The Washington Post caught up with a family wedding in Egypt, at which the proud father announced that the groom’s little brother Omar was engaged to his cousin Gharam.
Many glitzy glamour shots of the affianced were taken, with the girl wearing heavy makeup and an expensive dress. Omar and Gharam are 12 and 11 years old, respectively:
Egyptian laws prohibit official registration for marriages for anyone under the age of 18. But the practice remains prevalent. According to UNICEF, 17 percent of Egyptian girls are married before the age of 18, the vast majority of the unions taking place in rural areas.
But in the case of Omar and Gharam, their engagement sparked outrage, particularly among child and women’s rights activists. The photos of the young couple – Omar in a blue suit, heavily made-up Gharam in a white dress, high heels, and wearing a tiara – splashed across newspapers in the country and heightened the anger.
That prompted Reda Eldanbouki, the head of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, to report the incident to the National Center for Childhood and Motherhood, a government agency. He also filed a complaint with the attorney general to investigate the incident and hold the parents accountable for this “crime,” he said in a statement.
The engagement of Omar and Gharam “will only lead to an early marriage in which the girl will be deprived of equal chances to education, growth, and will isolate her from social spheres,” he said.
As the Washington Post went on to explain, child marriage is both technically illegal and frowned upon by Islamic authorities in Egypt, but there is still a considerable appetite for the practice. Families that follow the practice find it easy to keep the government in the dark by simply waiting until the betrothed reach legal age to file for a marriage certificate.
Al-Araby suggested in a 2014 article on Egyptian child marriage that money is often a motivation, with older men paying for child brides. A dowry worth several thousand dollars is often paid. The ease of obtaining a divorce from these urfi (“unofficial”) marriages is one of their attractions, as the man can nullify the marriage at any time, leaving the girl with no documentation that she was ever married.
“Child marriage is a form of modern slavery that has its roots in pre-Islamic times, when women were bought and sold for the pleasure of men. These marriages violate the girls’ human rights and are a danger to society because of the increased number of divorced girls,” said sociology professor Azza Karim of Egypt’s National Center for Social Research.
Another motivating factor is reportedly the anxiety of rural parents that their daughters will ever find a man to marry.
In the current example, young Omar’s father had no interest in hiding the engagement, which is evidently not an offense that can be prosecuted the way an actual marriage would be. On the contrary, he has been loudly declaring to Egyptian papers that he committed no crime.
He might have deflected criticism by claiming the engagement was just a cute little game the kids were playing, but instead, he insisted his 12-year-old son really loved his 11-year-old girlfriend, whom he met on Facebook, and he wanted to lock the relationship down with an official engagement before “any other man asks for her hand in marriage when she is older.”