Monday, March 22, 2010

Egyptian Marriage in Context

In Foreign Policy, Ursula Lindsey reviews Hanan Kholoussy's For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt about an alleged "marriage crisis" in Egypt during the early 20th century:
"What she (Kholoussy) 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."

Lindsey, an astute cultural observer, links the book to perceptions of a "marriage crisis" in Egypt today. The article is well worth reading, as are the on-line exchanges posted at Arabist.

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