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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 February 2005, 19:28 GMT
Paternity scandal divides Egypt
By Heba Saleh
BBC News, Cairo

A court in Egypt has ordered a young actor, Ahmed al-Fishawy, to take a DNA test in a controversial paternity suit that has divided Egyptian public opinion.

Cairo street scene
The case has raised issues that are largely taboo in conservative Egypt

The suit was filed by Hend el-Henawy, a set designer who says her four-month-old baby is the result of a brief, secret marriage between her and the actor.

But Mr Fishawy denies the relationship and says he only knew her as a colleague.

It is a story which has riveted Egyptians, arousing much sympathy for Ms Henawy's plight, but also condemnation from those shocked by her decision to go public.

Refusing to terminate her pregnancy, she went to court to prove the legitimacy of her baby girl and obtain a birth certificate for her.

It was an unusual move in a conservative society where the preferred course for most women in her situation would have been an abortion carried out in silence.

"I can be a first step towards change," says Ms Henawy. "I can show other people and I can tell girls that I took my right, so you can take your right too.

"And I am telling men as well, you're not always going to have a relation and run away."

Unprotected

She says that she had with Mr Fishawy what is known in Egypt as "orfy" or common law marriage.

It is a kind of union in which the state is not involved.

Here most of society looks at the boy as if he has committed no wrong
Hoda Badran
Alliance of Arab Women

The partners write their own marriage contract, get two people to sign it as witnesses and the document is not registered at a government office.

Ms Henawy says she cannot produce her marriage contract because Mr Fishawy has it.

Common-law marriages are legal under Islamic law, even if frowned upon by society, because generally those who resort to them have reasons to keep their relationships secret, often because their families disapprove or the man is already married and he does not want his first wife to find out that he has taken another.

Orfy unions have become widespread among university students because they provide a legitimate means to have sex in a society where there are strict taboos about premarital relations.

But it is invariably the women who suffer when such marriages go wrong.

Not only do they lack the legal protection afforded by a registered marriage contract, but they also have to face the anger of society.

"Here most of society looks at the boy as if he has committed no wrong," says Hoda Badran, chairwoman of the Alliance of Arab Women.

"Even to the extent to say that that girl, she got him to that relationship and she got him to get that child and get herself pregnant."

Hend El Henawy said she was thrilled with the court decision to order a DNA test.

"I want this to end as fast as possible because this is the birth certificate of my baby. It is still something emotional that I might not need right now - she's not going to school right now - but it is important because without it is as if my baby doesn't exist."


SEE ALSO
Young in the Arab World: Egypt
16 Feb 05 |  Middle East
Wind of reform blows across Egypt
30 Dec 04 |  Middle East
Country profile: Egypt
15 Jan 05 |  Country profiles

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