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Commentary Last Updated: Apr 22nd, 2008 - 00:33:47

Marriage in Egypt is a minefield
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 22, 2008, 00:11

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Like young people all over the world, getting married features high on the itinerary of most Egyptians in their twenties. But in most countries, tying the knot isn�t the often-insurmountable hurdle it is here due to a combination of poverty, antiquated customs and meddling from family members.

Due to high unemployment, low wages and inflation, young men are being forced to delay getting married often until their 30s or even 40s, which means many girls of marriageable age are being left without a suitor. Selma (not her real name), the 26-year-old daughter of an Alexandrian lawyer, a bright and personable young woman, told me she fears being left on the shelf as there are not enough young men around with the wherewithal to marry while older men still seek brides in their late teens or early twenties.

This situation is driving many would be brides to seek a potential partner on the Internet, which they often do without telling their parents. The problem is the Net is infested with unscrupulous individuals who use lies as their currency.

Just over a week ago, my husband received a call from a friend who asked him to help his daughter�s Egyptian-American fianc� retrieve his confiscated driving license from the police. My husband met up with the New Yorker but became suspicious that he was already married when the 35-year-old designer said he had no intention of taking his new bride to the US and was caught out in a couple of blatant untruths as to his background.

Reluctant to see our friend�s daughter in trouble, we both did some sleuthing and discovered that the man was 41-year-old, rather than 35 and had been married and divorced twice before in Egypt with one daughter per marriage. Worse still, he lived with his wife and son in the US, who knew nothing about his former marital life or his fianc�. Needless to say, when our friend and his daughter had recovered from the shock, they were delighted to have been saved from this Walter Mitty character, who, as it turned out the girl had �met? on the Net.

Overly long engagements put further pressures on couples, many of which split up before the wedding day. A case in point concerns Dina (not her real name), a stunningly beautiful, educated and gentle young woman, the only daughter of impoverished parents, who have lived in the same roof hut throughout their lives.

Three years ago, Dina met her soul mate Mustapha (not his real name) in college and within days he turned up at her home with his parents to ask for her hand. Her mother and father were overjoyed. They had saved up all their lives for this moment and spent a large part of their savings on a lavish engagement party in a hotel.

This was surely a marriage made in heaven. Every time I saw Dina with her beau she radiated. Both are serious young people committed to their future together and determined to observe the proprieties demanded by the society in which they live. Mustapha invested his savings in a small, unfinished apartment with concrete walls and floors and no window pains.

Dina combined her studies with a part-time teaching position and both poured every spare pound into the purchase of furniture and household goods. Every chair represented a step closer to their goal of being together; every plate became a treasure to be displayed to family and friends.

But three years on, the atmosphere has changed. Both sets of prospective in-laws are no longer on speaking terms. They rowed too many times over who should pay for what. Mustapha is fatigued and has lost much of his initial enthusiasm. Dina became so focused on setting up house that she began to nag Mustapha to work harder and save harder in order to buy that washing machine or fridge on schedule. When I last spoke to her, she told me tearfully that she had removed her engagement ring. They still don�t have the money for a wedding. The hill is too high to climb and they�re both too exhausted to make the effort.

It�s a different story for the wealthy. I was recently invited to the wedding of a neighbor�s daughter, a doctor. She was engaged for two years to another doctor and, like Dina and Mustapha, they used the time to create their dream home. But in this case, as soon as the strains of a long engagement began to take their toll, their affluent parents got together and decided to bring the wedding forward. As I write, they are honeymooning in Malaysia and will return to a luxury apartment with a panoramic view of the Nile and a weekend villa in the countryside gifted by the boy�s family. Who said money couldn�t buy love?

It seems to me that the poor are victimized when it comes to marriage. With rocketing property prices and rents a home is at a premium while putting on a wedding ceremony for up to 200 guests is unrealistic for people, whose average wage is between $50 and $400 a month.

Egyptians are deeply concerned about this problem with reports of young men unable to afford a wife committing suicide.

Some charities and businessmen have organized mass weddings to alleviate expenses for the less well off but many families are too proud to take advantage of this charitable scheme.

Such difficulties have bolstered secret or �orfi� marriages, whereby both parties sign an unofficial marriage contract, which can be torn up and forgotten as though the union never happened. If a woman wants to legalize this type of marriage, say, when a child comes along, it can often be a long and costly process.

�Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage� go the words of a 1950s song. Not so in Egypt where marriage is becoming an increasing burden on budding young love. And, sad to say, even those who make it to the ceremony are often faced with a lifetime of economic hardship and struggles ahead.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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