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In a TV comedy, Egyptian women gain a voice on marriage

By Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 11:32 AM

CAIRO - 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 resounds 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.

"How 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 sitcom 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.

As 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 available girls."

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 waiting longer to marry. At the same time, there are fears that the number of unmarried women in their 30s is growing, apparently because men, when they do finally wed, choose younger brides.

In the country's debate over the marriage crisis, women often bear the brunt of the blame, with men complaining that 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 acquiesce.

Pressure to settle

"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 because 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.

"If 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 came 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.

The 32-year-old Mohsen, who was the first and only person in her extended, middle-class family to earn a master's 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' character.

"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.

Mohsen said a male friend once told her 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 woman 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," she said.

Viewed as caretaker

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."

Although women's ages at marriage in many places around the world might 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.

Unmarried 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.

"In the 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."

- Associated Press

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