The marriage crisis

I just wrote about the scholarly book "For Better, for Worse: The Marriage Crisis that Made Modern Egypt" for Foreign Policy. Here's the intro:

In 1932, Fikri Abaza, a young Egyptian editor and lawyer from a prominent family, gave a lecture at the American University in Cairo in which he announced his intention of remaining a bachelor. He had proposed to four women, he said, and four fathers had rejected his proposals on financial grounds.

The next day, the young man's lecture was the "talk of the town," American University in Cairo professor Hanan Kholoussy tells us in her book For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt. Yet Abaza's complaint was hardly unprecedented. As Kholoussy documents, it was emblematic of a debate that raged in early 20th-century Egypt around the supposed increase in bachelors. That debate has striking parallels with one going on today in Egypt, where another "marriage crisis" is supposedly looming -- one in which it is the rising number of "spinsters" that most troubles observers.

I say supposedly because in both cases, "crisis" may be an overstatement. The "marriage crisis" of today, like the one back then, might have more to do with public anxiety over sweeping societal changes than any catastrophic threat to the institution of marriage.

Reading about the earlier crisis immediately put me in mind of the current one, and of the hit blog-turned-book عايزة اتجوز ("I Want To Get Married"), which I've reviewed before. Of course, my point isn't too deny that there aren't serious obstacles to marriage and serious consequences to delayed marriage. But is a phenomenon that dates back a hundred years a "crisis"? And today, is the concern over the allegedly rising number of unmarried women really warranted? 

Back when I was reviewing "I Want to Get Married," I spent a lot of time on various Facebook groups established by women to fight the stigma of being "a spinster," or just discuss the options and preoccupations of single women. I translated some exchanges (very roughly) because I thought they were pretty interesting. I'm posting them after the jump. 

 The exchange is from a  Facebook group called “Diaries of a Spinster.” This discussion is: “The main reason for spinsterhood.”

Haytham: The increase in the bride price, as God is my witness.

Fatma: Obviously this is based on a personal experience, but trust me there are other reasons.

Haythem: Like what?

Heba: There’s many reasons for spinsterhood, among them the way guys avoid responsibility. Unfortunately you find a man who’s 40 years old and unable of taking any decisions in his life or assume responsibilities; even though he’s financially capable, he’s unwilling to bring anything to the girl he’s in a relationship with. Also another reason is that girls are much more successful in their professional life than guys, so imagine when a girl is a doctor or an engineer and she works and she’s successful in her work and a guy proposes who’s her age but he still hasn’t done anything in his life, he hasn’t struggled or travelled or anything. The way I see it, girls are successful and most guys are failures and they wait with their hands in their pockets for the girl who will bring everything, the apartment and the furniture, but won’t ask for a bride price. Unfortunately there aren’t any real men anymore.

Mohamed: And so Ms. Heba Muhammad has concluded that the reason for spinsterhood is men who are failures…and therefore the government has decided to import men from Canada to fit the requirements of the successful Egyptian and Arab women—bravo!

Heba: This really is my opinion and the fact that you can’t discuss it with me with any objectivity just proves my point that girls are more mature and rational and serious, and don’t take life as a joke.

Samar: You’re right Heba. The problem is everyone expects the girl to make concessions so she can get rid of the shameful title and the humiliation she’ll suffer when she becomes a spinster. If men don’t want to acknowledge that there are women who are more successful than them, well they’re free to think as they please, but I wish they’d spare us their sarcastic opinions and comments.

Billel: Sister Heba hit on part of the truth, really the irresponsibility and apathy of men is one of the reasons for spinsterhood, and their weak cultural and intellectual and professional level compared to women. This is something you feel all the time, as a professor of law at the law school here in Algiers honestly women are more impressive than men (in most cases) […] it’s unthinkable for a female lawyer, a doctor of law and an exemplar of good manners, to marry a someone with the mentality of a kid, whose only concern is to play soccer and watch [pop stars] Haifa and Heba, no guys, it’s unthinkable […]

Mohamed: First off sorry for my sarcasm, sorry Ms. Heba […]

I want to ask: How can the Arab man tranform into a Western man in his manners and nature and looks and life and the Arab woman turn into a Western woman in her manners and nature and demands and looks, and yet they want to get married in the Islamic way with the bride price and the gift of jewelry and the maintenance money and divorce and multiple wives, and the extended family that interferes in their life for good or bad, and obedience to the husband being like obedience to God? This is unnatural and illogical and the result is the rise in spinsters and the rise in divorces…the solution is we either go back or forward, and society has to choose, I mean either men and women go back to the way they were and get married the way they used to; or we change all our family law and the rules of society to agree with our times, I mean we adopt French or American or even Indian law and thank you very much!

Mahmoud

[…]

Let’s look at the big picture, which is the corruption of society in its entirety. One of the links in this chain of corruption is spinsterhood.

We can summarize this corruption as comprising unemployment, the collapse of morals, wretched poverty and lack of skills, and enormous class divides.

I think women’s employment is one of the most important reasons for this corruption. Of course people will attack me now, saying this is back-wards looking. […]

But come on, let’s think about this together.

First of all, what does Islam say about women working?

Of course Islam gives women the right to work in the Koran and the Sunna, on the condition that she works “out of necessity.” […]So women are permitted to leave the home to work in case of urgent necessity, such as when there’s no other source of income, for example--as long of course as the work is halal

But do you think that’s way things actually happen? Of course not.

OK, so what’s the connection with spinsterhood? There’s a big connection because a working woman is either:

 1) married and if she works she isn’t available to take care of her husband or her kids (particularly her daughters who need their mother the most). This results in the family falling apart, the kids being lost and badly brought up, the daughters facing all sorts of moral corruption--in the best of cases they’ll be in online chat rooms day and night…

 2) unmarried but devout and ambitious: she’ll be successful at work and this will make it hard for her to find an equal match in marriage[…] It will also make things hard for any respectable, religious man who isn’t at her same professional and financial level.

 3) unmarried and not devout: of course she is completely lost: mixing with men in the day, going out and staying up all night. No one respectable will want her, so she’ll either marry a pimp or become a spinster.

In addition, these three types have an effect on girls staying unmarried because they take men’s jobs, and therefore young men can’t find work, and then, of course, [because men can’t afford to propose] girls become old maids.

Every girl who works = an unemployed guy = a spinster

And, from Abdel Aal's blog: conversations with the neighbours.

That’s it, people are ready to eat us alive. What do you expect, every other day a groom tumbles down the stairs and then that Brother Tweety goes and makes a big scene and embarrasses us in front of the whole building. The sympathy I used to get from them has gone with the wind (it’s normal it happens); when every one of your 13 neighbours has brought you a potential husband and you’ve refused him, the whole stairs turn into a minefield. […]

Even the ones still pretending to be sympathetic have to seal every conversation with some pearls of popular wisdom that make us want to set ourselves on fire.

“So dear, that’s it, nobody’s coming to propose anymore?”

“No, auntie! They come, but most of them aren’t any good.”

“I see…the girl who doesn’t know how to dance always says the floor is uneven.”

 

“So dear, it’s over?”

“What do you mean, what’s over, auntie?”

“Have the guys started turning you down, or are you still rejecting them?”

“No auntie, it’s a bit of both…I reject and I’m rejected, you now, as these things go..”

“I see..if you make yourself cheap as cornmeal, you end up pecked by chickens.”

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.