By Zeinab El Gundy
In 6 October City just outside Cairo, a satellite city which is home to one of the largest communities of Syrian refugees in Egypt, rumours quickly spread about how it was easy to find “mostly Islamist” NGOs promoting the marriage of Syrian women to Egyptian men for a small fee.
Allegations have already been levelled at particular Islamist organisations like well-known NGO El-Hosari that they are promoting marriages to Syrian women fleeing violence in their home country, for a small amount of money.
However, Rasha El-Maati, a Syrian-Egyptian activist who has been working with Syrian refugees in 6 October City for the last two years, denied knowing any Syrian refugees who had auctioned their daughters off.
"I have been searching for these cases after hearing about these claims but so far I found nothing,” she told Ahram Online. “All that I have found are consensual legal marriages between Syrians and Egyptians that follow Islamic rituals where the bride's rights are observed."
The only incidents close to these claims were where opportunists posed as matchmakers.
"I found out that some crooks wait outside mosques and speak to Egyptian men, offering to fix them up with Syrian brides for a small sum of money,” she explains.
“When the Egyptian men pay the money and agree to meet the next day to see their newly-purchased bride, they are shocked to find out that it has all been a scam, there is no wife and the 'matchmaker' has disappeared.”
Neither is there any evidence backing up the claims that El-Hosari organisation and mosque were selling Syrian brides for fees, El-Maati claims.
“These are unsubstantiated rumours,” El-Maati said. "I had a meeting a short time ago with Yasmine El-Hosari, the founder and the CEO of the NGO, and she told me that they do not host any activity related to Syrians anymore because they have had enough of these allegations.”
A suspicious advert was posted recently on a Facebook page called "The Coalition of Egyptian Salafist Youth", which shared the contact details of a Sheikh Mohamed Massad who was allegedly responsible for the marriage of Syrian "sisters" through El-Hosari. The post provided his mobile number.
When Ahram Online contacted Sheikh Mohamed Massad, he denied the allegations.
"This is completely untrue. I do not have any Syrian brides, nor do I work or have any relation with El-Hosari NGO or mosque," Massad says angrily. "It is a lie spread by a fake Facebook page to insult Islamists. This rumour is like all those accusations about the government selling the pyramids to foreign countries and the draft necrophilia law, propagated to defame the Islamists in Egypt."
He said that he has received over 200 phone calls and multiple texts after the false advert was published online.
"Most of the calls and texts were angry and rude. They were attacking me. They included international phone calls from Syria, as well as calls from Syrians in Egypt who are furious that such adverts about Syrian women exist."
Nevertheless, Massad adds, he did get a few calls from Egyptian businessmen looking for “cheap” Syrian brides.
El-Hosari NGO, for its part, also denied any involvement. El-Hosari is one of the oldest and most famous Islamist NGOs in the 6 October area.
"Mrs. Yasmine El-Hosari, the founder, has refuted these rumours both on TV and in the print media," an official working at El-Hosari told Ahram Online, adding that the NGO is considering seeking legal action against all those promoting the allegations.
Nevertheless, you can still find advertisements in the yellow pages of certain publications, seeking Syrian brides for wealthy Egyptian men or claiming that there are available Syrian women.
One such flyer Ahram Online was able to find, which was distributed in one of the mosques in the Delta city of Damnhour, advertised a marriage company called Smile Co. The leaflet read "available women and girls for marriage: veiled, divorced, widowed and Syrians.”
Ahram Online contacted the company and spoke to the owner, Sheikh Mohamed Afifi, who flatly denied that he was promoting the marriage of Syrian women refugees.
“I am totally against that type of marriage. So far the marriages I have helped fix involved three Syrian girls of Egyptian origins, all wedded in a legal way. I knew the families of these girls personally because I used to live and work in Damascus many years ago,” the sheikh claims.
However, he refused to explain why his company's flyers specified the availability of Syrian women.
Two weeks ago the state body the National Council for Women (NCW) issued an alarming statement: in the last year there have been 12,000 marriages between Syrians and Egyptians, many of them involving vulnerable refugee women forced to wed for financial reasons.
“The National Council of Women has sent two letters to the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior demanding that they stop the phenomenon of Egyptian men marrying Syrian refugee women and abusing their terrible living conditions,” the statement read.
The communiqué added that the International Federation of Egyptian Women in Europe had sent a memo to President Mohamed Morsi asking him to quickly intervene to stop the damning trend.
“[The marriages] between Syrian women and Egyptian youth usually cost LE500 per wife,” the statement specified. “The weddings are spreading into Egyptian cities like the satellite city of 6 October on the outskirts of Cairo, as well as other governorates like Alexandria.”
This report sparked uproar across the country and was heavily featured in pan-Arab news outlets since it coincided with reports by regional human rights activists that Syrian refugees were forced to auction their daughters off in Jordan.
Rights advocates then launched counter campaigns to combat the phenomenon.
In January 2013 the National Council for Women had previously issued a statement concerning the matter, following a series of news reports claiming that Muslim preachers and clerics were calling men in Egypt to marry Syrian women refugees in order "to protect them."
The council demanded an immediate investigation in the matter but nothing official was done about it.
The mystery of the 12,000 marriages
“The 12,000 marriages number is not a number estimated by the National Council. We read it in the media, in reports citing a memo sent by the International Federation of Egyptian Women to the President,” a spokesperson from the NCW told Ahram Online.
The International Federation of Egyptian Women did not respond to requests for comment.
“Since January 2013, the council launched a hotline for Syrian families if they feel pressured to resort to marrying off their daughters,” the NCW added. “The hotline can also be used by the Syrian women themselves to report any incidences where they felt someone was taking advantage of their situation.”
So far, the hotline yet to receive a single call.
According to the Ministry of Justice in Egypt, the official number of marriages between Egyptian men and Syrian women between January 2012 and March 2013 is 170, with 57 of those nuptials between January and March 2013.
To date, there are no official statistics of underage or urfi (customary) marriages. The latter do not have formal marriage contracts.
Marriages between Egyptians and foreigners are documented by the state at the foreign marriage office, which is part of the notary office. The marriages can only be registered in Cairo and Alexandria.
For Syrians, marriages in Egypt require the approval of the Syrian embassy or Syrian authorities in Damascus.
However, activists claim that as a lot of Syrian refugees avoid approaching the Syrian embassy, for fear of backlash from Bashar Al-Assad’s regime back home, many marriages go undocumented.
Myth and reality
“The numbers are greatly exaggerated. It surely isn’t the case that there are 12,000 in Egypt,” asserts Rassem Al-Atassi, chairman of the Arab Association of Human Rights in Syria.
Al-Atassi, who currently resides in Egypt, has been closely following the allegations of forced Syrian refugee marriages since the matter was raised more than five months ago.
“We have to differentiate between normal marriage cases and forced as well as underage marriages,” he explains. "We exclusively work on the second kind because they are illegal.”
To date, the association has only been able to document tens of cases of illegal or forced marriages during the last year, all in Cairo's 6 October City.
In most of these cases the Syrian family involved is extremely poor and living in dire conditions, Al-Atassi adds.
“The families appear to have been approached by other Syrians as well as Egyptians who claim to want to help them but in fact want to exploit them,” Al-Atassi continues, “All the marriages we documented did not last long. Most took the form of temporary marriages, ending in quick divorce.”
Al-Atassi said that the last case he documented was five months ago.
However, none of the women involved agreed to speak to Ahram Online.
The exaggeration in the reported numbers of marriages was confirmed by Syrian activist Sarah, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being targeted by the Assad regime because of the work she does with the refugee community.
“I have been searching for these cases but all I found were a few individual incidences that took place about five months ago in very poor families,” she explains, adding that the exaggeration in the numbers was part of a smear campaign against both Syrians and Egyptians.
“Our marital customs and traditions in Syria are completely different to that of Egypt. Whether a girl is rich or poor, we demand a high dowry, so it would be nearly impossible for Syrian families to sell their daughters in Egypt in the way it is portrayed in the media,” Sarah says, explaining that the alleged LE500 "cost" of the Syrian bride would be too low for the Syrian community.
Nevertheless Sarah, who has been married to an Egyptian for 20 years, attacked the Muslim preachers in Egypt for speaking about Syrian women in mosques.
“Sheikhs are insisting on exploiting Syrian women in their sermons, as if these women need the protection of the mosques,” she said.