“My son survived, but I will definitely allow him to retake the risk of emigrating to Europe on an illegal boat trip if he ever has the chance to,” said the father of a 16-year-old boy who survived an illegal emigration tragedy off Egypt’s northern coast near Rosetta when almost 400 people lost their lives in a capsized fishing boat heading to Italy last September.
Misery featured on the old man’s face as he explained to a talk show that he had three girls of marriage age and that according to the norms of his village he would need a budget of at least LE300,000 to pay for their marriage expenses.
“It is the norm in our village that girls’ marriage costs are high,” he said. The surviving son nodded in approval, saying that he had had to travel to Europe because it was the only way for his family to provide the money needed for his sisters’ marriages.
But what if he had died on the way? “It’s all a matter of destiny,” he murmured, nodding his head to say he was “no better than those who had drowned on the Rosetta boat.”
His words may seem shocking to many, but a glimpse at the home of the young migrant’s family sums up the problem. The TV cameras revealed how poverty lurked in every corner of the red-brick house in an impoverished village in the governorate of Fayoum. The house had little and mostly dilapidated furniture, and three girls in their early twenties were standing in it, their miserable looks unmistakable.
Although poverty rates in Egypt are higher in rural than in urban areas, there is a growing trend among rural families to exaggerate the costs of marriage, with more often than not more than half of the burden falling on the bride’s family.
All those who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly said that traditions and customs dictated exaggerated demands, meaning that girls needed an average of LE100,000 to get married and that both rich families and low-waged ones often struggled to stick to such norms to avoid possible social stigma.
Egypt’s 27 governorates are a mix of urban and rural areas, and poverty rates are especially high in Upper Egypt where many households are not connected to main-line sewerage and may not have easy access to drinking water. The Delta, however, is a different case, in that while poverty remains high in its five governorates the last decade has seen a shift in the social standing of many families as a result of illegal emigration.
Ahmed Anwar, head of the Philosophy and Sociology Department at Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Education, said that “rural areas in the Delta have witnessed major demographic changes due to the fact that many young men have been illegally travelling to Europe and sending money back to their families who are seeking a better standard of living.”
The present writer was once sitting in a female-only gathering in a village in the Gharbiya governorate in the Delta in which the women were discussing the costs of their daughters’ marriage arrangements. These seemed to exceed those of their peers in many urban areas, including Cairo and Alexandria, where living standards are supposedly much higher.
The families of girls would spend LE100,000 on luxury items that might have been dispensed with, in seeming contrast with the low living standards of many rural households.
A publication of the Land Centre for Human Rights, an NGO, explains the contradiction. “Although low consumption should go hand-in-hand with high rates of poverty, this is not the case in many rural areas,” it says. “High spending on luxury items for marriages and funerals is a case in point, signalling the contradiction in lifestyles in many villages.”
The study gives examples of the high expenses of marriages, starting with the exaggerated dowries and shabka (the gold or jewellery that the groom gets for his bride) and including the money lavished on banquets, adornments and music at engagement parties. The expenses of furnishing the marital home, according to the study, can almost exceed the imagination.
“The furniture may include various types of washing machine, three to six rooms fully-furnished rooms, and bed sheets and clothes enough to open a shop, not to mention the money lavished on the weddings themselves,” it says.
“This luxury has no social or religious roots, but has seeped into Egypt’s social fabric and into rural communities through illegal emigration as young men sometimes risk their lives in search of better social and financial standards,” the study concludes.
CONTRADICTIONS: A look at Egypt’s demographic map and poverty rates reveals how such exaggerated marriage costs are irrational and can be symptomatic of social competitiveness and unrealistic ambitions.
According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), Egypt’s poverty rate was 27.8 per cent in 2015, compared to 25.2 per cent in 2010-11. In an official report released on International Anti-Poverty Day, CAPMAS said that “extreme poverty” in Egypt had reached 5.3 per cent, which it attributed to a spike in the prices of essential foodstuffs. The current poverty line is estimated at LE482 per month, while the extreme poverty line stands at LE322.
According to the agency, Upper Egypt’s urban and rural governorates as well as the Nile Delta’s rural areas witnessed an increase in poverty between 2012 and 2015, while the urban governorates and the Nile Delta’s urban areas witnessed a drop in the same period. About 56.8 per cent of those living in rural areas in Upper Egypt cannot meet their basic needs, compared to 19.7 per cent in the Nile Delta.
The CAPMAS figures also revealed an increase in the poverty rate in relation to family size, showing that while six per cent of families with fewer than four members are poor, 44 per cent of families with six to seven members fall below the poverty line. That number increases to 75 per cent in poverty for families with 10 members or more.
But although rural areas have higher poverty rates, the majority of marriages are still registered in rural communities, where 57.7 per cent of all marriages, compared to 42.3 per cent in urban areas, occur.
Marriage rates have not dropped due to the exaggerated demands made by families in rural areas, as perhaps has been the case in urban areas. A 2015 report by the cabinet’s Information and Decision-Making Centre revealed that eight million, or at least 40 per cent of girls at the age of marriage, were single, and that this number was likely to rise due to economic and political instability.
But that has not seemed to have affected the rural Delta, where the number of recorded marriages has remained almost the same despite the economic conditions. According to the CAPMAS 2015 report, the rate of marriage remained almost constant in rural areas in the period between 2010 and 2014. In fact, the number of marriage contracts increased by 5.8 per cent in rural areas in the period between 2013 and 2014.
Anwar explained that marriage remained “an essential and indispensable component of the rural social fabric. We cannot assume that the high costs of marriage have caused more girls to remain single, as perhaps is the case in urban areas,” he noted. “Many families in the rural Delta are now better off as a result of sending their sons to work abroad; but even those who can hardly make ends meet marry to the same social standards. There is no way that girls will stay unmarried.”
The Weekly headed to the village of Abu Seir near Samannoud in the governorate of Gharbiya. Poverty seemed to have taken the upper hand in the village, where most households have low social and educational standards, except for a few wealthy families from a privileged background or those whose younger generations have worked abroad to improve their families’ financial standards.
One woman was bragging about her daughter’s marriage arrangements. Her 18-year-old daughter was a student at the Faculty of Commerce, while her husband, also her cousin, was a diploma-holder who had travelled to work in France, probably on an illegal boat trip. The details of the marriage arrangements showed that women bear more expenses than men when it comes to marriage.
“My daughter’s cousin and groom presented the shabka on the day of the engagement, which included golden rings, two golden bracelets and a valuable golden necklace,” the woman stated. “According to the norms in the countryside, the family of the bride has to take gifts to the groom’s household the next day in the form of sacks of wheat, rice, pasta and sugar in addition to five kinds of poultry and baskets of all kinds of fruit,” she said.
The other women listened attentively, nodding in approval. Everybody seemed to agree that these were the norms, whether they liked them or not. Another woman, a fish-vendor, intervened, telling the gathering about her own experiences regarding the marriage of her three daughters and a son.
“The girls cost me more than the boy in the arrangements for the marriages,” she said. “The marriage of each girl cost me more than LE150,000.” These high costs, she explained, were mainly due to the fact that women in rural areas are expected to provide household appliances, carpets, kitchen equipment and bed sheets. Peer pressure was a main factor explaining why many rural families exaggerated the marriage supplies, the women said.
“In our village girls compare themselves to each other, and mothers insist that the trousseaus of their daughters be at the same level, if not better, than those of their peers, regardless of the economic pressures this could put on the family,” the woman said. “Even the poorest villagers who can hardly make ends meet think this way. They save every penny starting from the day they have a baby girl in preparation for her marriage.”
In many rural areas, the women agreed, marriage cost brides more than grooms and more than their peers in urban areas. “Although many families in our village ask for a golden shabka the value of which ranges between LE20,000 and LE50,000, the families have to pay in the form of food presents to the groom’s family as well,” another woman noted.
The bride is expected to get 20 valuable pieces of china, crystal glasses, 40 towels, 20 bed-sheets, a children’s room with two beds and 20 bed sheets, five bed covers and three quilts. The family of the bride is expected to bring two refrigerators, including a mini-fridge, a deep-freezer, three washing machines, including one for babies, two kitchen appliances including one for the bride’s mother-in-law and carpets and kitchen utensils.
Before the wedding, the bride’s family should get their daughter a box of accessories the value of which ranges between LE20,000 and LE50,000. It would be a source of shame, in the words of one woman, if the girl did not receive these things.
EXPLANATIONS: Professor of political psychology at the National Centre for Social and Criminological Studies Sawsan Al-Fayed explained the exorbitant costs of rural marriages in the light of social competitiveness and the high aspirations of rural families.
“In the countryside, well-known families give special care to keeping up the name, reputation and customs of the family,” Al-Fayed said. For such families, exaggerated marital arrangements and luxurious trousseaus for daughters are a way of preserving the family name and prestige. In a community marked by social competitiveness and aspirations, limited-income and poor families also try their best to keep up with rich families and exaggerate their daughters’ trousseau, sometimes even getting unneeded items.
Anwar, however, looks instead at social trends in the rural communities within the broader picture of Egyptian society where television and satellite channels have raised expectations and ambitions in general. In this respect, the rural communities cannot be exceptions, as people there also aspire for a more luxurious life, similar to that they see on TV.
“Gold is considered a kind of financial asset for girls in rural areas, but other luxury items like mobiles, microwaves, laptops and dish-washers have also become essential to meet the aspirations of rural households trying to have lives similar to their urban peers and to those they see on TV. Many rural households may not know how some of the electronic items they buy work, but they get them believing that they could improve their social status,” Anwar said.
Norms and traditions play a pivotal role in marriages, many agree. The rural women interviewed by the Weekly related stories about many of these traditions. One main tradition was the ‘agreement cooking pots,’ which according to one woman may cost up to LE10,000. On the first day following the wedding, it is a tradition that the bride’s family sends cooking pots full of all kinds of foods including poultry, fish, chicken, rice, pasta, sugar, margarine, cooking oil and cream. The bride’s family should also make sure that the newly married couple’s fridge and deep-freezer are full of all kinds of food, putting financial burdens on the bride’s family.
“Unlike in the city, women bear the largest portions of marital costs in rural areas,” said another villager. “In rural communities, tradition says that bridegrooms only get the furniture and the curtains, which don’t cost more than LE70,000 and that can be paid for in installments. Families often build apartment blocks on arable land, and each son has his own flat over his parents’ house. Most families in our village are poor, but they struggle for years to cover the expenses of their daughters’ marriages, and many send their sons on perilous trips to Europe to work and send money back. In a rural community, marriage is essential for girls and social norms and traditions are unavoidable,” she said.
Al-Fayed agreed, insisting that “social norms and traditions have the upper hand in rural communities, especially in Upper Egypt, and such customs are financial burdens for most families who nevertheless try hard to fulfill their obligations in order to save face or out of fears that their daughter could be looked down upon by her in-laws.”
Those who do not have the chance to send their sons to work abroad in the Gulf or in Europe resort to taking out loans or credit, or selling land and paying for weddings in installments. “It is also a tradition that families give gifts in the form of large sums of money to newly-wed relatives and that money can be one way of paying for marriage arrangements,” Anwar commented. “Families start saving money for the marriages of their daughters from the day they are born in order to be able to fulfill the obligations that tradition dictates.”
Many sociologists would agree with Anwar that the gap between poverty rates and high social aspirations in rural communities has been a main driver behind the spread of illegal emigration in the Nile Delta. The village of Abu Seir is a case in point, where the lavish buildings belonging to the families of illegal emigrants stand in sharp contrast to their impoverished surroundings.
“The contradiction between poverty and social aspirations has forced many families to send their sons on perilous journeys to Europe across the Mediterranean in order to be able to keep up with social norms and save face when their daughters get married,” Anwar concluded.
The writer is a freelance journalist.