CAIRO — Egypt’s National Council for Women launched an initiative in June to end tribal marriages and help couples officially register their marriages by March 2018. The initiative is of key importance for many women in the governorate of South Sinai, who do not have official papers such as birth certificates and marriage documents.
Mona Salem, council's South Sinai branch adviser, told Al-Monitor, “We have recently discovered that a large number of South Sinai residents have not officially registered their marriages. Many lack national identity cards and birth certificates required to register a marriage.”
Salem added, “The absence of official documents deprives women of having access to basic rights, such as pensions, inheritance and even enrolling their own children in school. They can neither obtain a passport for hajj nor apply for loans for a project.”
The council's initiative will provide practical aid to those who have not documented their marriage, as well as financial assistance to those who cannot afford marriage fees. It will also be coupled with an ad campaign to educate people, particularly women, about the drawbacks of undocumented marriage.
Yet many gender experts and civil society members are concerned that the initiative, which is to last 10 months, will be insufficient to eliminate the deep-rooted practice of tribal weddings that often supplant civil marriage in South Sinai. Some tribes tend to hold onto traditions and customs, while some Bedouin families simply cannot afford to pay the legal commissioner to register their marriages. Moreover, families often do not register girls at birth and the absence of their birth certificates and national identity cards provides a handy excuse not to register the marriage as these documents would be required.
Since the project began, the women's council has documented 300 cases of unregistered marriage and then registered them with the help of the South Sinai civil registry; this appears to be only a small portion of unregistered marriages overall.
The women's council “provides financial assistance to those who are unable to afford 250 [Egyptian] pounds [$13.90] to pay the legal commissioner to register the marriage. This initiative will continue until March 2018,” Salem said.
She stressed the importance of using places of worship and turning to sheikhs to convince the people that it was important to have civil ceremonies, because it showed a commitment to their duties toward the state.
Although undocumented marriages also take place in other governorates, especially in Upper Egypt, Salem believes they are mostly prevalent in South Sinai, attributing this to “tribal customs, early marriage and the financial status of Bedouin families.”
She said the women's council “cannot be relied upon to register all unregistered marriages and help with all official papers, especially since the initiative will end in March 2018.” Therefore, the council's South Sinai branch is considering pushing for new legislation that would impose sanctions on families that do not document their marriages after March 2018, but it is yet to determine what kind of sanctions could be introduced.
Salem said some of the people of South Sinai are well-aware of the importance of registering marriages, especially in light of the economic crisis. A registered marriage brings advantages in terms of government subsidies on housing and school fees.
Speaking about the obstacles facing the initiative, Salem referred to the “high cost of the legal commissioner’s services, especially since the prices vary from one area to another, according to every commissioner’s estimates.” She said that some people who were not registered at birth or at marriage felt less of a bond with the homeland, and that by improving their civil rights, their sense of belonging would increase. This is particularly important in South Sinai, which is a border governorate where terrorism prevails, she said.
Salem added, “To get women to push for civil marriage and the rights it would entail, we need to improve education among the girls and provide them with economic means.”
The initiative received a broad acclaim from civil society in the governorate. On June 27, the Sons of Sinai (Abnaa Sinai) association cooperated with the the women's council to document tribal marriages.
Fatima Talaat, the chairman of the board of directors of Sons of Sinai, told Al-Monitor that the association has been able to document over 2,500 cases where birth certificates and national identity cards needed to be issued. She said, “The association’s activities also include holding seminars on civil rights, which attract many women and make them aware of their rights, including their right to ask for civil marriage."
Talaat stressed that the public was very responsive to the initiative in general, saying, “The people are enthusiastic about it and are asking the association to increase its activity. But the association has limited financial resources and there are not enough people to work on this.”
Poverty tops South Sinai’s problems.This, in turn, leads to lack of education and a tendency to marry off girls at an early age. The main problems facing Bedouin women are early and customary marriage as well as marriage between cousins; in most cases, the ceremonies involve an agreement between the parents of the bride and groom, in the presence of senior sheikhs and relatives.
According to a study conducted by a group of Egyptian researchers in 2012, 3,391 marriages between cousins took place in South Sinai; that is 37.5% of all marriages. The numbers are likely to be higher if undocumented marriages were included in the statistics.
Azzah al-Masaid, a feminist and journalist for Egyptian news site EgyFP in South Sinai, told Al-Monitor, “Tribal or customary marriages guarantee Bedouin women their full rights more than married women who have no official papers. This is because tribal customs respect marriage and ensure women's rights and the rights of their children.”
She said that every tribe has leaders and that when those leaders agree on certain rights with families, it becomes the final say, which all parties respect. “Many people in the tribal community in South Sinai do not believe in official marriage because it is worthless to them, while other groups find registering marriages with the help of a legal commissioner too expensive,” she added.
Masaid said, “Some people have had their birth certificates registered in one city but ended up getting married in another, which makes it difficult to arrange official papers. Bureaucratic red tape also stands in the way of obtaining legal documents.”
Masaid also expressed concern that the initiative would not reach many South Sinai residents, saying, “I heard about the initiative by chance." She said the women's council "did not promote it through the media, although volunteer and service work in South Sinai should always be advertised.” She said the council “should make a greater effort to inform people about the initiative [by instructing sheikhs to talk about this topic] in mosques and via loudspeakers to encourage residents to obtain their official documents and register their marriages.”