This was the distress message received by Fairouz Al-Johary, sign language interpreter at the National Council for Disability Affairs, at 2:00 am one night from a deaf girl who lives in Tanta in Egypt. The girl had been shackled and locked up at home for years to prevent her from fleeing and getting married to a healthy young man.
“Aziza, the deaf girl who reached out to Al-Johary via WhatsApp, used the cell phone of her mother who was locked up along with her in the same room. Al-Johary reported the case to her office and filed a report with the Council’s Citizens Service Bureau about the plight of the incarcerated girl. "We can't take any action on our own, but I have filed a report in a bid to escalate the issue to the National Council for Women and Human Rights and make them take action,” Al Johary noted. "Aziza lives in the house of her siblings who forged a document indicating that she is mentally unwell. Therefore, nobody really cared to intervene in her affairs and that is why she sent me messages from her mother's phone. However, all our communications came to a halt following her mother's death,” Al-Johary added.
Mahmoud Fathi, Al Johari’s husband, a lawyer and sign language interpreter, travelled out of his own will to Tanta where Aziza lives. Nevertheless, he was cautioned by the neighbours against her brother’s leverage and his threats to anyone who tries to set Aziza free. Besides, her brother was spreading rumours that his sister is mentally unwell and that he holds the guardianship rights over her.
The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics conducted a study on violence against women with disabilities (hearing and visual impairments and other physical disabilities) to learn more about the nature of violence committed against disabled women in Egypt. It was conducted in partnership with the National Council for Disability Affairs, the Ministry of Social Solidarity, the Ministry of Health and Population, UN Women, the United Nations Population Fund, United Nations Development Program and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), and covered 6,000 households nationwide.
Mayada Imam, a sign language translator with accreditation from the National Council for Disability Affairs, confirms that Aziza’s story is just the tip of the iceberg and that there are many other women who are in the same boat. Some Egyptian families treat their deaf daughters as if they are incapacitated and even prevent them from getting married, which amounts to a blatant violation of the Egyptian constitution and international covenants.
"When a mother gives birth to a deaf girl child, she adherently keeps her out of public eye and strips her of her right to marriage when she comes of age. They deniably say ‘why do we have to get her married? She is dumb,’” Imam said. During her field work in Upper Egypt, she learnt that out of 60 deaf women, only 15 are married and they all live in a shared accommodation with their husbands’ extended family. This leaves them more susceptible to various acts of violence perpetrated not only by their husbands, but also by their family members.
Imam explains the situation of these deaf girls who are deprived of access to education, the right to marry or even the permission to step out of their houses. “There is no communication between parents and their daughters, and they treat deaf girls as if they are mentally disabled. Some deaf girls have managed to escape the practice of female genital mutilation that is prevalent in Upper Egypt and have remained out of harm’s way not because it is a senseless and harmful practice with no logical justification, but because mothers see genital mutilation of their deaf daughters as a futile exercise since they will never get married,” noted Imam. In addition, parents refuse the marriage of deaf girls to deaf men fearing that this will lead them to give birth to children with hearing impairments, Imam added.
According to Heba Hejris; a board member of the National Council for Women and the National Council for Persons with Disabilities, if a deaf girl is subjected to domestic violence by her parents or husband, or if she is prevented from choosing her partner or coerced to marry someone against her will, she can approach the National Council for Women and file a complaint herself in the presence of volunteer lawyers. It should be noted that the administration doesn’t have an in-house sign language interpreter and therefore, the service of a freelance interpreter is obtained by setting up a video call. The interpreter helps the legal representative understand and note down the complainant’s statements.
When we asked Nadia Abdullah, a board member of the technical office of the National Council for Disability Affairs, about the report filed on Aziza’s situation, she said: "She must send the distress call from her phone to the police, who will then contact us.” It’s really hard for us to chase her and what if the story turns out to be a hoax? Commenting on Aziza’s extended family’s response, Nadia said: "Her family is scared to file a complaint or even report the incident anonymously. To open the case, the police have to go to the scene and conduct an investigation on the ground to confirm that she is indeed locked up by her brother.”
“Ideally, the complainant has to send a copy of her identity card and her current address along with a written complaint to the National Council for Women, as it is the Council’s mandate to follow up on such complaints,” said Nadia.
The National Council for Women’s response was along the same lines of the previous one. Deaf women who are victims of violations have to report such violations to the Council themselves. “They are not incapacitated and therefore, they have to report such incidents themselves, and the same rule applies to Aziza. It’s not my place to step into any person’s house unwarranted to raise the issue in question,” Nadia explained.
In April 2020, in the wake of Covid-19 outbreak, the technical centre to serve people with disabilities set up by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology launched a smart application called ‘Wasel’ to assist the deaf and those who are hard of hearing. The app enables them to submit inquiries and complaints and contact emergency services, firefighters, ambulances, or utility services and report Covid-19 infections to the respective authorities remotely, thereby cutting down the turnaround times.
Therefore, it is only natural for some people to think that this smart application can also be used by deaf girls to report acts of violence against them. But for this to happen, deaf girls must at least have modern smart phones so that they can use the application. The interviews conducted with these girls have revealed that majority of their parents or husbands refuse to provide them with advanced smart phones. What is worse is even the ones with access to smart phones don’t know how to use the application, given the fact that the number of educated deaf girls is alarmingly low. Therefore, out of the few deaf girls that have a smart phone, even fewer may reap the benefits of the ‘Wasel’ application since its users are required to enter some data including name, phone number, and type of service sought.
The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics conducted a study to find out where deaf people stand vis-à-vis education in 2017.
The hardships suffered by deaf girls amount to a violation of the provisions of Article 23 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to which Egypt is a signatory member state. The said UN convention has placed a particular emphasis on the right of all persons with disabilities who are of marriageable age to marry and to found a family on the basis of free and full consent.
The Egyptian Law No. 10 of 2018 on persons with disabilities provides for absolute equality between men and women with disabilities, and guarantees them such rights and duties without discrimination. Not just that, the legislation has seen many amendments to ensure equality and equal opportunities for girls and women with disabilities in Egypt, with an aim to reduce violence and discrimination against them. The Egyptian Law also prohibits any kind of restrictions on their freedom or their right to choose on their own free will.
Reham Omar, who is hard of hearing, is nearly 20 years of age and has been eagerly waiting for the glad tidings after her neighbour told her that a gentleman in his 30’s would like to propose to Reham. However, the suitor had a disability which led to the amputation of his feet, and an accident had affected his sexual potency as well. Nevertheless, Reham gave her consent to the proposal, to the chagrin of those around her.
"The prospect is enough for me as long as it gives me food and a comfortable place to sleep in," Reham responded to those who tried to dissuade her from getting married to a young man confined to his wheelchair.
Reham has four healthy siblings apart from one brother who is hard of hearing like her. She lives with a low-income family in the popular Shubra region in the North of Cairo in a one-bedroom apartment.
Meanwhile, Reham’s deaf brother was no longer able to cope with the situation and so he ran away and learnt to live on his own. Reham, however, had no choice but to get married with her consent and lived with her disabled husband for 5 years in the one-bedroom apartment that had absolutely no exposure to natural sunshine. But this situation did not last long either. "One day, her husband lost consciousness and she put him in his bed and covered him, before sending us a message saying that her husband was unwell. When my other sisters arrived to her house, they found him dead but Reham had not really grasped what was going on,” one of her sisters later said.
Reham was forced to return to her father's house, but she was considered a persona non grata there. On certain occasions, she was even expelled out of the house around midnight and her siblings eventually managed to appropriate her inheritance from her late spouse. One year later, Reham had another suitor in his 40’s who was previously married twice and separated from his wives. When he proposed to marry her, he had children who were old enough to go to college, from previous marriages.
Reham’s new husband never bothered to learn the sign language, even after he had a healthy baby girl from his deaf wife. After 6 years of marriage, he still does not understand his wife often, and on many occasions, has to seek the assistance of her brother-in-law who is hard of hearing through video calls. Meanwhile, Reham’s deaf brother got married to a healthy woman who was keen to learn the sign language to break the communication barriers with her husband.
"Reham was denied the right to communicate, and so far, no one talks to her or provides her with education. In the past, she suffered hardships, scarred by destitution and loss of a mother. She was the most affected one among us by our mother’s death and had to live with a grumpy stepmother who had to shoulder the responsibility of caring for six children, including two deaf ones,” Reham’s sister added.
Ten days before our meeting, Samar, 28, from Al Akhsas village, Al Saff Centre in Giza Governorate, gave birth to her first child after one year of marriage to a public servant in his 60’s.
According to the testimony of a neighbour, Samar’s father evaded answering a question on her husband's age and instead he waxed lyrical about the advantages of his daughter’s marriage to a man on the brink of retirement. "We cannot be there by her side throughout her lifetime. So, this marriage offers security to my daughter since she would live in her own house, which is far better than being forced to carry around her siblings’ children all her life,” Samar’s father explained.
Nevertheless, he admitted that Samar is not on good terms with her husband given his taciturn nature and failure to engage in any conversation while he’s at home which has made her more reticent and melancholic. In addition, Samar’s father believed that it is very uncommon in the rural areas for his 26-year-old daughter to remain single and that’s why her family was forced to marry her off to the first suitor. What is even worse is that the chances of deaf girls to have an equal relationship in their marriage are slim given the absence of university education. “Our daughters aspire to be educated; however, we lack the facilities that urban cities provide,” Samar’s father said.
"I believe that intermarriages of deaf people are intended to create an atmosphere of understanding between them. I, for one, don’t even understand what she says or at best, I could decipher a couple of words out of an entire conversation with her. And I know how to make some signs. That’s it,” he added.
We were told by Samar’s neighbours that she avoids walking next to her husband not to be teased by other deaf girls who blame her for getting married to such an elderly person.
Samar’s father, brother and mother refused to leave her side to not let Samar talk to us freely. She provided a timid account of how her family treated her through the sign language interpreter who was also her teacher in the secondary school. She said that her family prevented her from going out or visiting her deaf female colleagues under the guise of fear for her safety. She used to spend her days doing household chores, drawing, and even after marriage, things have not changed.
Samar stated that she tried to teach her husband the sign language, but in vain. He also refuses to provide her with a smart phone through which she can communicate with her female colleagues via video calls, as he won’t understand their language. “I am so saddened by my loneliness, and feel like I am a prisoner of myself. But I am happy that I gave birth to my child and this is the only good thing that came out of my marriage."
In a bid to break the communication barriers separating deaf people from their families, Jamal Salem, sign language teacher and interpreter at Al Saff Centre in Giza Governorate, launched a free initiative to teach sign language to the parents of female students at the Al-Amal School where he works. Sadly, no one cared to attend.
The tendency of parents to prevent their daughters from marrying deaf men is driven by the fear that this will lead to the birth of more deaf children., Howaida, 37, is a mother of two 20-year-old twins Mahmoud and Mohammad who are not deaf, albeit she and her husband are hard of hearing.
Howaida highlighted the role played by her husband’s and her families in dispelling her fears that she got married at a young age (16 years). A year later, she was blessed with two children. Howaida noted that her husband's family even learned sign language to communicate with her, and to give her a helping hand in raising her two sons. When they were infants, she could not hear them cry so she relied entirely on her mother-in-law, who would wake her at night to nurse them. Over time, she began to put them in a certain position in their beds so that she could feel the movements of their feet when they wake up.
"When I moved from Beni Suef Governorate to Cairo and started working, my family had concerns on how I will manage while on the road or while dealing with other people. But I always told myself, “Our Lord will be my ears and tongue.” My children learnt the sign language on their own without any official training, and we are very connected. Mahmoud is studying physical education, while Mohammed chose to study earth sciences at Beni Suef University,” Howaida said.
Howaida did voice her resentment at the way families deal with their children who are hard of hearing, saying: "Families of deaf children are to be blamed for holding them captive at home. Therefore, it is no wonder that they grow up without any knowledge and with a stubborn attitude.”
With two deaf parents, Mohammad Abdullah Abdul Hadi, the sign language interpreter at Egyptian TV, was harassed during his childhood by neighbours. They used to say every time they saw him: “here comes the son of deaf people.” "Driven by an incident that affected my mother badly, I decided to learn the sign language at a professional level. Once she was watching a TV series and then the episode got interrupted. An anchor then appeared on the screen with a frown, which was actually foreboding. My mother cried sorely and was worried about me and my brothers. When I came back, I found her on the brink of a breakdown as she was not able to fathom what the anchor said. This incident moved me to make a contribution to the interpretation of news bulletins, TV series and plays in the sign language. I also set up the Egyptian Foundation for the Rights of Deaf through which, several batches of sign language interpreters subsequently graduated.
The Foundation aims to facilitate communication between deaf children and their families, especially with regard to matters related to marriage. It also seeks to persuade parents not to force their daughters to inbreeding to preserve the inheritance or to just get rid of the burden of having a deaf person in the house. It encourages the intermarriage of deaf people, Abdul Hadi explained.
In his online response to a question pertaining to the legality of the marriage of people with disabilities in general, Dr. Ali Jumaa of Egypt's Dar Al Ifta (Egypt highest Islamic religious Body) confirmed their right to marry as long as all pillars of marriage are fulfilled and the disabled person “is provided with due care.”
“A disabled person should not be prohibited from getting married citing the possibility of having children with disabilities, because marriage and reproduction are two separate issues. Marriage is an embodiment of kindness, mercy, affection and many sublime traits and is not just meant for childbearing. The question of having children or not or otherwise delaying the same is a matter to be considered by competent experts on case-to-case basis. Moreover, the actions of the disabled person’s guardian are intended to serve the best interests of the former. So, if it is found that it would be in the best interest of the disabled person to get married, his guardian must support it. The guardian will be deemed to have committed an offence if he/she is found to be delaying the disabled person’s marriage without well-founded grounds,” Dr. Ali Jumaa explained.
Izzat Al Saftty, the marriage officer of Saft El Laban; a village of Kerdasa Centre in Giza Governorate, attended three weddings of deaf people to solemnize their marriage contracts. Only one out of the three bridegrooms was keen to have a sign language interpreter present at the ceremony.
Al Saftty believes that if a bride wears her wedding dress, it strongly signifies her consent. Though he does not understand the sign language, Al Saftty noted that it was incumbent upon him to protect the rights of girls and ensure the consent of both parties in a marriage prior to finalizing the marriage contract.
“When both the bride and the groom are deaf, their parents shall produce the necessary documentations before the marriage officer’s office and draw up an agreement covering all the aspects of the intended marriage. In the course of solemnization of a marriage, the groom’s father puts his hand on the bride’s father’s hand and recite the legal statement of marriage. The role of the newlyweds in the ceremony is limited to just signing the marriage contract,” Al Saftty noted.
"If the deferred portion of the dowry is on the lower side or otherwise causes prejudice against the bride, I have to ask the parents and they usually answer that they have struck a deal with the other party. I am in no position to interfere in such cases,” Al Saftty concluded.
Marianne Sami Fawzy, 30, and Dina Salah, 27, of Al-Hayy village in Al-Saff Centre, have closely followed the stories of deaf girls like them whose miserable marriages ended up in divorce. Therefore, they decided to lead a life of celibacy and dedicate themselves to their passion of glass painting.
Marianne's family gave her the freedom to study, and learn painting and even allowed her to go on trips with the church group. This made her realize that such activities provided her with a fulfilling life and exposure to the outside world, where she does not have to agree to a miserable married life like others who are suffering from ill-treatment and negligence by their husbands or their families.
Marianne decided to lead a monastic lifestyle, and turned down all the suitors who proposed to her as they were all non-deaf individuals. “Most of the deaf girls’ marriages are miserable and I will lead my life this way with the pure heart that the Lord gave me,” Marianne said.
Dina shares the same viewpoint, and believes that some young men prefer to get married to a deaf girl so that they don’t have to fulfil too many commitments, and hence, they don’t see deaf women on the same footing with healthy ones. Dina is on the lookout for a job with governmental institutions thanks to the 5% quota allocated by the State for people with disabilities. In the meantime, she spends her free time visiting her friends or relatives.