Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (490)
Money and marriage
One of the victims of the global depression, as it affected Egypt at least, was the marriage market which, especially in the middle class, stagnated entirely. During that period of economic straits, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* discovered what was really meant by "family values"
The depression (1929-1933) had an obvious impact on Egypt's social life. Many young Egyptian men simply decided to defer marriage and a family until better times while others, particularly those fortunate enough to have been educated abroad, married foreigners, thus sparing themselves the enormous outlays for the dowry and for furnishing the conjugal home that they would have had to pay for had they asked for the hand of the daughter of a fellow countryman.
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The 1939 Egyptian film Al-Azima, starring Hussein Sidqi and Fatma Rushdi, tackled unemployment during the depression
The phenomenon was reflected in the pages of Al-Ahram which throughout the spring of 1931 relayed the public's grievances over the marriage crisis. Moreover, such was the influx of letters it received that the management moved to introduce a regular column, "The problem of marriage in Egypt", which it inaugurated in May that year. Since letters from the public were integral to the column, a sampling will furnish a portrait of the types of problems the newspaper hoped to address.
One began, "My father is a civil servant at a salary of LE8. I, too, am a civil servant at a salary of LE10. I have three brothers, the eldest of whom is in fourth year secondary. I am now 30 years old and longing for the company of a woman. Do I marry?"
T M R, as the writer chose to sign himself, continues: "I love my brothers very much and I am anxious for their future. I wish to continue to stay by the side of my poor father to help complete their upbringing. I fear that if I marry, friction between my wife and mother would jeopardise family unity and that I would not have enough money left from my salary to give my father. Should I marry? Or should I sacrifice myself and save my brothers from being deprived of an education? Please give me guidance. Thank you and may God reward you."
A reader signing herself "Anisa", the title given to an unmarried woman, complained of the effect the economic crisis was having on the values and behaviour of young men. Religion prohibited drinking and gambling even though it was rare to find a young man who did not indulge in those vices, she maintained. A version of this attitude carried over into attitudes towards marriage. "When a man seeks to marry, he sets mind on money above all else. It matters not whether his bride to be is beautiful or ugly, educated or ignorant, honourable or otherwise. Money is what obsesses young men however rich they may be. To them marriage is a form of commerce." One suspects that Anisa is speaking from experience when she adds that marriages made under such circumstances are not destined to last.
How frequently, she continues, had she come across letters to the newspaper from bachelors complaining of the prohibitive costs of marriage, "when all the while there are beautiful, educated and refined women from the finest families -- indeed, cousins of theirs -- who would be prepared to accept them for only a nominal sum of money solely to meet the needs of formality. Unfortunately, dear sir, these women are poor and this is the only obstacle. This, sir, is the bitter truth. I fear that if this situation persists, poor women will never be able to marry regardless of how suitable they are. For in the end, young men will insist that they can marry only foreign women. Herein resides the marriage crisis."
Zainat Habib was of a different opinion. Egyptian women had not advanced as much as Egyptian men, she maintained, so marriages between Egyptian men and foreign women were not necessarily all evil. She continues: "I would like you, sir, to know that I am not an advocate of mixed marriages per se. I simply regard them as a means towards accomplishing a more profound long-range objective. This end is to incite young men and women to rebel against all inherited traditions, to urge them to topple them one after the other until we rid ourselves of them completely."
Another reader, "M A Radwan", took issue with Anisa's contention that men these days treat marriage as a form of trade and refuse to marry poor women. He writes: "I am from a good family. I neither drink nor gamble. Due to compelling circumstances, I was unable to complete my education and instead found employment in a government agency. I told myself, 'You must marry for a life of adultery brings only misery.' So with firm resolve I presented myself to a family of equal stature to mine. What was my lot beyond their haggling and outrageous demands? Much shrugging of shoulders and mocking smiles on their faces, for no other reason than I am poor and unable to afford the price of their daughter and the costs of a new home."
Rebuffed and humiliated, Radwan sought a wife further down the social ladder. He found a suitable candidate from a family in difficult straits, presented his suit and was accepted. "I was overjoyed. Then the time came to discuss dowry and the like. I had won their approval so I engaged in the negotiations in the spirit of a respectable villager. I displayed the greatest finesse and held to all the appropriate dictums of the Qur'an and the Prophet and all I won in the end was a courteous farewell."
The conservatism of Upper Egyptian families was the subject of a complaint from a young man from a family in a small village in Assiut. His father had begun to make arrangements for him to marry a beautiful girl from a good family. "I asked to see her or at least a picture of her. I was told this was impossible because she was of good and proper stock and never left the home." Once the two fathers agreed on the bride price and dowry, the son agreed to marry the girl. "I am the type who believes that it is a duty to honour one's father and a crime to go against his will," he wrote.
Then came the day to conclude the marriage contract; it would be the first time for him to see his bride. "When he eventually set eyes on her it was as though the world had caved in. I told my father of the horror I had seen and he tried to comfort me with sayings of how love grows with marriage. I gave in. The wedding took place and what did life have in store for me after that? Pure wretchedness instead of the happiness I had dreamed of. Such is the misery to which she subjects me that I am forced to spend the whole day and the best part of the night away from home, that home that I had once thought would bring me bliss but instead is an unbearable hell!"
The many letters pouring into Al-Ahram's mail box for the "Marriage problems" column inspired a new column, introduced on 1 June 1931. Under the headline, "How I would like to marry and what I think the new legislation should be like", the newspaper invited readers to send in their opinions on the subject. The survey lasted for a month, during which it received 78 responses.
The column opened with an interview with Minister of Justice Ahmed Zaki Abul- Saoud who noted that a new law would soon be promulgated, the purpose of which was to place certain restrictions on divorce and polygamy. Under the new law divorce would fall under the jurisdiction of the religious courts and anyone who divorced without authorisation from this branch of the judiciary would be subject to a fine, imprisonment or both. The law also prohibited men from taking more than one wife "unless a religious court judge rules that an applicant has the financial means to support the wives in his charge and the relatives whom he is also legally obliged to support". The minister went on to urge people to observe what he termed the "prerequisites of happiness", such as compatibility in age and other factors, before concluding marital arrangements in order to ensure that both partners sense their "conjugal responsibility".
It is interesting to note that while most of the respondents to Al-Ahram's opinion poll were male, there was a significant proportion of female respondents, many of whom made significant contributions to the debate. For example, the letter from a woman from Qirqas took up most of the column in Al-Ahram of 8 June. But there was also the letter from "Zeinab A A" complaining that Al-Ahram published more letters from men than it did from women. The newspaper, she charged, had devoted itself "in all and in part" to men, taking only their answers "on an issue that concerns two parties". Her accusation earned the response of Editor-in-Chief Dawoud Barakat, himself, who wrote, "Al-Ahram, as is its custom and principle, is unstinting in its publication of women's opinions on their marital life."
The letters as a whole also revealed a sharp division of opinion between what we might term conservatives and liberals on the subject. Epitomising the former is the respondent who expressed his surprise that people should be given the freedom to even voice their views on a subject the sole authorities for which was "the Book of God [the Qur'an] and Islamic law". These authorities "have laid out for us a path intended to lead to our happiness as long as we abide by it faithfully and refrain from following our independent whims", he wrote. The liberal camp covered a broad spectrum, from moderates who preferred to grasp the middle of the stick between religion and reform, to the radicals who urged rebellion against tradition. Among the liberals, too, was a large body of opinion that seconded the views of the minister of justice but also added a number of ideas that even the minister thought were worthy of attention.
Starting with the "liberals", one of the more moderate demands voiced by male respondents was that men should have the right to see their brides before marriage. Although Egyptian customs and beliefs prohibited prospective couples from associating with one another before marriage, "due to the many scandals that could result", writes one, "I believe that upon engagement a young man should send his mother or one of his female relatives to the home of his fiancée in order to observe her and return with a detailed account of her. Then, if she is to his liking he should himself be permitted to go to her home in the company of his mother in order to meet her for no more than five minutes during which period he will be able to voice either his approval or rejection."
Most respondents, however, felt that prospective couples should be afforded more time to get to know one another on the condition that all meetings were chaperoned. Such "respectable" meetings would give the fiancé the opportunity "to study the mentality of his life's partner, to hear her converse and to assess the metal of her morals and the degree of her refinement and culture". The respondent adds, "Of course, the would-be groom will have studied beforehand the character and social circumstances of his fiancée's family, so that when he determines that she will be a compatible spouse he can then ask her father for her hand in marriage."
Hassan Ibrahim Badawi, "a Bachelor's degree in commerce from Sheffield", felt it necessary to provide some specific guidelines for the premarital getting acquainted process. A man should call on his fiancée once or twice "in the home of her guardian". When both parties agree on the principle of marriage, they should deposit a sum in the bank as a form of surety on the agreed upon dowry. "Then the young man should begin to study the character of his fiancée for a period of a year. Upon the favourable conclusion of this period, the parties will withdraw their sureties after having submitted their marriage contract to the court. In the event either party cancels the engagement, the matter will be brought before a confidential hearing before a religious court. If that body determines sound cause, the sureties will be released to both parties following the deduction of 25 per cent of the sum for payment of court fees and as a form of fine on the two parties for having failed to undertake the necessary investigation that should have been conducted prior to the engagement."
Opponents of a premarital getting acquainted period outnumbered supporters. Representative of this opinion was Mahmoud Suleiman El-Wakil who wrote, "There should be no intermingling whatsoever between a man and his fiancée, even on the grounds of studying her character, due to the suspicions that such meetings arouse over both parties. Any questions a man has on the morals, beauty or domestic management skills of a prospective wife should be entrusted to the women of his family to enquire about."
On the other hand, readers were virtually unanimous that matchmakers were thoroughly untrustworthy on matters concerning a prospective spouse's character. In the opinion of some, matchmakers had become notorious for fostering marriages that ended in tragedy. As Mohamed Farid Abul-Muati from Mansoura put it, "If we were to calculate how many women were divorced at an early age, we would find behind each of these cases, in upper and middle class environments, a woman who calls herself a matchmaker. The function of this woman is to mediate between the sexes either by enhancing their respective virtues and personalities or by pure invention and fabrication." Another reader urges abolishing the "loathsome matchmaker system" entirely. Matchmakers were no more than "confidence tricksters who lure young men into marriage on the basis of an illusion". It was only after marriage that the illusion was dispelled and the spouses discover the tragic predicament into which they have fallen. He adds, "The root cause of most divorces is the matchmaker."
Since most fathers married off their daughters without consulting them, some respondents felt that at least the bride should be able to attend the signing of the marriage contract. "There are many advantages to be had from this noble idea," writes one. "Her very presence constitutes a pledge of marital consent." Another suggested that the marital contract be concluded in the religious courts in the presence of both the bride and groom. He further suggests that the courts create a special judiciary body that would meet regularly at least once a week for this purpose. "In this manner it will be possible to break the chains that encumber those girls who feel that their fathers will fetch a sheikh only to marry her off and secure her consent by force."
Conservatives objected to even these moderate demands that would furnish prospective couples a minimum of rights. One objected that given the throng of male relatives and outside guests who are generally invited to attend the contract signing ceremony, the bride could not possibly make an appearance. "What right-minded husband would thrust his wife into a large official gathering of this sort, especially in the countryside?" he asks. Fathiya Ali Lutfi from Minia took issue with the suggestion of a prolonged period of engagement. What unmarried woman would want her family or relatives to put her up for sale to a young man for a whole year? she asks. "Young men like to move from one girl to another. What young man would commit himself forever to a single woman when he can enjoy having a new one every year without losing a thing?"
Readers were equally concerned with questions following the marital contract. Or, as one participant put it: once the axe has fallen how do we safeguard the conjugal bond from the storms that threaten to shatter it sooner or later?
Most agreed that a certain level of education for women would help steer a marriage to safer shores. In this regard, one participant urged the Ministry of Education to take heed of the country's need for skilful mothers and reliable wives when creating its curricula for female education. Another participant wrote that he wanted a wife "who knows how to manage the affairs of the home and how to raise her children because the mother, in effect, is a miniature schoolhouse in which children develop their personalities, whether through imitation or instruction. In my opinion, the necessary qualifications only exist in women who have received at least a certain degree of instruction."
In the opinion of a third contributor, education was vital for "eradicating inveterate myths and superstitions". He went on to suggest creating a corps of female counsellors who would go from house to house to impart knowledge, culture and guidance. This, he argued, would fulfil the pleas of such advocates of women's rights as Qasem Amin.
However, the secretary of the Syndicate of Lawyers for the Religious Courts in Alexandria sounded a dissenting voice. Al-Sayed Hafez wrote that when he marries he would prefer to wed an uneducated woman. He explains: "Were we to enumerate the virtues of uneducated women we would find them greater than those who are educated. Educated women have had their eyes opened to various manifestations of civilisation such as the cinema, theatre, dance hall and other such things to which can be traced the greatest source of destruction to conjugal life. Frequently, education, especially in an Egyptian environment that is still in the process of formation, can be a cause for the loss of a woman's morals." As for the many virtues of the uneducated woman, Hafez summed them up as follows: "She knows nothing of worldly matters apart from devoting all her thoughts to the happiness of her husband and children."
How remote from Hafez's opinion was that of those participants who advocated modernising contractual arrangements between spouses and to entirely do away with traditional marriage contracts which they held responsible for many of the woes that would later affect marital life. A student at the American University argued that a proper contract was the way to put a marriage on solid ground and secure it against the "gales of caprice". He envisioned a system whereby "each spouse-to-be stipulates the conditions he or she expected the other to fulfil. These conditions must be written out in the presence of the guardians of the applicants for a marriage contract. Then, once the contract is signed and the marriage ceremonies concluded, the parties will be able to avoid such problems that lead to quarrels and separation, for each will be dedicated to fulfilling the conditions to which they pledged themselves in front of those they honour and respect."
Another participant listed what he believed were the five prerequisites for marital compatibility. Couples should be of roughly the same economic status; a man should never attempt to marry a woman that is richer than he; the husband should be no more than 10 or 12 years older than his wife; a husband must ascertain the soundness of his wife's character and reputation before marriage; and a prospective wife must be adept at managing household affairs.
Participants in Al-Ahram's poll turned next to the second half of the question soliciting their opinions on marital legislation. Not surprisingly, given the economic straits, a large number of respondents wanted a law to restrict or even abolish the bride price. A roads and bridges engineer, for example, wrote in to say that were it not for a religious stipulation he would like to see the bride price eliminated entirely. "Women are not goods to be put up for sale in the marketplace to the highest bidder," he declares. "Rather, a man should be obliged to furnish a conjugal home as he wishes and to the best that his financial circumstances permit."
Another reader proposed setting a limit to the bride price -- LE10 he suggested -- and in exchange, the husband would undertake the costs of furnishing the home. A third suggested a uniform token sum of half a piastre for rich and poor alike. He explains: "Were we to examine the causes behind the reluctance of men to marry, we would find that exorbitant bride prices constitute their most formidable obstacle." He goes on to propose that husbands should purchase the home and register it in their wife's name. "Then, in the event that he dies and leaves her nothing but his children, she will have some security after his departure from this world that will spare her having to fall upon the mercy of others."
No other subject met with as great a consensus as the question of polygamy. Reflecting the general opinion, parliamentary secretary Ibrahim El-Ibrashi maintained that polygamy was the most serious threat to a happy home. "When one considers the confusion and agitation of the polygamous man and the hostility and envy between half-siblings, one must inevitably restrict oneself to one wife." In the opinion of Saleh Mohamed El-Attar, men should not be allowed to take more than one wife without the approval of a magistrate, and not without a medical certificate and testimony ascertaining the man's moral and financial well-being.
Some readers were equally keen to impose tougher legislation in order to restrict divorce. In the opinion of a respondent from Alexandria, only a magistrate from a religious court should be empowered to approve divorce. He further suggested that the families of the spouses should first form a consultative council to iron out as many problems as possible beforehand. The magistrate could then issue his rulings in accordance with the report submitted to him by the joint family council.
However, one of the most curious remedies proposed for the marriage crisis was to impose a fine on men who remained bachelors beyond a specified age. Those who supported this idea concurred that the stipulated age should be 30, after which the law would exact a bachelor tax, the amount of which would be determined by a committee made up of the district police commissioner, three notables and the local religious judge. However praiseworthy the suggestion, it appears that its proponents had forgotten that the first and foremost cause of the marriage crisis was economic.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.