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To Be a Single Egyptian Woman

(6 votes, average 4.67 out of 5)
The Mindset of a Society
By Yomna El-Saeed
Freelance Writer- Egypt
I being single
In many cases, Women are pushed to go out to the society through working and attending social events in order to attract suitors.

I hate it when I meet someone for the first time and find them looking at my fingers to check if there is a ring or not. I hate it when my mother’s friends, my friends’ mothers, and my neighbors keep asking me “ain’t there anything?;”  inquiring if I have any available marriage opportunity.

I am 23 year old, and according to our Egyptian culture it is okay for a woman in my age to be single. But I understand why I am under this agitating pressure; it is the looming spinsterhood dystopia specter that is scaring everyone.

“A Girl got nothing but her husband’s house” is a very Egyptian proverb. I have been hearing it for as long as I can remember. It reflects the inherent belief that no matter how successful or educated the girl is, this is not important as she will end up getting married and taking care of her kids.

According to this notion, single girls got nothing!

Singlehood in the Egyptian Culture

The contemporary Egyptian culture is at the other side of the spectrum, that the term “marriage crisis” is synonymous with “spinsterhood”. If a man –willingly or unwillingly- stays single he is free to do so. But if a woman stays single she is an incomplete person waiting for her other half

A century ago, illiteracy was commonplace among girls, and those who were sent to school their maximum was high school level. For girls, marriage and university education-as well as working-were mutually exclusive. And the overwhelming majority chose the education-less marriage.

The girls who joined universities and sought good jobs were believed to be too liberal to be honorable obedient wives. They had to stay at home until they get married. They got suitors mainly through family networks or the traditional matchmaker; a woman with a database of a number of photographs of single men and women seeking marriage. This matchmaker used to visit her customers at home and tells them about qualities of their match. This was widely articulated in the Egyptian black and white movies, and told to my generation by our grandparents.

According to her book “For Better, For Worse; The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt”, Dr. Hanan Kholousy, the Assistant Professor of History and Middle East Studies in the American University in Cairo, states that  for many Egyptians in the early twentieth century the biggest national problem was not British occupation or the Great Depression but the marriage crisis.  It was taken that seriously because “the repercussions of such a social crisis can destroy the entire nation and foreshadow its annihilation. [It] threatens the Egyptian nation at its core and erodes its backbone and forewarns of its ruins. The government and people must unite to solve this crisis”.

Back then, the marriage crisis was defined as a devastating rise in the number of middle-class men preferring bachelorhood over marriage. Some writers back then blamed bachelors for squandering their money, believing  that they would better save their money to afford the marriage costs.

The contemporary Egyptian culture is at the other side of the spectrum, that the term “marriage crisis” is synonymous with “spinsterhood”. If a man –willingly or unwillingly- stays single he is free to do so. But if a woman stays single she is an incomplete person waiting for her other half, and she is labeled “spinster”; a social stigma. It is like being labeled failure or pathetic.

Women are pushed to go out to the society through working and attending social events in order to attract suitors. They are also pushed to give up some of their sought qualities they look in men in order not to take the nasty label. Statistics show that the number of bachelors is more than spinsters, yet the society and the media care only about the lonely spinsters.

Pressure on women to get married often starts immediately after university. Exceeding 30 without marriage is a nightmare.

Marriage Obstacles

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) says 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. Formal statistics show that unemployment among college graduates in Egypt is 25%, and 48% among vocational school graduates. Formal statistics also show that there are 9 million spinsters in Egypt. The real numbers are actually higher.

Housing shortage is a main marriage obstacle that delays marriage for years. Youth get stuck in this period of not being adolescent, yet they do not necessarily consider themselves adults as they are dependably living with their families.

Beside the financial obstacle, there is a psychological obstacle, which is the fear of the failure. Divorce rates in the past 50 years amplified from 7% to 40%, 42% of which take place in the first year of marriage. Most of the divorced women are still in their 20’s. The frequent divorces made marriage seem to be an unattractive fragile institution for single people.

“I want to get married!”

Ghada_in_a_book_booth
Ghada Abdel Aal, Egyptian pharmacist and author of “I Want to Get Married!” book.

In the pre-January 25th Egypt, oppression comes out only on the internet, be it political or social oppression.  There are many blogs by singles about their repression, either in Arabic or in English.

After years of looking for Mr. Right in living-room meetings arranged by family or friends, Ghada Abdel Aal, Egyptian pharmacist, decided to take it to the blogosphere in August 2006 to share her experiences and frustrations at being a single female in Egypt. Her blog, “I Want to Get Married!” quickly became a hit among both men and women in the Arab world. With a keen sense of humor and biting social commentary, she meticulously narrates her adventures with failed proposals and unsuitable suitors. Her blog was then made a book and was first published in Egypt in January 2008 and was a bestseller. It is now translated into English, German, Dutch, and Italian.

It is perfectly normal to hear an Egyptian youth saying, "I want to get married". But when a girl says it in such a conservative society is considered impolite.  Writing a book with that title was like Abdel Aal was grabbing the society and shaking it, saying, “Hey, listen to us!”

The book is not only about the author’s personal experiences, it illustrates the overwhelming pressure on Egyptian women to get married. It sheds light on the notion that girls should not mind a career lest they miss the train! , the fact that all girls are raised and prepared for one role in her life which is to get married, and when she stays single she is viewed as a second class woman who has no role in her society. The author also mentioned the double-standard when parents raise their daughters in a very conservative way, and when they grow up ask them to go attract suitors.

The American National Public Radio dubbed Ghada Abdel-Aal “Carrie Bradshaw in a headscarf”. Abdel-Aal embraced Sex and the City and said: “Some people call my show Sex and the City, but without the sex. It’s just the city”

Another much less famous blog-then-made-a-book about singlehood is “Diaries of a Spinster” by Abeer Soliman. Her story is different. Thirties year old Soliman is a beautiful strong woman, who left her family behind in a rural area to join a university and pursue a career in Cairo. She mentions in her book that the main reasons of her and her friends’ singlehood is that they are too qualified! They are independent, smart, and successful in their careers. Men get attracted to such qualifications, yet when it comes to marriage they get scared away.

Related Links:
“I won’t let my husband have a second wife!”
To Me, It’s Westernized Marriage Tradition!
On Singlehood
After a Break-up: Check an Emergency First-Aid Kit
Remaining Childless: Why Is It a Cultural Taboo?

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