(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
It's rare in Egypt's
pop culture to get a direct and frank look inside the minds of Egyptian
women and what they really think of marriage and love. So a TV comedy
became a startling voice in this conservative society's debate over the
changing role of women.
The show, "I Want to Get Married," makes a
simple point, but one that resounded strongly: Women want to be an
active part of the process of finding a life partner, not passive
objects whose fate is to be decided by their mothers, fathers or
suitors. The message made it a hit among Egyptians - that and the humor
it mined from the quirks of Egyptian middle-class matchmaking, where
suitors file through the family salons of potential brides to check them
out, confident with the expectation that every woman - particularly
those above 30 - will be eager to snap them up.
Fine-tuning Arab Television
is it that someone comes to meet you in the salon, and then by the
third visit you have to be ready to talk about the dowry, wedding
jewelry and date for a wedding," said Ghada Abdel-Aal, the author who
inspired the sit-com with a blog and book by the same name, based
largely on her own experiences.
"And you as the girl are just expected
to accept that this is your fate without even knowing who the person
really is." In one episode from the show, the heroine Ola is introduced
to what seems to be the perfect suitor. Handsome, cultured,
well-mannered, he has a good job and lives in Italy. Giddy that her long
search may be ending, she then discovers the catch: He's already
married to an Italian woman. His mother, he explains, wants him to take a
second, Egyptian wife - he's allowed four wives under Egypt's
Islamic-based laws - to force him to spend more time back home in Egypt.
a furious Ola and her parents throw him out of their home, his mother
snorts, "We don't need you. There's a lot of families and even more
The show, which ran during the Islamic holy of month
of Ramadan, is a sort of counter-voice in what Egyptian media have
blared as the country's "marriage crisis." Traditionally, grooms in
Egypt must pay heavy expenses, including buying an apartment and
providing money up front to the bride. But with the economy ailing and
poverty widespread, men are having a harder time affording the costs and
are taking longer to get married. At the same time, there are fears
that the number of unmarried women in their 30s is growing, apparently
since men, when they do finally wed, choose younger brides.
the country's debate over the marriage crisis, women often bear the
brunt of the blame, with men complaining they make too many financial
demands or are too choosy about their groom's personality. The
expectation has become that if they don't want to become a spinster - a
word often thrown about in Egypt for any unmarried woman over 30 - women
should just settle.
A defiant defense of a woman's right to be picky
"I Want to Get Married" - both the TV show
and Abdel-Aal's 2008 book - is a defiant defense of a woman's right to
be picky. It argues that women, particularly since they are becoming
more educated and gaining positions in the working world, have the right
to hold out for a husband who sees them as a real partner.
Ola's goal was just to get married she would have accepted the first man
to enter her life," the 30-year-old (and unmarried) Abdel-Aal said of
her main character. "But when she realizes that he is not suitable,
either due to his mentality or education level or character, she refuses
him and moves on. She is looking for someone who will help to complete
her life." "Many women come up to me after I wrote the book to say they
saw themselves in the main character," Abdel-Aal said.
Reham Mohsen is an example of a woman who is under pressure to settle.
32-year-old Mohsen, who was the first and only person in her extended,
middle-class family to earn a Masters degree - says her parents came
from a generation that placed great importance on the education of their
daughters and on encouraging them to work. But, she says, those same
parents - and the sons they were raising - didn't seem to realize what
this progressive decision meant in terms of developing their daughters'
"My parents don't see the problem with me accepting to
marry someone with a vocational diploma and who earns $9 a month,"
Mohsen said a male friend once told her that he wasn't interested in a woman who talked back.
"He told me, 'If I wanted someone with an opinion, I'd go to the cafe where my male friends hang out,'" Mohsen said.
All the pressure lies on the female in the marriage process, she told The Associated Press.
"We have to be educated, virginal, able to cook, clean, speak several
languages, be prepared to serve his family, raise his kids well, and on
top of that have a good job to financially contribute in the household,"
Dana Sabah, an Egyptian academic whose thesis studied
unmarried women in Jordan, said Abdel-Aal's book "gave a voice to the
girls who were suffering a real, yet intangible pressure - something
that was there and felt, but couldn't really be spoken of." While
women's ages at marriage in many places around the world may be rising
because of economic and social changes, "in the Arab world, society
speaks about it in terms of something being wrong with the girl herself
and a negative phenomenon that's taking over the society," she said.
and 40 herself, she said that society continues to view unmarried women
either as the caretaker at home or available at work at any time
"because the only valid norm is to be a wife and mother, and so there is
a perception you have no life otherwise." Hanan Kholoussy, a historian
at the American University in Cairo who studies marriage in Egypt, casts
doubt on whether a marriage crisis even exists - studies on the subject
are sketchy. Instead, she says such debates about marriage routinely
pop up in Egypt, particularly in times of crisis.
"This is a way
to critique Egyptian society and the growing materialism - especially
Egyptian women and their families for their financial demands in
marriage," she said.
Abdel-Aal, who says she's still hoping to
marry, said the show brought her criticism for being "crass" for showing
women - expected to be modest and let their families handle the process
of their engagement - making demands for their spouse.
Arab world, only men are allowed to talk or write about marriage, and
when he speaks of it he is always complaining and unhappy," she said.
"If a woman complains she is being shameful and if she desires marriage then she is shameful."