The Marriage Crisis That Wasn’t

Reading a new book about Egypt's overblown "marriage crisis" at the beginning of the 20th century suggests that similar fears today may also be ungrounded.


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.

More than 70 years after Abaza’s public complaint, in the summer of 2006, Ghada Abdel Aal — a then-27-year-old pharmacist — started writing a blog with the tongue-in-cheek title I Want to Get Married. In her first post, she writes: "Stay with me and I’ll tell you about my tribulations, so that you’ll know everything we [unmarried women] put up with."

What follows is a tragicomic account of the unremitting pressure felt by an unwed woman to land a groom. Malicious neighbors and meddling relatives never tire of commiserating with Abdel Aal over her failure to get engaged. As for Abdel Aal’s would-be suitors, they include a police officer who has government informants spy on her family, a man who already has two wives, and a suitor who interrupts their first meeting to watch a soccer match on TV.

Abdel Aal rails against the widespread belief that women themselves are to blame for their lack of marital prospects (people think, "the girl who delays [marrying] must have a flaw"). The blog is very funny, but it also conveys how exhausting and demeaning it is to be single in a society that works overtime to convince women "there is no success in any field that can take the place of marriage."

Abdel Aal’s blog is a spirited defense of the unmarried woman, at a time when this category is increasingly the focus of public concern. Recently, Egypt’s official statistics-gathering agency caused a furor when it announced that there were 13 million single men and women in the country, up from 9 million in the previous census. Its head found himself compelled to issue an official denial of his own agency’s report, lowering the number of spinsters to just a few hundred thousand (and noting that the number of marriages had actually increased). Whatever the numbers, however, politicians and public opinion have latched onto the idea that bachelors and — heaven help us! — spinsters are proliferating.

Certainly, men and women across the region are getting married at a later age and, in some countries and socioeconomic groups, aren’t marrying at all. Yet it’s hard to gauge the true extent of the phenomenon, just as it was a hundred years ago. Kholoussy doesn’t present figures on the incidence of marriage in early 20th-century Egypt (when many marriages may have gone unregistered). She suggests that the crisis was largely imaginary, but she also more or less argues that it doesn’t matter — that the debate offers a fascinating window into "contested national identity formation" and "visions of modern marriage." Still, the question of whether the crisis was based in fact seems relevant, and one wishes she had at least tried to answer it.

What she does do is show how marriage — viewed by Egypt’s small, newly educated, emerging middle class as a "microcosm of the nation" — can become a focal point for discussing wider economic concerns, cultural changes, and political demands. In the first three decades of the 20th century, Egypt’s economy was battered by a series of crises, including a drop in the price of cotton, World War I, and the Great Depression. Inflation was rampant, and many complained — like Abaza — that they could not afford to marry. Men were expected (just as they are today) to provide their new bride with an independent home, to support her in a style commensurate with her upbringing, and to pay a dowry that could be several times their yearly salary.

Some observers blamed women and their families for their exorbitant demands; others blamed bachelors for squandering their money at coffeehouses or with prostitutes. Writers in Egypt’s burgeoning national press wondered whether the problem wasn’t the lack of educated women, capable of being proper mates; others claimed that it was precisely women’s education — their new, forward, Western ways — that deterred men from marriage. Critics suggested legislating a maximum, affordable dowry and levying a tax on bachelors.

At the time, Egypt was under British control, and the debate was framed in nationalist terms. The male ability to establish an independent household was seen as paralleling the Egyptian need to establish independence from colonial rule. To marry was a patriotic duty. "A man who does not marry is like a deserter from the army," wrote one prominent columnist quoted in Kholoussy’s book. Highlighting the marriage crisis was a way to critique British rule and foreign capitalists’ control of the economy. It also expressed Egyptian men’s anxieties regarding their future and their degree of control — both over the country and over their rapidly changing female compatriots.

Much has changed in Egypt since then — but reading Kholoussy’s book, one can’t help but be struck by the parallels with today’s "marriage crisis." The expense of marriage — in a country where unemployment is high and wages abysmally low — continues to be a huge stumbling block. According to one study, getting married in Egypt in the late 1990s cost about $6,000, or four times the average per capita GDP of $1,490. Today, a whole generation of young Egyptians is in limbo, waiting to amass the necessary funds to enter marriage and the "adult" stage of their lives.

In the earlier debate, Kholoussy tells us, marriage — the only legitimate sexual outlet in Muslim culture — was seen as necessary to pacify and discipline "the single male subject who ostensibly bred crime and rebellion." Today, observers worry that delayed marriage is a "social time bomb" and link it to, among other things, the increased incidences of sexual harassment and the rise in religiosity.

Kholoussy shows how in the 1920s and 30s many argued that "the Westernization of Egyptian women was the real cause of the marriage crisis." Today, there are plenty of Egyptian conservatives ready to assert that the cause of the marriage crisis is that "girls nowadays don’t seem to be concerned with getting married and raising a family; they want equality with men in building high-profile careers."

But there is a fundamental difference between the two marriage crises. In the first, the focus was on convincing men to marry, at a time when they were thought of as the only real agents in the matter. Today, the concern is just as much — perhaps more — with women. Kholoussy says that in the early 1900s, "Egyptians did not want to even speculate about the fate of a nation full of unwed women." Today, that speculation is rampant. And women themselves are discussing more openly than ever their choice to marry or remain single.

In 2008, an editor at a prestigious publishing house came across I Want to Get Married and turned it into a book. It was a sensation, selling one edition after another. Abdel Aal became a regular guest of Egypt’s popular TV talk shows and now writes a column in one of the country’s major newspapers. Meanwhile, women created a number of Facebook groups dedicated to fighting the stigma of being a "spinster" or simply explaining the many reasons why they hesitate to enter marriage. These include the determination to marry men with their same (dramatically expanding) educational and professional accomplishments and the fear of an unhappy union ending in divorce, which affects a third of Egyptian marriages in the first year and is governed by laws that remain deeply unfair to women.

So is there a marriage crisis in Egypt today? Certainly the phenomenon of delayed marriage in Egypt is real, and it’s based on an entrenched mix of economic constraint and social expectation. But the hysteria over the rise of spinsters is probably no more than the product of a deep-seated anxiety over women’s new roles and demands. A hundred years ago in Egypt, Kholoussy tells us, "women’s foremost purpose was to become marriageable." For a growing and vocal minority of Egyptian women, this is no longer the case — and that’s not necessarily a crisis at all.

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