Why it matters that Egyptians are being priced out of marriage

Expensive marriage arrangements and social conservatism put matrimony out of reach for many young people in Egypt, which has serious consequences.

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Marwa, which is not her real name, dated her husband in secret for over a year before they got engaged. They didn’t have a lot to hide – they didn’t kiss until after their legal marriage contract was signed in September – but her father would not have seen it that way. Marwa is 27, and until recently worked for a large international company in Cairo. Her husband, who we’ll call Amr, is 30 and works as a teacher in Saudi Arabia. They met through mutual friends, and grew close through Facebook messenger. In June, Amr returned to Cairo to meet Marwa’s father. He posed as a stranger, and said he’d been tipped off by family friends that Marwa might make a good wife for him. Getting Marwa’s father to agree in principle to the match was the easy part. The financial negotiations that followed were fierce and protracted.

Her father was adamant that Amr provide her with a rented apartment in Saudi, which would cost 40,000 Riyals (£7,000) a year, as well as a condo in Cairo costing half a million Egyptian pounds (LE) (£42,000). He drew up a list of household goods Amr must purchase for a minimum price of 35,000 LE (£3,000). Four days before their legal marriage, Marwa’s father and Amr shouted at each other for around seven hours over the purchase of two large diamond rings.

“If it was anyone other than my husband, I don’t think they would accept the way my father treated him and argued with him, and the expensive things he asked for. But my husband agreed, just because he loves me,” Marwa told me when we met for coffee in the upmarket Cairo district of Zamalek. She feels lucky; many of her friends have had to break off engagements over money problems. Marwa said she didn’t really want any of the things her father had bargained so hard for: not the diamond rings, and certainly not the condo. So why did he do it? “It’s the community,” she replied; in Egypt expensive marriage arrangements are still seen by many as a measure of a woman’s worth. As one cash-strapped groom put it to me, “the family want to show the daughter is valuable”.

The price of marriage has been steadily increasing in Egypt. This cost falls largely on would-be grooms, who are expected to pay for the family home, most of its furnishings and the bride’s wedding jewellery, known as shabka. According to a survey by UNFPA the average cost of shabka has almost doubled in the past decade to reach 7,000 LE (£590), as has the average cost of getting married which, excluding the shabka and property, is now 40,000 LE (£3,400).

This is a lot to spend in a country where 14 per cent live on less than a $2 a day, and a quarter of young people are unemployed. It’s also a considerable investment to make while Egypt’s economic prospects are so uncertain. High youth unemployment and poverty contributed to the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s dictator for almost thirty years, and the political instability and social unrest that followed have done little to improve the country’s finances. Tourism accounts for 13 per cent of GDP, and so events such as the Russian plane crash over Sinai and the killing of Mexican tourists in the Western desert could deal a heavy blow to the economy. These economic problems have romantic implications.

For some men, marriage is prohibitively expensive. A quarter of Egyptian men aged 35 are unmarried, as are 12 per cent of women. Marriage is a life-changing transition for Egyptians. Unmarried people are expected to live with their parents and relationships outside of marriage are frowned upon – particularly for women. To put it bluntly, for many Egyptians, to be priced out of marriage can mean being priced out of sex. Unexpectedly, given Egypt’s social conservatism, a recent article in a local newspaper made a case for legalising prostitution to protect women and accept that in a “repressed and simultaneously sexually obsessed society” people will look for less “economically troublesome” options for meeting their sexual needs. But the problem is bigger than this. While many young men feel worn down by economic pressure, women suffer most under marital norms that reflect and reinforce Egypt’s patriarchal social structure.

In 2011, when men and women went out onto the streets en masse to protest against their government, a number of sexual assaults – including against the US TV anchor Lara Logan – drew renewed public attention to Egypt’s sexual harassment problem. A 2013 UN Women survey found that 99.3 per cent of Egyptian women reported being harassed, often in the streets. This makes Egypt the second worse place for harassment, after Afghanistan. Soraya Bahgat, a women’s rights activist and founder of Tahrir Bodyguard – which deployed teams of people to protect women against assaults at protests – told me she was struck by the anger expressed by many men. The attacks were “very vicious, they went beyond sexual frustration to express real violence”. The causes of this resentment are complex, she added, but economics could play a part. “If you can’t get married because of economic and social structures, you take your anger out on women: it’s easier sometimes to get upset at the woman, because who else can you blame?”

Marwa, who says she is harassed often and has been groped several times while walking around Cairo, believes sexual harassment is more directly linked to marriage. “Making love before marriage is not allowed in Egypt, and they cannot get married so they find another way to satisfy their needs,” she told me. She said she couldn’t wait to move to Saudi Arabia, which surprised me. She was wearing bright pink lipstick and a patterned headscarf, so I asked her how she felt about being forced to wear a black abaya in Saudi Arabia, and being banned from driving. Those were downsides, Marwa acknowledged. But, “in Egypt, men bother me all the time...in Saudi I can walk safely at 2am.”

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.