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.
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.
Unlike the Shiite Muslim tradition of temporary muta marriage, which includes a specific end-date for the marriage, Sunni Islam does not have a "temporary marriage" tradition.
Some 3 million urfi marriages are registered with the notary public, although officials said they suspect the real number may be three times that, according to statistics provided by the notary public to local Egyptian media. The notary public would not give such statistics to an American newspaper.
Registering an urfi marriage with the notary public still maintains its secrecy from the couple's family. Some couples register to add a veneer of legitimacy to their relationship or from a mistaken belief that it gives the woman some rights should they be "divorced."
The number of urfi marriages annually was not available from the notary public to determine if it is increasing since it became more popular in the mid-1990s. But the number of traditional marriages has declined overall, from 592,000 in 2000 to 506,000 in 2006, despite a youth population bubble, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.
A 2004 study by Cairo University and the National Population Council found that about a third of women expected to marry above what they would consider the typical age of marriage, 21. A third of men expected to marry later than what they view as the average age of 28. But the study questioned how widespread the development really was.
In the meantime, the fallout from urfi has started to show up more publicly. A woman discovered to have had premarital sex is generally considered unmarriable. The enormous shame means she faces punishment from her family and ostracization from society.
Dawlat Ahmed, a lawyer at the National Council for Women, provides legal advice to women, and her office hosts a hot line. Ms. Ahmed says it's not common for a woman to go to court. But paternity suits from urfi marriages, with the help of DNA testing, are showing up in court dockets despite the intense social stigma placed on women known to have had sex or a child outside of traditional wedlock. If the woman wins, the child has inheritance rights, and, more important, takes the father's name. "They are afraid of her family or his family," says Ahmed. "But if she has a big problem or a child, she has to go to the court, though mainly it's secret."
Local newspaper advice columns are full of letters from young people, like Khalid and Amira, in trouble because of an urfi marriage. The two were embarrassed after being caught kissing in the places many young people in Cairo go to be alone together – secluded public parks, empty Cairo Transportation Authority buses, and movie theaters. Khalid, who asked that their real names not be used, said he thought a secret urfi marriage would make the affair less unseemly. It didn't. After a few months, he says, "I felt very fed up and sick from doing this" and ended it. She later claimed he impregnated her.
"I didn't believe she was pregnant and even if she is, I can't believe it is my baby," he says, quietly sipping Fairouz soda. They haven't been in contact since. It took him two and a half years to find a job after college. His $150 monthly salary as an accountant isn't enough to support a family. He figures it will take about 10 years, when he's 35, to save enough to get properly married.