Married 60 times before age 18 in Egypt

The Washington Post had a religion news blog item last week headlined, horrifyingly, “‘Some girls have been married 60 times by the time they turn 18′.”

The story somewhat conflates marriage of young women with the epidemic of children sold into marriage. I also worried about the veracity of the statistics and the context in which some claims were made about pregnancy health. But let’s go on into the religion angle:

But some girls who grow up in Egypt’s poor rural communities face an even scarier sort of child marriage: the temporary kind. Sex tourism to Egypt tends to spike in the summer, when wealthy men from Gulf countries flood into Egypt and thousands of underage girls are sold by their parents into temporary “marriages,” according to a story by Inter Press Service

Egypt’s illegal child sex tourism trade appears to have put a regional-friendly spin on the practice by portraying the buying and selling of children as a form of marriage, thus giving them a thin veneer of religious acceptability by circumventing Islamic rules against pre-marital sex. (Despite a 2008 law banning child marriages, enforcement is thought to be low and an Egyptian official told the Inter Press Service that’s it’s nearly ceased since the chaos of the 2011 revolution.) Child marriages are, after all, somewhat common in Arab countries, although not nearly as common as in neighboring regions. And such child marriages often involve “dowries” that human trafficking activists say are akin to a purchase price.

Indeed this is a religion story, but one that might be made valuable by a little bit more exploration into that angle.

Temporary marriage, or Nikah mut‘ah, is a major issue of contention in Islam. Muslims tend to agree that temporary marriage was instituted by Mohammed and practiced in Islam’s initial period. Sunni Muslims, however, believe it was later abolished while Shiite Muslims do not. These temporary marriages aren’t supposed to last less than three days but they’re of a short-term variety.

Almost all Egyptian Muslims are Sunni, however. So this would not be the religious teaching in play. Are these regional-friendly spins playing into Sunni understanding of temporary marriage? What, exactly, are those views? We’re not told. But as an initial starting point, a few entries from Wikipedia:

Nikah al-Misyar (“traveller’s marriage”) is a Nikah (marriage) carried out via the normal contractual procedure, with the specificity that the husband and wife give up several rights by their own free will, such as living together, equal division of nights between wives in cases of polygyny, the wife’s rights to housing, and maintenance money (nafaqa), and the husband’s right of homekeeping, and access etc.[1]

Nikah ‘urfi is a kind of Muslim marriage. It is similar to the Nikah ceremony. An ‘urfi marriage 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. Most Islamic countries do not recognize ‘Urfi marriages and no partner can get a ‘legal’ divorce since the government does not recognize the legality of the marriage in the first place.[citation needed]

Citation needed indeed!

In any case, the “Correct Islamic Faith International Association” notes these two marriage practices among Salafists and adds another:

(c) Mesyaf ( Summer holiday marriage) – It is a tourism marriage practiced by Saudis and other Salafis in the world who go on summer vacation to countries, like Yamen, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries. In these countries they take advantage of poor Muslim families by fake marriages with young, rather very young girls between the ages of 9 to 16 years in collusion with local middlemen and agents who are paid for these notorious services.

That sounds like it could be what the Post story is dealing with, in terms of the 60 marriages by the time one reaches 18. It wouldn’t explain those marriages where the girl is expected to return home with the man to do housework. Either way it points to the need for better discussions of the role religion plays in stories about sex. The media have done a good job of explaining, as this BBC article on the growing trend of temporary marriages in Great Britain did, that Shia Islam has temporary marriage and Sunni Islam does not.

That’s true as it relates to mut’ah, but doesn’t tell the whole story of Sunni practices, much less Wahabi or Salafist practices. The aforementioned BBC story explained the sectarian divide as well as briefly mentioning the exploitative capacities of Sunni temporary marriages. From the BBC story:

Critics of these informal marriages, both Sunni and Shia, argue they allow a person to have multiple sexual partners and are used as an “Islamic cover” for prostitution or the exploitation of women, with men taking on multiple “wives” for a number of hours.

In these circumstances many of the formalities and parental permissions are dispensed with for the temporary marriage agreement.

BBC Asian Network heard numerous cases of it being used simply as a way of religiously legitimising sex.

Omar Ali Grant, a convert to Shia Islam, from London, has had around 13 temporary marriages but argues that he was just trying to find the right person to spend his life with. He conceded they could be used as a cover for premarital sex.

To oppose and fight something — whether it’s temporary Shia marriage, variations on marriage in Sunni cultures and/or the prevalence of child marriage in some Arab countries –  one must understand the different cultural and social aspects that come into play, including religious views. Each year we see stories, around this time, about Egypt’s particular problem with this situation. It’s great that the Post is focusing on child sex trafficking, child marriage and temporary Islamic marriage. More attention to details, religious and otherwise, would be helpful. Coverage that is less seasonal and contains more depth would be also. I hope the Post continues and maybe even bolsters its foreign news gathering operation relative to its home base blogging operations.

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  • Richard Mounts

    I wonder, Mollie, if you had to have already reviewed source material to be ready to post this is a fairly timely manner. Did you have to take some time since the original article to research several texts, perhaps arcane, to put this post together? It’s fascinating and informative. It certainly provides details that should have been covered in the WaPo story.

    Would the Post’s writer had the time for the research and space to include the info? Sometimes I think the issue might be the editors as much as the writers.


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