In 1932, Fikri Abaza, a young Egyptian editor and lawyer from a prominent family, gave a lecture at the American University in Cairo in which he announced his intention of remaining a bachelor. He had proposed to four women, he said, and four fathers had rejected his proposals on financial grounds.
The next day, the young man's lecture was the "talk of the town," American University in Cairo professor Hanan Kholoussy tells us in her book For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt. Yet Abaza's complaint was hardly unprecedented. As Kholoussy documents, it was emblematic of a debate that raged in early 20th-century Egypt around the supposed increase in bachelors. That debate has striking parallels with one going on today in Egypt, where another "marriage crisis" is supposedly looming -- one in which it is the rising number of "spinsters" that most troubles observers.
I say supposedly because in both cases, "crisis" may be an overstatement. The "marriage crisis" of today, like the one back then, might have more to do with public anxiety over sweeping societal changes than any catastrophic threat to the institution of marriage.
More than 70 years after Abaza's public complaint, in the summer of 2006, Ghada Abdel Aal -- a then-27-year-old pharmacist -- started writing a blog with the tongue-in-cheek title I Want to Get Married. In her first post, she writes: "Stay with me and I'll tell you about my tribulations, so that you'll know everything we [unmarried women] put up with."
What follows is a tragicomic account of the unremitting pressure felt by an unwed woman to land a groom. Malicious neighbors and meddling relatives never tire of commiserating with Abdel Aal over her failure to get engaged. As for Abdel Aal's would-be suitors, they include a police officer who has government informants spy on her family, a man who already has two wives, and a suitor who interrupts their first meeting to watch a soccer match on TV.
Abdel Aal rails against the widespread belief that women themselves are to blame for their lack of marital prospects (people think, "the girl who delays [marrying] must have a flaw"). The blog is very funny, but it also conveys how exhausting and demeaning it is to be single in a society that works overtime to convince women "there is no success in any field that can take the place of marriage."
Abdel Aal's blog is a spirited defense of the unmarried woman, at a time when this category is increasingly the focus of public concern. Recently, Egypt's official statistics-gathering agency caused a furor when it announced that there were 13 million single men and women in the country, up from 9 million in the previous census. Its head found himself compelled to issue an official denial of his own agency's report, lowering the number of spinsters to just a few hundred thousand (and noting that the number of marriages had actually increased). Whatever the numbers, however, politicians and public opinion have latched onto the idea that bachelors and -- heaven help us! -- spinsters are proliferating.
Certainly, men and women across the region are getting married at a later age and, in some countries and socioeconomic groups, aren't marrying at all. Yet it's hard to gauge the true extent of the phenomenon, just as it was a hundred years ago. Kholoussy doesn't present figures on the incidence of marriage in early 20th-century Egypt (when many marriages may have gone unregistered). She suggests that the crisis was largely imaginary, but she also more or less argues that it doesn't matter -- that the debate offers a fascinating window into "contested national identity formation" and "visions of modern marriage." Still, the question of whether the crisis was based in fact seems relevant, and one wishes she had at least tried to answer it.
What she does do is show how marriage -- viewed by Egypt's small, newly educated, emerging middle class as a "microcosm of the nation" -- can become a focal point for discussing wider economic concerns, cultural changes, and political demands. In the first three decades of the 20th century, Egypt's economy was battered by a series of crises, including a drop in the price of cotton, World War I, and the Great Depression. Inflation was rampant, and many complained -- like Abaza -- that they could not afford to marry. Men were expected (just as they are today) to provide their new bride with an independent home, to support her in a style commensurate with her upbringing, and to pay a dowry that could be several times their yearly salary.