Rights groups and activists are up in arms over the ‘disappearance’ last week of a 14-year-old Coptic girl, Sarah Ishaq Abdel-Malek, who vanished on her way home from school in the
small town of al-Dabaa, west of Alexandria on Egypt’s North Coast in Marsa Matrouh governorate.
Sarah was reported missing on 30 October by her father. The story that circulated locally was that Sarah went to school early in the morning, and after attending a full day at school called at a nearby stationary shop. A few minutes later she left the shop cloaked in a niqab (a full face veil) and accompanied by Mahmoud Selim Abdel-Gawwad, a 27-year-old Muslim man. They got in a car that was waiting outside the shop and drove off. Her family has since heard nothing of her.
“She can’t be held responsible”
The Church in Marsa Matrouh is standing by the family in demanding that the underage girl should be returned home. The Archbishop of Beheira, Anba Pachomeus, who is also acting patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and in whose parish Dabaa lies, said on satellite TV that a 14-year-old cannot be responsible for what she says, in the sense that she cannot be trusted to take life-changing decisions such as marriage or conversion.
Father Bejeimi Anba Pola, Anba Pachomeus’s deputy to Matrouh, said Dabaa was a small town whose residents were mainly tribal, and where everybody knew everybody else. He claimed that security officials knew where Sarah was being hidden, and had actually informed the Church leaders to that effect, but had done nothing so far to bring her home. According to Fr Pola, they feared confrontation with the hardline Salafis.
On the Friday following the girl’s disappearance, the Church and the girl’s family presented President Mursi, who was on a visit to Matrouh, with a memorandum citing the details of the incident and demanding that the girl should be brought home. The memo said: “Do you, Mr President, find it acceptable that a girl that age—who is neither mature character-wise nor intellect-wise—should be taken from her family and forced into marriage?”
A rumour has spread that the girl’s father considered her as dead and held a funeral service for her in church, but Fr Matta of the church of the Holy Virgin in Matrouh absolutely denies this.
The destiny of the girl
For his part, the coordinator-general of the Salafi Front, Khaled Saïd, said that the girl would be returned to her family should it be proved she was underage. Her family have submitted her birth certificate to the police, and this cites her birth date as 1 August 1998. Yet earlier declarations by Saïd had said she had converted and married a Muslim, and would not be returned.
The Union against Abductions and Forced Disappearances has filed an official complaint to the prosecutor-general against the Salafi Front’s Khaled Saïd and Khaled al-Masri for what it described as their responsibility for the disappearance of the 14-year old Sarah. Both had said Sarah would not be returned to her family since she had converted to Islam and married a Muslim. The union’s lawyer, Sameh Saad, said that according to the law she was not entitled to take the life-changing decisions of conversion and marriage.
“Her doing so constitutes a crime,” Mr Saad said. He demanded that the prosecutor-general should take direct action to reveal the outcome for the girl, whose birth certificate has been presented to the relevant authorities.
The Egyptian Coalition for Children’s Rights (ECCR) has also filed a complaint with the prosecutor-general against what it described as a crime against a child whose physical, mental, and psychological growth is not fully developed. The complaint said that, according to the Child Law in Egypt, several crimes had been committed against Sarah. Sarah, the complaint declared, had been abducted, deprived of completing basic education, sexually molested, forced into early marriage, and forced into religious conversion. The ECCR accordingly demanded that all who took part in this crime or publicly condoned it, starting with Matrouh governor Ahmed Helmi al-Hayatmi and the security chief, should be taken to task, especially given that the crimes against the child do not stop at that, but have the potential to lead to sectarian strife.
The Muslim Monitor (Marsad) against Christianisation, however, has rejected demands to return Sarah, claiming she was “exercising her personal freedom and her right to freedom of belief—both of which are secured by Islam and the law of the country.” In an official statement, Marsad said that handing the girl over to her family or placing her in a home would be illegal and would lead to sectarian conflict.
The statement demanded that the National Council of Women (NCW) should “stop interfering with personal freedoms, under trivial pretexts.” It went on to criticise the NCW harshly for its stances on women rights, branding these stances as threatening to national unity and fostering sectarian conflict.
It must be noted that Islamists have been calling for early marriage for women—as early as 10 years old—under the pretext that the Prophet Mohamed married Aisha when she was only nine. Rights activists have strongly opposed any change to the legal age of marriage—currently set at 18 for women—but the draft already being prepared for a new constitution mentions no minimum marriage age.
11 November 2012
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