce shall not stop it, but it will encourage more women to get involved and only women suffer," said Seham Negm, head of Women Society Association.

Negm believes the essence of the problem is economic, and the solution lies in reconsidering the old tradition which obliges couples to pay a lot to get married.

Some outspoken feminists think that urfi marriage is the best way for a couple to stay together.

"We must encourage urfi marriage. A woman in urfi relations is a financially independent and free woman," said Nawal Al Sadaawi, a famous writer and head of Arab Women Solidarity Association.

"It is the only correct form of honorable marriage, it is a union between a man and woman who loves this man and wants to make love with him. She wants him not his money. In this marriage, women are free from the subversive obligations of the ordinary marriage provided by the anti-women law," Saadawi added.

Rania, though, does not remember her urfi marriage in such an ideal way.

"Urfi marriage is an invitation to problems, 90 percent of men are liars wearing masks of love," she said

She does not think that many women would take advantage of the new provision for divorce as they want to keep the relation secret due to the social stigma.

"It is a scandal to go to court and these relations are mostly secret. It must be something very private so that women can feel safe," she said.


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