Young Egyptian couples in a hurry tie temporary knot
Concern grows over use of a secret, unrecognized 'urfi' marriage that many couples feel allows them to be alone and to engage in sexual activity.
Khalid and Amira grew steadily closer as friends in college. Then one day, they sat a little too close in class. Khalid took what he saw as the next step: a temporary marriage.Skip to next paragraph
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So the two entered into a secret urfi, or temporary, marriage. Their "contract" allowed them, they felt, to be alone unchaperoned and to engage in sexual activity, given strict cultural barriers against such behavior outside of marriage.
"In my whole life, I hadn't even kissed a girl, but I felt that I needed her," says Khalid, clad in shorts and knock-off Gucci shoes at a beachfront cafe in Alexandria.
Millions of Egyptians – usually college students – are following suit, with many couples hoping it's a step toward a traditional marriage. But most such arrangements end within two years, according to a 2004 Cairo University report. And the growing frequency of such informal "marriages" – unheard of 20 years ago – has alarmed both government and religious officials, spawning campaigns to warn of its dangers particularly to women, who will carry the brunt of any social fallout.
"It is a misnomer to call this secret marriage urfi marriage…. If the marriage isn't recognized, there will be severe repercussions especially on the woman," says Ibrahim Negm, spokesman for Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the top Sunni Muslim religious authority in Egypt. "If the union between a man and a woman fulfills certain conditions and stipulations, then it is marriage. The [secretive] urfi marriage … does not have any legal status."
A key driver of the phenomenon is the rise in the number of young men postponing marriage, unable to earn enough money to move away from home, let along support a wife and children.
Unemployment officially stands at 10 percent, with many of those young graduates struggling to break into the job market. The median age of Egypt's 80 million people is 24, and more than 30 percent of the population is under age 15, according to the CIA world factbook.
To get married, a man must first provide a place to live, clothing, gold jewelry, gifts for the bride, and proof to her family that he can support a family.
Temporary marriages "are recent developments because of the social upheaval and social problems we are going through and because marriage is getting so tough as far as having the means to get married and expectations, and all these things lead to easy solutions without undertaking responsibilities," says Dr. Negm.
Egyptian law requires that couples register their marriage with the government. That allows any future disputes over divorce or inheritance, for example, to be dealt with in the courts.
Islam does not require that marriages be registered with the state to be seen as acceptable. But under Islamic law, Negm says, only a marriage that meets specific requirements is considered legitimate. Popular culture created the modern idea of urfi marriage by mixing or redefining parts of Islamic marriage traditions.
True urfi marriage essentially means common-law marriage, says Negm, and has a positive connotation. While unofficiated, the marriage involves witnesses, has the consent of a male guardian of the virgin bride, or is publicly declared to meet Islamic standards.