Her eyes full of resolve and anguish, Samah Abdel Salam, a 36-year-old journalist working for the daily newspaper Al-Ahram explains to the family court judge in New Cairo, on 15 July, how she has locked herself up at home for over a year to avoid people’s gaze. On her left arm is her daughter, Diala, the fruit of her non-marital relationship with a well-known Egyptian artist.
Her face hidden behind her mother’s shoulder, Diala looks fearfully at the cameras pointed towards her. Although three years old, the little girl has no birth certificate and has not yet met her biological father. Abdel Salam has been battling for fifteen months to have the court oblige her former partner to recognise his daughter or to at least take a DNA test.
After repeated attempts at trying to establish paternity for her young daughter, Abdel Salam was once again left disappointed. The judge decided to defer the verdict until 19 November and to send the case back to the public prosecution office for investigation.
“The personal status code in Egypt is governed by a strict religious law that does not recognise sexual relations outside the official framework of marriage,” says lawyer Taha Aboul Nasser. It does not even oblige a man to take a DNA test to settle paternity cases.
Children born out of such relationships are left without civil status and deprived of basic services, as the mother cannot give them her name. The women, meanwhile, have to assume sole responsibility for the children, and often become outcasts in a society renowned for its conservatism.
It all began in May 2017, when Abdel Salam posted a photo of her daughter on her Facebook page, and wrote: “Diala at her father’s exhibition”. Her former partner, Adel Al-Siwi, a very famous painter, denied any link with her. The mother turned to the legal system to seek a paternity acknowledgement for her daughter, but her first application was rejected by the family court. The journalist appealed the decision. The case went on to spark widespread contention in Egypt.
Paternity lawsuits only attract media attention in Egypt when a public figure is involved. Last year, a similar case attracted wide coverage: an actress went to court to have her twins acknowledged by their father, a famous actor.
75,000 paternity cases before the courts
Egypt’s family courts were created in 2004 to deal with civil cases in line with the “Personal Status Code”. Although different from the Islamic courts found in other Muslim countries, they also take on board the provisions of Islamic law, or Sharia. The family courts handle cases related to paternal filiation, the recognition of marriages and child custody.
Abdel Salam’s case is just one of the many thousands currently being handled by the courts. A report published in 2016 by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, CAPMAS, set the number of paternal filiation cases at 75,000. It argues that these figures can be explained by the protracted court proceedings and the rise in the number of “secret marriages” – often entered into when families disapprove of the relationship – which, even if solemnised in the presence of witnesses and with a signed document, have no legal value in terms of civil status.
The report estimates that the number of secret marriages had reached 88,000 in 2014, that is, nine per cent of the unions in Egypt that year. Since the 2011 revolution, there has been a sharp rise in paternity lawsuits, according to family lawyer Moataz al-Dakar, which can be explained by a degree of liberation among the young generation.
The law on filiation is based on an Islamic principle according to which a child (that is recognised) is “the fruit of marriage”. Since the reform of the “Personal Status Code” in 2008, a woman has the right to register her child, but only if she is able to present an official marriage certificate. Prior to that, the law did not even grant married women the right to go and register their children.
In the case of children born outside of marriage, the law gives women pursuing paternity proceedings the right to register the child under a temporary name, chosen by the official in charge of issuing birth certificates. To file proceedings, the woman must first provide evidence of a sexual relationship with the man she wishes to take legal action against. The judge has to deliver a verdict based on real documents (a document written by the couple, correspondence between them…) and the testimonies of witnesses corroborating the existence of the relationship in question. The men involved in such cases are under no obligation to take a DNA test. “Paternity litigation often takes more than three years. The woman is trapped in a painful and complicated legal maze,” says al-Dakar.
“Aside from the legal obstacles, the spirit of the law is clearly to punish and humiliate women,” says Intsar al-Saeid, head of the Cairo Centre for Development and Law. “The state frowns upon women who have sexual relations outside of marriage. This law is clearly aimed at controlling and regulating women’s behaviour,” she adds.
The centre run by Al-Saeid has defended five women this year who went to court to settle paternity disputes. Two of the women had official marriage certificates, but their husbands refused to recognise the children because they were girls. The centre took on four similar cases last year.
The majority of the women who file paternity cases end up losing, as the judges see these women as culprits rather than victims, according to lawyer Taha Aboul Nasser. “It is not easy to provide evidence of the relationship, as the majority are undocumented – with the women thinking they will marry the man in the future. This is compounded by the judges’ and society’s lack of sympathy for them.” Aboul Nasser cites the example of a client who lost her case in 2016, after five years of proceedings, for lack of evidence.
In September 2016, an Egyptian court delivered a verdict refuting any filiation between Gamal Maraouan, an Egyptian businessman, and a child born out of wedlock to a Lebanese singer, after a legal battle lasting over four years.
Women in this situation receive no support from society or the judges, not to mention the lawmakers. For Amena Nosseir, an MP and member of the religious affairs committee in parliament, it is they, the women, who put themselves in a difficult situation. “They agreed to enter into a sexual relationship out of wedlock and renounced their decency,” she argues.
The political leader does, however, feel that the law on filiation should be brought up to date. “We also need to put an end to men’s attempts to refuse to recognise their innocent children by exploiting the legal loopholes. DNA tests could easily be used to prove filiation,” she adds. The MP explains that she is working with other elected representatives on a bill addressing these issues, to be examined at the next session due to be held in October.
But will securing an amendment of the law be easy? “It will not,” replies Intsar al-Saeid, explaining that the religious authorities in Egypt have blocked all recent attempts to do so. “The religious authorities think that amending the law and making it easier to establish paternity in the case of children born out of wedlock could lead to even greater women’s liberation in terms of their moral conduct and encourage an increase in non-marital relations,” she explains. In 2010, al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in the country, opposed the application of an amendment making it possible for children born outside of marriage to take the name of their grandfather (their mother’s father).
Living with rejection and stigma
Similar legal obstacles are faced in several countries in the region. In Tunisia, for example, often quoted as “the Arab exception” in the area of women’s rights, Islamic law is also applied to free men from an obligation to take DNA tests. In Morocco, a paternity lawsuit sparked wide media interest in 2017. A verdict establishing paternity for a child born outside of marriage for the first time was overturned by the Court of Appeal in October. And, as in Egypt, these “black sheep” – the women and the children – are forced to keep a low profile.
At the same time as fighting a long and arduous legal battle, the women seeking to establish paternity for their children have to cope with being rejected by their families and stigmatised by society.
“Look at the messages I receive on Facebook. Many people insult me or make indecent proposals,” says Abdel Salam. She has filed three lawsuits, so far, for harassment, against people who describe her as a woman of “ill repute”, and of having multiple sexual partners.
In January 2017, the story of Hadeer Mekawy created a scandal in Egypt. Known under the name “single mother”, she had written a Facebook post about her secret relationship with her former partner, out of which a child was born. Two months later, she revealed that she had been forced out of her job and rejected by her family. “I cannot even walk freely on the streets,” she laments in an interview with the independent news website Masr Al-Arabia.