Egypt: Woman reportedly killed for marrying Christian and converting

A Muslim woman was killed by her uncle and male cousins for eloping with her Christian neighbour and converting to Christianity, Egyptian media reported. The man's family was reportedly evicted from its home village, causing a stir among human rights defenders on Facebook. This murder did not occur in the Islamic State’s “caliphate” but in a village in the oasis of Fayoum, southwest Egypt. 

The difference is that the digital media savvy Islamic State would have probably filmed a slick video of the killing whereas the uncle and his sons, under the cover of the night, killed Marwa Ahmed in front of her parents. They buried her in a matter-of-fact manner before making their escape, local media said.

The perpetrators invoked their “slighted honour”, as is the case in every incident of patriarchal killing. They sought to punish her for daring to be free.

A divorcee with two children, a stigma in a socially conservative society, Marwa Ahmed committed two “sins” from the perpetrators’ perspective. First, by having sexual relations with the neighbour, she broke a social taboo, a sin for which she would have been killed anyway. More seriously, she broke the Islamic prohibition on conversion to another faith and worse still marrying a Christian man and bearing his children.

It was in the coastal city of Alexandria, relatively more liberal than their village of Tamia, that they tied the knot and lived happily for a while until she decided to return to the village to seek forgiveness from her family. A few days later, she was killed by her revenge-seeking uncle and cousins, according to media reports.

The story did not end at this point. The Christian man’s family was reportedly forced to leave the village and sell its property there. The decision was taken by the elders of the village who convened a customary council and settled the dispute with the head of the local church with the blessing of the security department of Fayoum. The latter boastfully announced in a statement that it averted sectarian strife in the area. Fayoum, a hotbed of ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been the scene of sectarian violence targeting Christians.

This is a case of patriarchal killing in which a woman was punished for seeking to exercise independent choice and for defying the wishes of the extended family and society. But it was compounded by her conversion to Christianity. Even though religious freedom is an absolute right and not just a guaranteed right in the Egyptian constitution, the problem lies in how these constitutional provisions are interpreted and implemented. In practice, a number of court rulings reveal that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion is generally interpreted as inapplicable to Muslims who want to convert to another religion.

The case also highlights the power of customary law and so-called reconciliation councils in rural areas where the impact of state power is limited. It is in these areas that Christian communities endure the most unjust penalties and collective punishment imposed on them by reconciliation councils in the settling of feuds with Muslims. Forced expulsions, destruction and illegal confiscation of properties and hefty fines are typical penalties imposed by the councils, according to the human rights group the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Provincial authorities almost invariably give their blessing to customary councils’ rulings, which means that crimes against Christians go unpunished.

Summing up this injustice and "complicity" of the state, an Egyptian woman, [not a Christian], Elham Eidarous wrote on Facebook:

“The family that killed its daughter because she had relations with a Christian man was motivated, not only by religious fanaticism and patriarchy, but by the backing of the strong Egyptian state with its various written constitutions ranging from the one of 1923 through to that of 2014."

"Islam is the religion of the Egyptian state and the principles of sharia are the main source of Egyptian legislation. The Egyptian state has a tolerant attitude to crimes against women in accordance with article 60 of the penal code, which tolerates crimes committed in defending a right granted under sharia." 

"The Egyptian state is therefore complicit in crimes of honour; it reduces sentences handed to men who kill their daughters, sisters or wives in accordance with article 17 of the penal code. It is the same state whose courts declared a Muslim man an apostate and consequently nullified his marriage against his wife’s wish." [a reference to Egyptian scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd].

"The Egyptian state allows a Christian woman to marry a Muslim, in violation of her faith and recognizes this marriage whilst it denies Muslim women the right to marry Christians on the ground that this marriage is against Islam. It is the same state where Christian women legally married to Muslim men are denied both custody of their children in case of divorce and the right to inherit their husbands. It is the same Egyptian state whose security services and judiciary are complicit in sectarian violence and violence against women; they describe the forced displacement of Christians or the slaughtering of a Muslim woman who changed her religion…as acts that aim to avert sedition. This is the murderous, patriarchal, sectarian Egyptian state.”