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Egyptian love and marriage behind bars

August 1, 2023 at 3:02 pm

A picture taken on January 16, 2022 shows the Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre in Badr city, Egypt [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

A look of admiration from behind bars, accompanied by hope for a better tomorrow that brings her and her life partner together. A life partner in whose cause she believes and has pride in his steadfastness in the face of his jailer, awaiting his release to that she can complete her happiness by wearing her white gown and marrying her groom who has been released from the cells of injustice, pain and death.

This is the situation for many girls in Egypt, who have accepted marriage to political detainees who may have received severe prison sentences. They are waiting for the day of their release in order to crown their journey of admiration, love and steadfastness with marriage.

Dozens and possibly hundreds of families of detainees, especially supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, are strengthening their relationships behind bars through marriage. This strengthens the steadfastness of the political prisoners, and relieves their families from social embarrassment, especially with the growing fear within society that marrying their daughters to detainees may lead to arrest or persecution.

Meetings take place during the visiting times granted by the prison department within the Interior Ministry. They are held with the knowledge of the parents, who accompany their daughter to see the detainee who has proposed to her through her relatives who are probably also imprisoned.

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The parties realise that the difficult moments to get to know each other are a true test of their personalities, and that a cell is not the place for boasting, lying or portraying a false self-image that has nothing to do with reality.

“Who will marry these young men when they are released from prison?” This question was posed by an elderly detainee to his peers behind the bars of Egypt’s Fayoum Prison. He clings to a glimmer of hope for a better tomorrow for a generation that has spent its prime in prison. According to an eyewitness who spoke to Middle East Monitor, the old man answered his own rhetorical question: “Our daughters will.”

The father is waiting for the first visit by his wife, to tell her about the matter, and to tell her that the young man who is his cellmate has proposed to his daughter. She will be consulted on the matter, and if she agrees, she will come to visit her father on the next visit to see the detained groom.

On the second day of Eid al-Fitr earlier this year, inside the same prison an engagement took place between Miss MA and the detainee RM, who is her father’s cellmate. He is imprisoned on charges of joining a banned group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is classified by the Egyptian authorities as a “terrorist” organisation.

The bride’s father asked his fellow inmates to choose a joint date for the exceptional visit that they are allowed during Eid to ensure the presence of a large number of detainees’ families during the ceremony, which was arranged secretly behind bars.

Things went normally. The bride came to visit her father, accompanied by her mother, feeling anxious and afraid. However, these feelings subsided to be replaced by joy, an insistence on steadfastness, and the conviction that life must go on despite the jailer.

“The mother took out a gold ring and gave it to her daughter’s fiancé, to give to the bride, announcing their engagement, with everyone’s blessings,” explained the anonymous witness. “Everyone exchanged congratulations, passed out chocolates, and sang songs, hurriedly, all within a few minutes. However, this was enough to start a journey of love between the two parties, which will end in marriage after the groom’s release.”

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Prisoner AJ did not believe that his imprisonment for nearly two years for taking part in a demonstration, and his transfer between a number of prisons, would lead to the good news that he would meet his life partner and marry her. “I got to know her father inside our cell, and our relationship strengthened,” he told Middle East Monitor. “I learned that he had a daughter of marrying age, so I proposed and asked for her hand in marriage, without seeing her. He accepted and arranged the matter with his wife on the next visit. He told her everything about me and asked her to ask his daughter.”

Arrangements were made to see the bride during one of the visits. However, he was released before her father. “This gave me the opportunity to visit her family and meet the bride face to face. It ended in her accepting the proposal.” The bride’s father was the only one missing from the wedding celebrations, which witnesses scenes of great happiness.

Prisons provide an opportunity to meet other detainees from different regions, and various political and intellectual currents. The initiation of marriage relations, especially between political prisoners, defies the barrier and cruelty of injustice.

Sisi Era - Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Sisi Era – Cartoon [Carlos Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

FA is counting down the months, days and hours while waiting for the 10-year sentence being served by her fiancé to pass. He was charged in a political case related to opposing President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and is scheduled to be released in 2024.

She saw him during a visit to her father, who is also imprisoned; there was no pressure on her. She decided to weave a story of love, even defiance, struggle and steadfastness, in solidarity with this prisoner who is like her father, and suffers like him behind bars, without committing a crime.

One of the bride’s relatives praised her position, which took place with her complete consent. “No one, regardless of their capabilities, has the power to pressure a girl to marry a political prisoner, but she often feels for him, lives his cause, and shares his suffering. The matter is greater than love, she believes in it, and it is difficult for her to regret it. She sees marrying a prisoner as a message of defiance to the jailer, and she trusts in God and believes that He will crown their steadfastness with freedom and marriage.”

However, AM crossed the limits of logic, and set an example of defiance, steadfastness, and perhaps stubbornness and madness, when she agreed to marry MA on the day that he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. She insisted on their religious ceremony taking place in 2017, the same year that her father died in an Egyptian prison as a result of medical negligence. It is as if she wanted to convey to everyone a defiant message that she would persevere until his release, so that together they would enjoy freedom and victory in spite of the jailer’s will.

This is what Rafida Hamdi, the wife of detainee Mohammed Adel, the prominent activist of the 6 April opposition movement, did. She insisted on marrying him in prison, so that she could visit him without complications, telling the BBC, “Many friends warned me not to do this, but I married Mohammad to get close to the person I love, and to help him get through what he is suffering.”

On the other side of the stories of love and marriage behind bars there have been unhappy endings for some political detainees whose proposals were rejected or whose engagements or marriages ended after they were given harsh prison sentences.

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One Egyptian researcher in the affairs of Islamic movements, Imad Hussein, considers these relations as an extension of an old tradition carried out by a group from the Brotherhood between 1954 and 1965. Some of the leaders of the Guidance Office had such a relationship with kinship that began in a prison cell. Among them is the Brotherhood’s Guide himself, who is currently behind bars yet again; Dr Muhammad Badie’s wife is the daughter of one of the leaders who were imprisoned with him decades ago.

Hussein told Middle East Monitor that he does not think that the matter is a message to the jailer or the ruling regime as much as it is an urgent need. “This bond and its continuity after release, brings together the detainees, especially members of the Brotherhood. They search for a marriage bond to preserve their bond and its continuity after release.” From a psychological point of view, he explained, prisoners are the closest and most understanding of each other, and they believe that those who are like them are the most deserving of marrying someone close to them due to considerations of forced fellowship that showed the good qualities of each of them. “Moreover, these marriages were founded from the first day on sacrifice and pure love for God, and we cannot forget that this bond is often held hypothetically, in the hope of it continuing after the prisoners are released.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.