Who's the daddy? Ezz, Zeina and Egypt's Urfi marriages

Who's the daddy? Ezz, Zeina and Egypt's Urfi marriages
3 min read
Blog: An Egyptian court has upheld a paternity claim filed by actress Zeina against actor Ahmed Ezz, who refuses to admit fathering her children while in a "customary" marriage.
Egyptian actress Zeina won a paternity case against actor Ahmed Ezz [AFP]
After fighting a legal battle for more than a year, Egyptian actress Zeina this week won a court ruling upholding her claim that film star Ahmad Ezz is the father of her twin children.

The Family Court in Cairo ordered authorities to officially register Ezz, an Egyptian national, as the biological father of her twin children, now aged 18 months.

In court, Zeina said the children were a product of an Urfi marriage with Ezz in 2012.

"Thank God, the truth has prevailed. I thank everybody who stood by me," she said as she emerged from the court building on Thursday.

In a statement released following the court decision, Ezz's lawyers said they were submitting a complaint against the ruling to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zend.

In Egypt, urfi (or customary marriage) is reportedly widespread, but controversial. It may be made by the couple signing a document with two witnesses, but without registering with the state.

According to Egypt's National Council for Women, urfi marriage is unofficial, as it is undocumented by the state. However, it can be religiously lawful under certain conditions.

Within an urfi marriage, sexual relations are permissible, and young Egyptians often use urfi as a way to enter into a relationship without the economic and social burdens associated with formal marriage.

Urfi marriages can be problematic, despite being legally recognised in 2000. Women can have a particular difficulty proving the parentage of their children.
Thank God, the truth has prevailed. I thank everybody who stood by me
- Zeina

It can therefore be difficult to register the birth at all, let alone with the name of the father on the birth certificate.

Focus of study

A Perth university study examining how discrimination prevents women from registering their child's birth found that, although women have had the right to register their child in Egypt since 2008, this is not often applied in practice.

The survey demonstrated a lack of awareness of the 2008 law, including by registrars. Social pressure was also described as an obstacle to single mothers - being "very shameful" for a woman to register her child alone.

The case that changed the country's approach was that of a woman in Alexandria who was prevented from registering the birth of her daughter, as her husband, due to matrimonial disputes, had instructed the health bureau not to put his name on the document.

After the woman filed a report in April this year, the local administrative court confirmed the right of Egyptian mothers to register their child's births.

The ruling allowed women to register their children - born from an urfi marriage - under the name of the person they name as the father, albeit temporarily, until a specialised court rules on the paternity.

It sparked controversy among lawmakers and religious scholars, who believed urfi marriage went against the rulings of Islam.

"The ruling allows women to attribute children to any man of their choosing, giving them a way out of the predicament caused by informal marriages or adultery," said Ahmed Saad, professor of civil law at Cairo University. 

"Because informal marriages are illegitimate, for not meeting conditions such as documentation, public declaration, and the presence of witnesses, relying solely on a piece of paper, it cannot be the basis of establishing lineage. Children in the event they are not recognised by the father are considered illegitimate until proven otherwise."

The Egyptian centre for Women's Rights welcomed the April ruling "as a new guarantee for Egyptian mothers and a victory for their rights".

Zeina's case has parallels with another paternity case - involving Hind al-Hinnawy and actor Ahmed al-Feshawy, whose story of urfi marriage and a disputed child became the centre of national controversy in 2006.