Over a decade ago I made legal history in Egypt, but to fight for women’s rights we need to change the culture, not just the laws

Arab Muslim societies continue to treat women as second class citizens, as protectors of the family’s ‘honour’, as potential sources of disgrace rather than individuals who have rights

Even though laws are gradually changing in favour of equality, women’s social, economic and political status has barely improved in most Arab countries ( Getty )

It was almost 15 years ago that I became pregnant, and instead of quietly getting it “taken care of”, I decided to keep the baby and challenge the social norms of my country of origin. Having a child from an unofficial urfi marriage, in a country like Egypt, meant a scandal for my family and I, as they have no official contract and are often kept secret.

Under Egyptian law, without an official marriage contract, only a man can register a child’s birth. As a result, tens of thousands of children are legally non-existent; they cannot be issued birth certificates, passports, receive vaccinations, register for school or even get married.

In Egypt, the standard three-step solution for any unmarried, upper class girl in my situation is an abortion, a hymen repair operation, then marriage to the first unwitting suitor the family can snare. Poorer women without access to these options can face death – killed by a male member of the family to end the “shame” and cleanse the family’s “honour”. For me, play-acting my way through the virgin-marriage pageant was not an option. Instead, I did the unthinkable and chose to keep my baby.

The father of my child refused to acknowledge his paternity, and I chose to take my case public, scandalising the nation. And while a small group of feminists and educated elites strongly supported my case, the vast majority of the country was against it.



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