Urfi Marriage in Egypt: The Issues


Urfi marriage is perhaps one of the most contentious sexuality issues that affects young people in Egypt today. This article brings the issue into perspective.

'Urfi (Secret) Marriage

Undocumented 'Urfi marriages are increasingly popular among Egyptian youth. The high cost of marriage forces many young couples to wait several years before they marry. Conservative Egyptian society forbids sex before marriage, so many young people consider the 'Urfi marriage a solution. 'Urfi marriages are conducted by a Muslim cleric in the presence of two witnesses. However, they are not officially registered and are not financially binding on the man.

If the shariah defines something, all Muslims must follow that definition. If the shariah is silent on an issue, Muslims should follow the 'Urfi definition. [1] The 'Urfi is a marriage without an official contract. Couples repeat the words, "We got married" and pledge commitment before God. Usually a paper, stating that the two are married, is written and two witnesses sign it [2].


Couples married in this way often meet in secret and avoid the expense of renting an apartment. The 'Urfi marriage can be disastrous for the wife because if the husband leaves her without granting her a divorce, she had no legal right to seek a divorce since 'Urfi marriage was considered illegal under the old status law. While her husband could remarry, the wife is in a more difficult position. If the wife remarries, she could be accused of polyandry which is punishable by seven years in prison in Egypt. The alternative course of action is for her to remain single for the rest of her life.

New Personal Status Law

The Egyptian government did not recognize 'Urfi marriages until the year 2000 and the paper from the marriage could be used only to prove the relationship in court. A woman could not get a divorce since the government did not recognize the marriage in the first place. Under the new personal status law passed on January 29, 2000 however, divorces from 'Urfi marriages are now recognized. While the new Egyptian law recognizes the woman's right to seek divorce from an 'Urfi marriage, the law however denies her alimony and child support.

According to Madiha Al Safty , Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo, the 'Urfi marriage has always existed, but for different reasons:

"In the past, it was common 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." [3]

Controversial Forms

There are also controversial, unofficial 'Urfi marriages, where a couple signs documents declaring themselves married. The couple does not inform their families of the marriage. Many Egyptian clerics are against this type of 'Urfi marriage calling it a cover for pre-marital sex. An extreme form of 'Urfi marriage is known as zawag al-'urfi:

"To give prostitution an Islamic cover, some women enter into secret marriage contracts with their summer visitors. Known in Egypt as zawag al-'urfi, this contract is made without witnesses and typically ends in divorce by summer's end. Most of Egypt's Islamic scholars condemn this use of zawag al-'urfi." [4]


1. Rizvi, S. M. (1994) "Contraceptives and Abortion" (Chapter Four) in Marriage and Morals in Islam http://al-islam.org/m_morals/chap4.htm (accessed July 13, 2005)

2. Allam, A. (2000) Urfi delivers the goods, at half the price, Middle East Times (International Edition) February 18. http://www.metimes.com/articles/normal.php?StoryID=20000218-042017-5260r (accessed on July 13, 2005)

3. Ibid.

4. El-Gawhary, K. (1995) "Sex Tourism in Cairo" in Middle East Report 196, Vol. 25, no. 5, September-October


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