Hind al-Hinnawy is a slight, 29-year-old Egyptian mother. She’s also a household name in Egypt, thanks to a high-profile paternity case she brought in 2004 against a famous actor, Ahmed al-Fishawy, who she says is the father of her 16-month old daughter, Lina.
In February of this year, the judge ruled against al-Hinnawy, who’s now appealing the verdict. At the same time, in large part due to her case, parliament is currently discussing a new law that would make DNA tests mandatory in paternity cases.
Al-Hinnawy says she raised the suit out of concern for her daughter’s welfare. “She has a right to be raised normally, to be like any baby,” she says. But because Lina has no official father, explains al-Hinnawy, she will face social stigma and discrimination all her life.
“She cannot be put in a good school,” adds al-Hinnawy. “She’ll have lots of problems. Parents will ask their children not to play with this kid because she’s illegitimate.”
Lina will also face legal and administrative hurdles. Egyptian law requires that fathers hold their children’s birth certificates. Illegitimate children, therefore, “grow up without a name, without any care from the government”, says Lamia Lotfy of the New Woman’s Research Centre. Without a birth certificate, a child has no access to state-run health care or schooling, and can’t get a passport to travel outside the country.
The mothers of illegitimate children also face social stigmas. In many cases, young women who become pregnant outside of marriage must choose between either having illegal abortions or abandoning their children, or facing the stigma of unwed motherhood. There is also the chance that “maybe her father or her brother will kill her if she has a baby outside marriage”, says Lotfy.
Lotfy’s organisation is one of four women’s and children’s rights NGOs that have waged a campaign, based on al-Hinnawy’s case, to change reigning paternity laws. The NGOs have lobbied both the Ministry of Justice and parliament, saying the case exemplifies the double standards in Egyptian family laws, which penalise women and children but let men get away scot-free.
“Girls are always blamed for everything and boys are always angels,” said Fardous al-Barnasy of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights. “If there’s a relationship and a pregnancy, the girl is always blamed, and she bears all the legal responsibility.”
Rights groups say Hind al-Hinnawy's case has served to focus attention on a growing problem. “There are hundreds of thousands of Hinds in Egyptian society,” said al-Hinnawy’s father, Hamdy. According to the framers of the new paternity law, there are hundreds of thousands of illegitimate children in the country, with some 14,000 paternity cases currently being tried in Egyptian courts.
Nine thousand of these cases result from so-called “Urfi” (“customary”) marriages, which are not registered with the authorities. These unofficial marriages, which require only a contract and two witnesses, are becoming increasingly common among young people who can’t face the expense of marriage but want to legitimise sexual relationships.
Urfi marriages, however, afford women no legal protection, with men sometimes hiding or destroying the contracts, erasing any evidence of the union. This is precisely what al-Hinnawy says happened to her.
While al-Fishawy refused to submit to a DNA test, the proposed paternity law would make such tests mandatory. If the alleged father declined to take the test, his refusal would be counted as evidence against him. On the other hand, if the test showed that the man in question was not the father, the woman would be penalised with a fine and jail term.
New legislation is needed to protect illegitimate children, “who are punished although they have committed no sin”, the draft law reads. These children have “the right to be recognised by their fathers and to have a family.” Otherwise, the proposal argues, the children – whose fathers refuse to acknowledge them and whose mothers are sometimes forced to abandon them – will “hate and take revenge” upon the society that rejected them.
Some religious figures and members of parliament have objected to the new law and the use of DNA tests, however, saying that, by the laws of Islam, fathers cannot recognise children born out of wedlock. On the other hand, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, one of the country’s highest religious authorities, has given his approval to the use of DNA tests.
Member of Parliament Mohammed Khalil Quwaita, one of three MPs to back the new law, notes that critics “say the law will encourage illegitimate relationships”. Quwaita argues, however, that the opposite is true. “The law limits such relationships, because the father – when he knows he’ll be forced to take a test to prove paternity – will think again before having an affair,” he said.
The law is currently being discussed by a number of parliamentary committees, and observers say it could be approved before parliament adjourns for the summer. One condition the draft law does not set, however, is a limit to how long paternity cases can drag on.
Most cases, including al-Hinnawy’s, are expected to last several years. “One day soon, I’m going to fight abroad, in the United Nations,” she says. “Our country signed the conventions on the rights of children. Where are this child’s rights?”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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