By Ahmed Aleem
December 24, 2017
Four women in their 20s launched Nov. 25 the Mategberneesh (Don’t Force Me) online campaign in an effort to counter forced marriage in Egypt. The campaign aims to raise awareness on social media as well as open up a space to discuss the controversial topic. In the future, the campaign plans to organize live street events to increase public interaction.
“The campaign idea came on the heels of combating violence against women, and forced marriage being one of those types of violence. We have seen positive interaction with the campaign. However, many women still fear talking about it and prefer to stay silent,” Asmaa Bassil, a co-founder of the campaign, told Al-Monitor.
Several victims of forced marriage have shared on social media their stories and the negative repercussions of this practice on their lives.
“Among the many faces of forced marriage is the tribal forced marriage where a girl cannot marry and does not have the right to choose a life partner from outside her family,” Bassil said.
Bassil listed the reasons behind the phenomenon, noting, “Customs and traditions are part of the problem. Many families believe that marrying their daughters to men from the same family would preserve their properties and lands. This is an inherited defective culture that appears clearly in Upper Egypt.”
The four women launched their campaign as part of a personal initiative, and they did not receive any support from a governmental or nongovernmental organization, Bassil added.
A 28-year-old woman from Qena governorate told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “I married my cousin because I couldn't have possibly rejected him. Otherwise my family would regard me as a criminal and disobedient. My life has turned into hell. I feel I am no longer alive.”
She added, “I hate all men, and I feel like I’m in a big prison. I tried so many times [to avoid sexual relations] in order not to have children so as not to involve them in this miserable life, but even in this my opinions or decisions will not matter."
At the religious level, Islam is fully against forcing women to marry. Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb confirmed this in his speech on Egypt Space Channel Oct. 6, saying, “Marriage by force is an unethical matter similar to a death sentence against a whole life. Therefore, it is a kind of torture that is forbidden and criminalized under Sharia and ethics.”
At the legal level, forcing a girl or woman to marry is not punishable under any law, according to Reda el-Danbouki, the director of the Women’s Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness.
Danbouki told Al-Monitor, “No legal provision punishes a father for forcing his daughter to marry. Preparing a specific law on violence against women — which would punish whoever forces a girl to get married — is better than amending the current Personal Status Law. Indeed, the National Council for Women prepared a draft bill in this regard over the course of a year. However, it has not been submitted or even discussed in parliament until this very moment.”
She said, “The media must play a bigger role to spread awareness among citizens, especially since laws can be circumvented as underage girls are often forced to marry if their parents approve of this marriage. Girls are the weaker part in this equation and are the victims.”
Danbouki added, “We met several girls who have been forced to marry and they now want a 'Khula,' which means a separation and return the dowry to the husband in return for getting a divorce."
Concerning the role of the National Council for Women, a government body addressing women's issues, Rania Yahia, a member of the council’s Executive Committee, told Al-Monitor, “The council has finished drafting the bill on the protection of women against violence, which includes articles under which whoever forces a girl to marry is punished with a maximum sentence of detention. Soon the bill will be brought to the parliament to discuss it prior to its adoption.”
She noted, “This bill will be a huge protection for women as it includes penalties, for the first time, for whoever forces a girl to marry, which will help reduce the problem, especially amid the difficulty recognizing the number of victims of forced marriage.”
Yahia added, “The council is carrying out a door-to-door campaign to spread awareness on all forms of violence among families and girls with a particular focus on villages and Upper Egypt, given the dramatic proliferation of forced marriage. This will only change with laws. That’s why defected customs and ideas should be changed, too.”
Forced marriages are connected to many psychological problems women suffer from, according to Ahmed Hanafi, a psychiatrist and cognitive behavioral therapist.
He told Al-Monitor, “Marriage by force is a crime given the subsequent psychological complications the girl suffers, on top of which are depression and estrangement. It could even reach lack of confidence in others, including viewing her father or guardian as a traitor because he abandoned her.”
He added, “This psychological state also negatively affects the children of such marriages, as they become more aggressive and nervous in light of the constant disputes between the father and mother. Children are affected also when the mother is in a constant state of depression resulting from her forced marriage."
Forced marriage is a multidimensional problem, especially since religion prohibits the practice but without having an explicit legal provision punishing whoever commits it. The phenomenon requires combining all efforts to quickly adopt a law that protects women from all forms of violence to provide all means of possible support to them.
Ahmed Aleem is an Egyptian writer and researcher who writes for Egypt's Al-Shorouk newspaper and the Lebanese As-Safir. He has published his research with several Arab and Egyptian centers in addition to writing three scholarly books and two novels.