Love and Marriage Behind Egypt’s Prison Bars

Friday 23 April 202106:18 pm
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“A place overcrowded with detainees. We girls were assigned to a tight space, resembling a small kitchen. There, I sat — lost, barely 18 years old — in my first prison experience. Not knowing what awaited me, I continued to survive and wait for the unknown.”

“I heard someone calling out, ‘Hey Sanajek, these sweets have been sent to you.’ Astonished, I wondered who knew me here? I do not know anyone in this place. I took the sweets and opened the package. Inside, I found a piece of paper that says, ‘I love you. I’ve been looking for you for a long time, and I want to marry you,’ signed: Mohammad,” recounts Sanajek Omar from Tanta, in the Delta area of Egypt.

“Mohammad, her high school classmate saw her in jail and decided he wants to marry her as soon as they are both released, after all they did nothing.”

Mohammad is her high school classmate. He had asked for her hand in marriage inside the state security detention facility. Sanajek tells Raseef22, “That was in 2015. I was released following 11 days of detention, and Mohammad was also released, but when I got out and arrived at my house, Mohammad remained in prison due to the obstinacy of one of the security officers working there. Mohammad asked his family to visit my parents and propose to me, and I found myself facing severe objection from my father. Meanwhile, Mohammad continued to send messages from inside the prison expressing how much he wanted me, and that he would marry me as soon as he is released, especially since his court case is a simple one.”

Sanajek continues, “Facing heavy pressure from me and my mother, my father agreed in the end, and the engagement took place. I announced the news to our relatives, while waiting for Mohammad to be released to finalize the engagement and get married. But suddenly he was referred to be tried in a military court and received a 10-year military sentence. This left the two families lost and disoriented, and there were calls from within my family, saying things like, ‘What is the reason to get yourself trapped for this long, you will become a spinster’, ‘Break it off and God will grant you someone that is better than him’, ‘Why go through all this trouble and humiliation, you are still young’, and other words that felt like knives to my skin in a situation that I didn’t even know how to act or behave.”

Wishing for a Miracle

Sanajek had no choice but to wait for the time when they could appeal the ruling, and after a long wait, the appeal was rejected. Mohammad was transferred to a high-security prison, and there, she was prohibited from visiting him. The situation became even more difficult, and the only solution for visitation was an official marriage contract between the two of them. This way, she be able to visit him as his wife officially in the eyes of the law, but her father vehemently refused.

“While being held in a place resembling a kitchen, I heard someone calling out, ‘Sanajek, these sweets have been sent to you.’ I wondered who knows me here? I took the sweets and opened them. Inside, I found a piece of paper that says, ‘I love you, and I want to marry you”.

Sanajek says, “I kept praying for a long time until one day, I found my father approaching me regarding the subject of marriage. He said that he had thought about it and agreed, and that he was ready to begin on the marriage contract procedures. The marriage finally took place, thank goodness, and I could finally visit him. He has served seven years, with three more years to go. I hope to God that a miracle will happen, and my wedding finally happens, and I will get to move on from this unusual stage of suspended marriage.”

From Sanajek to Sumayya Maher, who had waited for her husband until he served his period after he was detained following his participation in a demonstration. Sumayya never tired of praying and asking for her husband to be released, and finally, her dream was fulfilled. Her husband got out, and so began the preparations and celebrations for their big day.

Just a few hours before the wedding ceremony — after having bought the dress and finished the preparations — Somayya was surprised by a police car in front of her house that drove away with her to an unknown destination. She appeared a while later, and it turns out she was imprisoned in connection to a political case. This time, it was her husband’s turn to carry out her previous role of waiting, sharing prayers for her release on his Facebook page.

As for Amina, she says, “Loyalty isn’t the trait that all of them carry,” while speaking regarding her opinion on the loyalty of detainees to their sweethearts. She tells Raseef22, “After six years of roaming about in prisons, the suffering of standing in long lines for humiliating inspections, as well as the heavy burden of the visit itself — alongside the expenses that I’d saved up from selling my personal jewelry after his family refused to help me despite being well-off — when he got out and things settled down for him, he surprised me that he was looking for a new bride in order to start a new love story with her.”

Amina asked him, “Is this my reward for running after you in prisons?” His deadly response was, “You remind me of prison. I want to start a new life. I don’t want anything that reminds me of it.” Amina ends her story with, “I am currently preparing my documents to lift my right of ‘Khula’ [procedure through which a woman can divorce her husband in Islam] following two years of marriage.”

Years of Hoping and Waiting

Amidst the turmoil that takes place in relationships inside prisons, Maryam (pseudonym) from the city of Mansoura tells Raseef22, “My father broke off my engagement from my fiancé, who has been detained for five years now, in fear of people’s talk and gossip.” The dialogue here — as is the case for the entire article —concerns arrests made for political reasons, not criminal.

People used to blame her father a lot, saying, “What’s so wrong with your daughter that you engage her to someone who is a prisoner?” She says, “We heard strange things, so the engagement was broken off, and the gold [that had been gifted] was returned to his family. But I am waiting for him, and I refuse to sit with any others. I reject anyone that proposes to me, and I’m facing great conflicts between me and my father. But I will wait for my fiancé so that I can marry him in four years when his prison term ends.”

"I didn’t grow tired of visiting despite the bitterness of life and my husband’s family making life difficult for me.”

The end of many years of waiting arrived with a heavy shock for Nadia (pseudonym) who spent five years going for a visit every 15 days and went to more than four different prisons to visit her husband. She tells Raseef22, “I did not grow tired of visiting despite the bitterness of life, as well as my husband’s family making life difficult for me, the restrictions on my freedom in his absence, and my lack of complaining to him because I was taking his situation into account.”

She goes on, “I was surprised while I was in the visiting hall, saying to the trustee that I am the wife of so-and-so, and he responds with, ‘His wife has entered to visit, who are you?’ Yes! After I awoke from my shock, I found out that he had indeed gotten married to a woman who had been elected for him by his family. He had appointed a power of attorney in his stead, and the contract of marriage was completed.”

Nadia continues, “When I objected, he told me, ‘Go knock your head against the walls. Someone else will come to visit me other than you, and relieve my family, goodbye.’ This was the result of my patience, my concealment, my lack of complaint, and him giving his family all his agency. I have reached this situation.”

Dr. Hesniyah al-Batriq, a family and psychological counselor, stresses in a statement to Raseef22 that the community of detainees is nothing but an arena similar to normal life, and calamities occur in it, just as what happens in our society. It is also teeming with stories of loyalty and love, but all its members agree that what distinguishes it is “pain” and the feelings associated with it, compared to life outside prisons.

“Me, my Husband and my Child”

Halima Abdelaziz from Cairo tells Raseef22, “My husband came to propose to me and was waiting for my response, but just three days later he was arrested. I found myself informing his family of my consent, and so the engagement took place, and I waited for him to be released. I was surprised that from his first trial session that he had received a 15-year military sentence, and he was deported to a remote prison. The only solution to visit him is having an official marriage contract between the two of us, so I took the step even though everyone around me thought I was crazy, saying that ‘when he gets out, you would be in your forties, how would you get married and have children then’.”

She adds, “I ignored all their words. I was certain that a miracle would happen, and we would meet. Indeed, he was offered a presidential pardon more than once. I was surprised that he was among those pardoned, and within four days, the release procedures were completed. Now I am with my first child Anas, and am also waiting for a new baby that’s on the way.”

Amina asked him, “Is this my reward for running after you in prisons?” His deadly response was, “You remind me of prison. I want to start a new life. I don’t want anything that reminds me of it.”

On a related note, Mimi Mansour, who lives in the city of Zagazig, tells Raseef22, “My husband has been getting arrested since the days of Mubarak. He gets out and is arrested again and so on. All of these are endless political cases, and he was acquitted and found innocent on almost all charges. He gave me the freedom to divorce 15 years ago following his repeated detentions, thinking that he was being unfair to me, but I vehemently refused.”

“And here I am waiting for him, after 20 years he is acquitted, and is ‘recycled’ in another case. And so, I do not know the end of this ridiculous saga, but I am waiting for him to share with me the joy of his son’s graduation, and that of his daughter who’s in the Faculty of Medicine.”

According to reports, Egypt is witnessing increasing human rights violations, and a continuous targeting of voices critical of the regime. Egyptian security authorities have devised a mechanism that enables them to carry on with this repression: “recycling detainees”.

Egyptian law does not allow anyone to be detained for more than two years pending investigation and then they must be released. This process of “recycling” emerged in the absence of evidence or “real accusations or charges” for a large number of dissenters as well as freedoms and rights defenders. According to human rights organizations, the number of political prisoners in Egypt reaches up to nearly 60,000 detainees.
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