It happens a lot that I get asked some where by either a relative or a random woman “I know someone who wants to marry, are you interested?” Or by a random man, which is less likely to happen, for my father’s number, to ask for my hand. A part of everyday normal life for any young Egyptian girl. Though I ask myself: how and why do many people get married that way?! So I make a search for people who want to tell me their stories with arranged marriage.
In Egyptian society marriage is very important, simply because no couple lives together or has intimate relationships before marriage, because religion (Islam und Christianity), society and the law forbid unmarried couples to have intimacy. Normally the family must agree to the marriage and the couple’s relationship is under family supervision. The way a marriage is arranged differs from one family to another, according to their traditions, religion and social status. In all cases, the arranged marriage starts with an arranged date between two families, two men or two women.
Ahmed, 24, sales manager, leaves his small flat in a middle class neighborhood with his sister. They’re heading to a date at a youth club arranged by Mona, his sister’s friend who is a volunteer matchmaker. Ahmed is willing to marry a religious, cultured girl, younger than him by about 3 to 5 years and has acceptable looks: not fat nor too thin. Mona also takes into consideration that the girl shouldn’t have higher qualification than Ahmed, ”In Egypt, a doctor won’t marry less than doctor like herself or an engineer” Ahmed’s sister critics.
During the date the girl’s parents were present. Her father, a bank manager, and her mother, a bank officer, ask Ahmed about his Job: how much his salary is and what kind of place their daughter will live in, while the girl keeps silent. Then Ahmed and the girl, a university graduate, talk in private. After Ahemd and his sister leave, Mona asks him first about his opinion and he shows his interest. So, Mona asks the girl’s family. They praise Ahmed, but his financial ability does not suit their ambitions. Soon, the next date with the next girl is already arranged. The girl is very beautiful and excellent. Except a comment in private from the girl’s mother to Mona about his weight, she and her family agree. But this time Ahmed is the one who refuses. So the search continues….
At a high class neighborhood Mona, the matchmaker, calls me from behind the door -since she is not wearing her Nikab (face veil) – to enter her luxurious apartment. She offers me some juice and jokes with me in a friendly way. She tells me that she arranges marriage dates voluntarily for 15 years now. Her intentions are establishing a Muslim household, comforting a Muslim seeking marriage and chastity (and by that excluding sexual relations before marriage), helping girls to get married against the difficulties arising from their great numbers compared to the numbers of able young men.
As she says around 90% of young men support arranged marriage, even the non-religious ones who have many female friends. This way of marriage makes them confident, that they won’t find out later that the girl for example belongs to a broken family, her brother is a bad man or that she has illicit relationships with other men.
The family’s Opinion is very important
Mona says that each family arranges the first date the way they like. It could be in/outdoor, the father may meet the groom first individually or the groom’s mother\sister may meet the bride first. Now there is a modern way: to see each other’s pictures via FB.
Mona tells that most men first of all want beautiful women, secondly well-educated ones and from a good social level and thirdly not fat, young, cool ones and some ask for non-working ones.
In contrast most girls first of all care for the man’s financial situation. That means he must have an apartment and a car is often expected. Women care secondly for fine social class, then comes the age and the looks. Some ignore the social level if he is good financially. Some go easy with the financial commands, especially if the girl is already older than 26.
Mona explains that family’s opinion is important. Normally when the man’s family disagrees on the bride, they would advice him and would try to convince him to let it go. It completely differs for the girl: She can refuse any groom even if her family likes him. But if her family refuses the groom, then it’s over. “Of course no girl would challenge her family for some man she doesn’t know.” Mona says.
In a local neighborhood the 27 year old engineer, Muhammad, is currently spending his vacation in Egypt searching for the girl of his dreams. He hears that the Imam of the nearby mosque, where he prays in, has a sister. Knowing that they are a decent family, he arranges a date with her father, a teacher. The father takes his daughter’s, Eman’s, permission, to meet him out of home. “My father can judge men better than me”, she says. The University student never got to know a man in person, because traditions forbid that. The man of Eman’s dreams is religious, understanding, smart and kind. Her father makes sure Muhammad is a good man, has an apartment and is willing to wait until Eman’s graduation in 2 years. Then Muhammad visits her home with his mother. Eman – as usual – wears a long loose headscarf, coat and shows up with her natural look, without make-up. “I feel comfortable around him”, Eman says after the meeting with a shy, but happy smile.
After some days only Muhammed and Eman’s father discuss the financial matters. The father determines Muhammed to pay the minimum amount of dower and promise to help him in the flat preparation. Eman agrees on the agreement, but her father is the one who makes it, because he is her Wali (the guardian in Islam) and the one who will pay for the flat and the wedding. She may talk at the agreement details, but only with her father individually, other wise she would be belittling her father in Muhammed eyes.
During this week Muhammad visits Eman’s family at home and at the end of it, a small engagement-celebration is held at her home. At her university she gives out chocolate and shows the pictures to her friends, who see her for the first time with less reserved Hijab, wearing Makeup and holding hands with her fiancé.
Traditional marriage gains Honor and respect for the women
Engagement is the time to see whether compatibility exists between each other or not. “The closer we get, the better I know him.” “Isn’t one week a short time to hold an engagement?”, I ask. Her answer is: “Our society doesn’t accept that a man visits me before we got officially engaged.”
Two weeks after the engagement-party, Muhammad travels back to work. He and his fiancee are in contact via Skype for 7 months now and he visits her during vacations.
Traditional marriage, for Eman, gains honor and respect for women, because the man is the one who proposes to the girl through her family and she accepts or refuses. It is also more protective because generally women are weaker than men. The man will be afraid of the guardian and won’t harm the woman. Otherwise he may deceive her, run away with her money or play with her feelings.
Eman tells me a story of a relative who loved a man but her family broke the engagement after 2 months because of disagreements with his family. “I can not love a person behind my family’s back, then my family refuses him and have a fight with them.” According to her the disadvantages of arranged marriage come when the father disregards the girl’s opinion or when the couple do not know each other well during the engagement.
At the waterfront of the Nile in Cairo, Belal is reading an Islamic book while he is waiting for me. I come with his niece, Noha, and he welcomes us with a friendly smile “As-salamu ´alaikum“ and shakes hands only with Noha. For religious reasons he refuses to shake hands with women he is not related to. He offers us a breakfast, then he starts to tell his story.
On a local neighborhood Belal, a 30 years old single Engineer, is working to achieve a master’s degree in Astronomy and Space Science. For him, it is ok to get to know women as long as the relationship is compliant to Sharia-law: not a romantic one, no touching.
Belal says that a lot of arranged marriages are successful, while most lovers give their best appearance at the beginning, but after marriage they truly get to know each other and break up. “The eyes of love are blind”. That’s why one of the arranged marriage’s advantages is that love comes with company, after marriage. Some degree of it might exist before. He says disadvantages of the traditional marriage happen when someone feels too embarrassed to break the engagement up, or because he’s too concerned and embarrassed about what people might talk, though he knows that the relationship has no future. For him, engagement exists to see, whether a couple is compatible or not.
The financial affairs are a matter for men
He is searching for about 2 years for a respectful family containing a religious and ethical woman. She must also be acceptable for his family, as they will live in the same building. “I’m not marrying in America and taking her aside, marriage means that a family marries another family” Belal says. His mother’s opinion is the most important one. Previously he had really liked a girl but his mom stood against it harshly. “It is the love authority. I love my mother so much and don’t want to hurt her.”
Many who know Enas closely, a 27 years old doctor, suggest her for Belal. That gives him personal relief and trust in her. He meets her and her father at their home for two weeks until he makes sure that there is the most important thing at marriage: an accord; a convergence in concepts and aims.
Both agree to hold an engagement. So, Belal and Enas’s father discuss the financial matters. For Belal, it is only natural and proper to talk about such a topic with a man. ”It’s called gentlemen-agreements,” he says. Men are more aware of life’s reality, as women are more emotional and talk in their dreams’ perspective, Belal continues. Thank God Enas and her family show understanding to his bad financial situation, though it is not easy for Enas. She is a doctor and does not want to be financially worse off than the others.
Six months after the engagement took place, they got married. They lead a happy marriage since then. Today he is 34. He says with a wide smile ”I found my treasure. I am happy and proud of her ethics”.
Back to the match maker, Mona. Once I finished my interview with her, she started her obligatory questions, asking me if I am now interested in attending arranged marriage dates?