The perils of young Egyptians' secret marriages Young couples are trying to find ways around Egypt's conservative attitudes to sex before marriage By Yolande Knell BBC News, Cairo In the leafy grounds of Cairo University there are many dating couples among the crowds of students. Some sit close together in shady corners and hold hands. Religious customs and ideas of social propriety in Egypt do not permit them to take their relationships much further. However there is a way of bending the rules - urfi marriage. Young Egyptians are said to be opting for these informal marriages in record numbers, often as a way of getting around religious strictures against premarital sex. It's quite a conservative society. There's no premarital or extramarital sex, so they believe this gives a legitimate cover to the relationship Madiha Safty Sociologist "It's a secret marriage between a boy and girl which even their parents don't know about," explains a 20-year-old archaeology student. "They don't announce it publicly." "From what I hear there are a lot of students in this university who have urfi marriages," adds his companion, Dina. A urfi marriage is literally a "traditional" or "customary" marriage which does not need an official contract. Some students sign a hand-written document or come to a verbal agreement. Others buy an unofficial marriage contract for about US $20 and sign it in front of two witnesses to try to meet Islamic requirements of a public declaration. 'Legitimate cover' Usually they carry on living at home and stay quiet about their arrangement. Some husbands who deny their marriages so the woman is forced to launch a lawsuit to prove paternity Fawziya Abdullal Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights "The young couple sees a urfi marriage as a pragmatic solution," says sociologist, Madiha Safty from the American University in Cairo. "It's quite a conservative society. There's no premarital or extramarital sex, so they believe this gives a legitimate cover to the relationship." The costs of a regular marriage and the obligations that go with it are one reason why experts believe more young Egyptians are making urfi arrangements. "It's a cultural thing," Dr Safty observes. "[With regular marriages] the groom is supposed to give a gift of jewellery upon engagement, he has to pay a sum for his fiancee to prepare for her life in marriage and find a place to live. "At the same time she's supposed to provide the furniture. Of course people would also like to have a fancy wedding which can be quite expensive." Pregnancies Although they may be cheap, many urfi marriages do not end happily. I was afraid so I called the guy I married and told him he needed to come over and ask for my hand officially Female student who regretted her urfi marriage A telephone hotline at the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights receives regular calls from young women confused about the legal and religious status of their marriages or seeking help when things have gone wrong. Legal advisor, Fawziya Abdullal, says the most serious cases involve pregnancies. "Maybe they have a baby, then [the woman] will become responsible for the child. There are some husbands who deny their marriages so the woman is forced to launch a lawsuit to prove paternity. A DNA test has to be done." "She has a lot of hassles and difficulties," she says. "It will also affect her reputation because as a woman in Middle Eastern culture she cannot marry another man." 'Excuses' It is difficult to get young women who have had bad experiences of urfi marriages to speak about them but one told us her story through a lawyer. Young couples see urfi marriages as a way of avoiding expensive weddings She explained she had never had a boyfriend before she went to university but met a fellow student on campus and fell in love. He gave her many reasons why they could not formally marry but persuaded her to sign a urfi marriage contract. They consummated their union at her house when her parents were out at work. However the woman became nervous after her mother confronted her about blood on her bed sheets. "Really I was afraid so I called the guy I married and told him he needed to come over and ask for my hand officially," she recalls. "Straight away he found a lot of excuses why he could not come and we had an argument. "He broke up with me and tore up our urfi marriage contract." Eventually the student revealed to her family what had happened and they tried reporting the case to the police. However as she had consented to sex she had no comeback. She said she felt humiliated. Politicians and religious officials have recently called for campaigns to warn women of the dangers of urfi marriages. There have also been suggestions of new laws to make the practice illegal.