Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Eid Al-Fitr was only the start of numerous wedding bells, as more couples proceed with their wedding plans despite tough economic conditions, Al-Ahram Weekly explores some of the obstacles to marriage

The priciest token

Is wedding jewellery more than just a token of love, wonders Amira El-Noshokaty

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To have that special night put together for real, many couples have to endure months and even years of worrying over the shabka, the house, the furniture and the long list of purchases

The white conundrum

De-constructing the dream

In Egyptian society marriage has become synonymous with big expenses, beginning with the cost of the shabka. The shabka is the present that the groom traditionally buys his wife-to-be, as a token of love and appreciation. It ranges from a simple gold wedding band to a small collection of diamond rings, priceless necklaces and jingly bracelets. Although these gifts have historically played a symbolic role above all, they have recently become so over-priced, and indeed over-rated, that for the more cynical couples at least they have becomes deal-breakers on the eve of marriage.

"Unlike marriages in the 1960s, which were built from a couple's joint effort, the prices of the shabka are now very high, and often further exaggerated by unemployment rates, the general rise in living costs, and the drop in wages," sociologist Hoda Zakaria told Al-Ahram Weekly. As a result, she added, young men are refraining from marriage, leaving the women to be married to older, wealthier men, or not to be married at all. Zakaria went on to blame this phenomenon on social conservatism. "Unfortunately we do not think in a practical manner and we are culturally rigid," she said. "We do not try to solve our problems by changing."

In reaction to the growing shabka craze, a group on Facebook was formed a couple of months ago, titled Bride Without Shabka. The group's aim is to change the misconception of shabka. "It was Doaa El-Attar's idea," 23-year-old Mona Elish, group founder, told the Weekly. The group was inspired by 19-year-old El-Attar, who had been lobbying for the idea for more than six months on her blog. "I've seen cases where the groom's parents were willing to spend LE8,000 while the bride's family insisted on not giving her away for less than LE9,000. It's as if the bride has become a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder," said Elish . "There are many cases where the bride refuses to get married to someone because she considers her value to be equivalent to that of the shabka. This comparison cheapens the bride, no matter how expensive the shabka is."

The Facebook group has over 1,200 members and has developed alliances with groups such as one focussing on a more frugal, or s har'i marriage. Couples taking the shar'i path ensure the cost of the rings, wedding and furniture are nominal. Their motto is, "A bride without a shabka is a bride with a low budget ring. The bride should decide from the outset what a shabka means to her. If it is a present to her, well she should not state its shape, form or value," said Elish. "On the other hand, if it is a form of mahr or dowry, the Prophet Mohamed said that it could be as simple as an iron ring. As for the apartment and furniture, her parents must acknowledge the fact that the groom shouldn't necessarily be as well off in his youth as they are at their age."

According to Zakaria, the fiancé ought to buy his wife-to- be a present that ranges from an iron ring to a sack of gold. This, she says, falls in line with Islamic tradition. This traditional gesture, also a symbol of family pride, varies from one country to the other, but on the whole it still exists.

Over the past 30 years, however, Egyptian society has grown extravagant, even superficial, particularly as much of the middle class has spent at least some time working in the oil, and indeed gold-rich Gulf states. "In Kuwait, for instance, a bride is traditionally wooed either with a gold belt, or a golden vest. Such ornaments weigh up to one to two kilogrammes in gold, and they are a token of love and appreciation to match the bride's social status," said Zakaria.

The sociologist went on to explain that this gold rush has hit Egyptian society hard, making marriage very difficult in light of the economic crisis that our country is facing.

According to Sami Youssef, who owns one of downtown Cairo's more prestigious jewellery shops, the price of the average shabka starts at LE20,000. The classic shabka consists of a diamond ring and a gold wedding band. However the latest trend is referred to as the twin set: two platinum rings, one diamond ring and one platinum wedding band. Fifteen years ago, the average price ranged from LE3,000 to LE4,000.

Meanwhile, situated in the middle class district of Suleiman Gohar market is Adel Erian's jewellery shop, in business since 1963. Erian explains that the local shabka is a kirdan -- a gold necklace designed to cover the neckline -- alongside a gold locket, usually a miniature depiction of the Holy Quran. Also fashionable are gold bracelets in the shape of a snake, coiling around the wrist. These are often 18 to 21- carat gold.

In governorates such as Tanta and Beheira, Erian recounts, families would buy the shabka by the gramme, regardless of the shape and design. In the old days, he added, "the bride and groom's fathers used to come to the shop together to make their purchases. Prior to the set date to buy the shabka, there is always the visit of the groom's father, allowing him to state his family's budget in order to avoid any embarrassment," he added. "Nowadays the bride and groom come to choose for themselves."

Erian explained that after 1973 and the Open Door Policy that the country adopted, the price of gold increased. The increase pushed families towards settling for just a ring. At Erian's, a ring starts at LE2,000, though the sky is the limit. Expensive or not, the jeweller insists, "I personally believe that it is stupid to think that a shabka worth LE200,000 will secure a girl's happiness. It's the man that counts, while the shabka is just an ornament."

Following the same line of thought is Osama Mohsen, a teacher at Al-Azhar University and creator of Facebook group And We Won't Buy Any Shabka. This group was established in support of Brides Without Shabka.

"As for my family's reaction, my mother thought it was a very strange idea to begin with," Mohsen told the Weekly. "But I explained to her that my aim was to change mistaken perceptions, which become particularly dangerous during the horrible economic crisis that the Egyptian people are all enduring. She realised that, ultimately, my aim is to facilitate marriages."

Mohsen believes Egyptian society needs a radical change. He wonders why it should be difficult for young people to get married. So long as the situation remains as it is, young people will continue to be prey to urfi marriages, rape, and immoral relationships, he thinks. As for his group members, they are growing by the day, but it's the ideas and comments that Mohsen is after. "I now feel that I can change anything, even if it is a small change," he said. As for Zakaria, she is thrilled to hear about the Facebook groups, "because they rebel against the establishment, ensuring that things will change in the future."

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