Egypt’s spinsters and society

Egypt’s spinsters and society

Oh no, more single women in Egypt. Major General Abu Bakr el-Gendi, the head of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, revealed that the number of single men and women has reached 13 million in the country, according to data collected from the 2006 census.

He said that some 7.6 million men and 5.7 million women are single in the country, pointing to this as a reason fro a number of problems facing Egypt.

Despite what he called “alarming” numbers of single people in Egypt, Gendi said that that marriage contracts amounted to 660,000 during 2008, up 7.4 percent from the previous year.

“Marriage rates in rural areas accounted for 67.3 percent of the total marriage contracts” signed in the country last year, Gendi said at a press conference last weekend.

Many in the government, including Gendi, have pointed to this increasing trend of men and women remaining single as a “main concern” as the country moves forward.

“It concerns us because this is increasing many tensions, especially sexual ones, and creates harassment on our streets,” he argued. He called on women to get married, arguing that this was the “proper” course of action for society to benefit from stronger “family values.”

Ironically, despite a number of recent reports arguing that sexual harassment and tension among the younger population, Gendi revealed that the highest percentage of new couples were in the age group between 25 and 30-years-old, making it some 40 percent of total marriages. This grouping also has the highest divorce rate.

Unmarried women in Egypt face the most stigma, as the country expects the vast majority of girls to be married by the time they are 25-years-old. If they get past this age, the Arabic word for “spinster,” or A’nis, is used to describe them. It has a derogatory meaning and has sparked fury among Egypt’s female activists, who demand that all women in the country be allowed to “choose for themselves” when and how they get married.

Youmna Mokhtar took it a step further last year, creating the now nonexistent Facebook group titled “Spinsters for change,” which called for a new means of talking about the subject of marriage and women’s rights.

“I started the group to initiate a dialog between women to discuss how we can change that social look,” said Mohktar. The group is outspoken against the social labeling and ill treatment of unmarried women.

Women feel the negative attachments to the word, which they argue attracts rumors, suspicion and pitying looks, as if asking; “what’s wrong with her if?” if she hasn’t married. But, with the average marriage age continuing to rise, Mokhtar believes it is time to evaluate how language plays a role in societal perceptions.

Nadia, a 30-something single Egyptian woman who works at a leading web design company in Cairo, struggles with being single. Her parents have instigated a 10 pm curfew for her and when she complains to her friends, they tell her to get married so she can leave her home and live free.

“This is ridiculous,” began an Egyptian female journalist, “since when does a 30-year-old successful woman need to get married to be independent? The problem with this country is that everyone wants women to be subservient to others.”

Pressure on women to get married often begins immediately following university. Some women have the luxury of waiting one or two years before the nagging begins. By the time a woman reaches 30-years-old, parents stop trying to force their daughters to get married, Mokhtar admitted. However, not because they don’t want to see their children wed.

“They would justify it using the idea that it becomes unsafe for women to get pregnant after 35,” Mokhtar said.

For women like Nadia, there is little recourse, because they often feel the stigma of leaving their family and are afraid that it “would look bad” if they were to carry out their wishes.

“Unfortunately this is just the way Egyptian society is at this point and we see women are treated like animals that can be exchanged from family to husband as if they don’t have a choice,” begins Noha Mahmoud, an American-based psychologist.

She believes that women, as marriage rates and divorce rates show, need to take the initiative in their own lives.

“They cannot sit back and complain about their lives. If they have the means and are successful, they have to make change happen. If they don’t, then we will be stuck as creatures that men can choose our futures,” the psychologist argues.

For now, spinsters roam the street and Egyptian officials use their unmarried status as a means to justify rampant sexual harassment.

“Men want women back in the home and this is how they think they are going to get it, but Egyptian women need to start acting and being more independent. We need to demand our rights,” said the journalist.

**additional reporting by Mohamed Abdel Salam