Thursday, June 29, 2006

An Egyptian scandal

terI found out about this story last night while having a drink with a couple friends who I studied Arabic with a few years back. My first thought was, "Wow, a scoop!" Then I was told the trial had ended a year ago. Looking on the internet, I found this article from an obscure daily (The New York Times), and rather than summarizing the story on my own, I've placed the article below. Check it out, it's really interesting. Post your own thoughts.

Paternity Suit Against TV Star scandalizes Egyptians
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR Published: January 26, 2005

CAIRO, Jan. 25 - The standard three-step program for any unmarried upper-class Egyptian girl who becomes pregnant is an abortion, an operation to refurbish her virginity with a new hymen and then marriage to the first unwitting suitor the family can snare.

But Hind el-Hinnawy, a vivacious 27-year-old costume designer, decided she was not going to playact her way through the virgin-marriage pageant. Instead she did the unthinkable here: she had the child and then filed a public paternity suit, igniting a major scandal and prompting a national debate over the clandestine marriage contracts that young couples are using to have sex in this conservative, religious society.

"The whole society says: 'No! No! No! Don't say this. It's shameful. It's a scandal. Go have an abortion. This girl was not well raised. She's loose,' " said Attiyat el-Abnoudi, a renowned Egyptian documentary maker who after hearing about the case became so involved that she has become the child's godmother.

"The importance of this case is that it is out in the open," she said. "The whole society has to question whether it is only her, or whether the society is changing. Young people want to make love without getting married."

This case has mesmerized the country, particularly because Ms. Hinnawy says her daughter's father is Ahmed el-Fishawy, a famous 24-year-old actor. He is the scion of a family of movie stars and well-known as the host of a now canceled television talk show dispensing advice to devout Muslim youth.

He contends that the couple never had sex or even met off the set of the television comedy pilot, called "When Daddy Returned," where she helped create his wardrobe.
By filing suit, Ms. Hinnawy did more than just shatter a social taboo. She may well set an Egyptian legal precedent by requesting that the court order Mr. Fishawy to submit to a DNA test to establish whether he is the father of young Leena, born in October with a shock of soft black hair. DNA testing is relatively novel here, never before used to prove paternity in court.
In Egypt and across the Arab world, respectable sex requires marriage, particularly for a woman, and especially for the first time.

Ms. Hinnawy contends that the two had what is known as an urfi marriage, a practice in Sunni Islam that allows couples to marry in private with a contract they draft.
Urfi marriages have become far more common in recent years because the combination of tough economic times and a renewed emphasis on Islamic mores means that normal marriages remain an elusive dream for so many.

Tradition dictates that a young man who wants to wed first buy an apartment, furnish it and shower his fiancée with gold jewelry, an unreachable expense for many bachelors. Corporate tycoons and politicians who are married have found urfi marriages a convenient means to carry on affairs with everyone from secretaries to belly dancers with an Islamic seal of approval.

But the clandestine nature of such marriages makes reliable statistics unavailable. Made public, Ms. Hinnawy's story became the talk of Egypt.

Conservative commentators decried the demise of the traditional Egyptian family. Gossip magazines splashed the scandal across their covers. The mufti, the highest religious authority in the country, issued an edict reminding everyone that secret marriage or no, the welfare of the baby girl was paramount.

Ms. Hinnawy said she had purposely held off telling her parents, who had rejected four suitors as unacceptable, that she was pregnant until it was too late to abort.
"I am trying to say to other people, not only girls, to try to have the courage to be responsible for what you do," she said during an interview at her family home. Her baby daughter, whom she will not allow to be photographed, was bouncing on her knee.
She complained that Egyptians prefer hypocrisy to what they consider public disgrace.
"I did the right thing: I didn't hide, and eventually he will have to give the baby his name," she said. "People prefer that a woman live a psychologically troubled life; that doesn't matter as long as it doesn't become a scandal."

In general, abortion is illegal in Egypt, but doctors are given wide leeway to interpret two general Islamic guidelines: that it is acceptable in cases where pregnancy might jeopardize the health of the mother and that the fetus gains a soul at three months. It is an option for women with means, though.
For women in poor Cairo neighborhoods or along the upper reaches of the Nile, out-of-wedlock pregnancies often end in death: the girl killed by her father or brother to end the public shame and cleanse the family honor.

Ms. Hinnawy's family lives in the Moqattam Hills, a favorite new suburb of Cairo's well-to-do on the eastern desert plateau overlooking the heaving metropolis. Her parents - Hamdi Abdo el-Hinnawy, an economist, and Selwa Mohamed Abdel Baki, a psychology professor - acknowledge that they were appalled at first when their daughter told them. Some of the extended family remain horrified.

The fact that the Hinnawys are a family apart is readily apparent from the front gate, which displays the names of both parents. Most such plaques name just the man of the house.
"I don't make the link between honor and sex," said Mr. Hinnawy, a short, soft-spoken man whose wiry hair is shot with gray. "Honor is one thing and sex another. Any guy or girl can have sex without sacrificing their honor. Of course there are certain conditions - that there be love, for example."

Mr. Hinnawy made an unusual decision in supporting his daughter, and the strain sometimes shows. On Jan. 6, the first day of arguments in the lawsuit, he was squeezing his way through the habitually packed corridors at Cairo's Family Court, trailed by television cameras, when a veiled woman screamed above the bedlam: "Go teach your daughter some values! It's a scandal, and you are filming it! Go fix your daughter's mess!"
"She did not make a mess!" Mr. Hinnawy retorted. "It's only a scandal for you and those like you!"
The case galvanized feminists of all stripes, and a score of Egypt's most prominent female activists showed up. Before postponing arguments until Feb. 24, the judge barred spectators, transforming the cramped, drafty waiting area outside the courtroom into a sort of commentators' souk.

On one bench Selma Bakr, a novelist with short curly black hair, said she was thrilled because she was convinced that the case would help defeat the conservative Saudi values that she said had changed Egyptian society for the worse since she was a student in the 1960's.
"These values from Wahhabi Islam are completely different from our Islamic values," Mrs. Bakr said. "This is petrodollar Islam. Women are considered objects for sex, for family, for marriage. But we need to let women be citizens, to have the same rights as all citizens."
On another bench Safinaz Kazem, a veiled, outspoken writer with Islamist leanings, railed against the so-called new religious sheiks whom, it is claimed, Mr. Fishawy consulted while the young couple were secretly fighting about an abortion. Ms. Hinnawy said one such figure had told them that they should each sacrifice five camels and fast for 60 days, then God would absolve them.

Ms. Hinnawy's lawyer, Mamdouh el-Waseemy, argued that Mr. Fishawy must submit to the DNA test to ensure the baby's welfare. In an interview, he said there were about 18,000 paternity suits across Egypt currently. DNA was used for the first time just six months ago, in a complicated rape trial in which the criminal charges trumped the paternity issue.
Mr. Waseemy said the Family Court judges were eager to find a test paternity case to push for DNA evidence, considering it far more scientific than the usual method of summoning witnesses like doormen to testify that they had seen the couple entering the same apartment.
Yousri Samy Sayed, the lawyer for Mr. Fishawy, argues that there never was a marriage and that in the absence of a contract, his client will not submit to the test.
"You cannot accuse any man in the street just by saying: 'This is my husband and the father of my child. I want him to go take a DNA test,' " said Mr. Sayed, a favorite lawyer for actors. "There has to be some evidence first that there was a marriage relationship."
He accuses Ms. Hinnawy of being a gold-digger, seeking to trade on his client's fame by taking her case public.

Ms. Hinnawy denies the charge. She says that there was a contract, but that when she first told Mr. Fishawy last spring that she was pregnant, he nicely asked for both copies so he could make the marriage official by registering it. She says that she has not seen the documents since, and that afterward he told her he would never marry an unveiled woman.
It is hard to gauge exactly where public sentiment lies. Among students interviewed outside the gates of Cairo University, for example, some suggested that Ms. Hinnawy was a tramp whose ambitions would have no effect on youth culture.

Others hoped that she would win and strike a blow for more open, equal relations between men and women and help lift the shame from sex. Some social scientists note that since the case went public, urfi marriages have suddenly become an important subplot in television soap operas, usually resolved with the marriage being made official.

The fictional versions seem pale in comparison with the real drama.

Writing in the semiofficial daily Al Ahram, the columnist Mohamed Shamroukh said, "It's like a TV series where everyone is dying to watch the last episode, making it the first reality series ever starring its own writers with an undetermined ending."


This isn't the end of the story. For the sad, second chapter, check out this link


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