CAIRO – While celebrating his eldest son's lavish wedding, at which a number of famous singers and belly dancers performed, Nasser Hassan decided to "double the joy," he later recalled.
He announced that his son Omar would marry his cousin Gharam.
At the wedding, held in a province about 75 miles north of Cairo, the guests didn’t find it strange. Some would later tell Egypt’s Al Watan newspaper that there was “nothing inappropriate,” adding that it was only “an engagement, not a marriage".
Omar is 12 years old. His fiancee, Gharam, is 11.
Egyptian laws prohibit official registration for marriages for anyone under the age of 18. But the practice remains prevalent. According to UNICEF, 17 percent of Egyptian girls are married before the age of 18, the vast majority of the unions taking place in rural areas.
But in the case of Omar and Gharam, their engagement sparked outrage, particularly among child and women’s rights activists. The photos of the young couple – Omar in a blue suit, heavily made-up Gharam in a white dress, high heels, and wearing a tiara – splashed across newspapers in the country and heightened the anger.
That prompted Reda Eldanbouki, the head of the Women's Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness, to report the incident to the National Center for Childhood and Motherhood, a government agency. He also filed a complaint with the attorney general to investigate the incident and hold the parents accountable for this "crime," he said in a statement.
The engagement of Omar and Gharam “will only lead to an early marriage in which the girl will be deprived of equal chances to education, growth, and will isolate her from social spheres,” he said.
But if history is any indication, it’s unlikely the complaints will stop Egypt’s child marriages, a practice that is also prevalent in many nations in the Middle East, Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa. Dar al-Ifta, Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, has repeatedly urged state institutions to make concerted efforts to stop marriages among minors.
But that has either had little effect in many areas or has spawned efforts to manipulate the law. In Egypt’s rural areas, families marry off their children but usually delay the official registration of the marriage until the couples reach the lawful age of matrimony to avoid legal punishment. As a consequence, any children born of the marriage will not be issued birth certificates or be recognized until then, legal experts say.
Omar’s father, faced with the backlash of his decision, told local newspapers that he "is a free man and did nothing wrong."
He defended the engagement, saying that "Omar has always loved Gharam so much that he used to say he will marry her when they grow up.” He added that both children acted “beyond their years” and developed “strong feelings for each other” through Facebook and other social media and “wanted to get engaged.”
That’s why, Omar’s father said, he decided to announce their engagement now "before any other man asks for her hand in marriage when she is older".
"They will get married when they reach the legal age," he insisted.
This wasn’t the first child marriage in the province this year. In June, a 10-year-old bride in a pink dress sat next to her 12-year-old groom, celebrating their wedding. The National Center for Motherhood and Childhood deemed the marriage "an assassination of childhood."
— (((Rupert Bumfrey))) (@rupertbu) July 27, 2016
Omar’s father said his decision was meant to shield Omar and Gharam. “We have to protect them in their early years before they reach the age of deviation,” he told local newspapers.