Reham M. Omar
Last updated: 24 September, 2014

How Egypt is keeping its women trapped in zombie society

The Arab world's most populous nation has reached a critical ethnographic juncture: the stigma of spinsterhood (women who are unmarried beyond the "usual" age of marrying) is haunting the country's female population. Reham Omar investigates what marriage in Egypt really means.

A suffering economy, identity crisis, and general instability are all factors leading up to the declining marriage rate in Egypt, which is understandable in light of the current situation. Yet the key issue here is what a lot of young Egyptian women refer to as a “rigid national mentality which fails to adapt accordingly,” “an archaic notion that defines a woman’s value by her husband’s status,” and “transforming her into a commodity for the highest bidder.”

THE BASIS behind this is simple and not as malevolent as western critics perceive; while western culture attribute success and failure to the individual and individual alone, eastern culture considers family to be the pillar of one’s success, generally creating a tightly knit blood-bond and support structure. Each system has its pros and cons, but while codependence is highly favorable in the Middle East, it does in fact reject if not oppress any sign of diversion from this system, yielding myriads of unfavorable consequences.

“…an archaic notion that defines a woman’s value by her husband’s status”

The standard sequence of events for a typical Egyptian female’s life, is to pursue an auspicious college degree (to improve her chances of finding a proper suitor, and assist her future children with their studies), possibly add to her assets by acquiring a mediocre job for a year or two (under the pretext of killing time and elevating her practical wisdom), and eventually fulfill her lifelong purpose of securing a husband. She is ultimately regarded as a supporter or sidekick, and while most women will gladly accept this role, the ones who suffer are those who can’t find a “star.”

They’ll start feeling pressure from three distinctive sources (parents-peers-society), urging them to “do something about it.” Any attempt to develop themselves on the professional or personal scale will at large be considered futile – if not smothered by patriarchy, a bleak economic situation, and lack of resources – unless it serves the “Stepford wife model”, whether it be transforming her identity, settling for an incompatible match, or in some cases be driven towards more extreme measures.

And while conforming comes naturally to a lot of women, the sad part is that those who do resist are subject to such scrutiny that it takes a tough toll on their potential, productivity and sheer wellbeing. In the end, we are faced with a generation of women who are oblivious to their rights and full potential, desperately seeking approval before they reach their “expiration date.”

IT ALSO CREATES what I like to refer to as a “zombie society”, where you’re either compelled to play dead, or will be obliterated and shunned. As for the other less aware black sheep and odd-ducks, they’ll be targeted by every prowling wolf.

“On one hand, you have parents employing psychological abuse; quoting religious commandments promoting marriage, and using them out of context to coerce their daughters into submission, under the threat of eternal damnation if they do not sanctify their existence by securing a spouse (should she fail to perform this role and still wishes to enjoy her life then she will have indeed committed sacrilege and is a covertly regarded as a disgrace regardless of any other achievement). On the other hand you have the peer-pressure; predominant in all sectors of the society starting from the lowest slums to upscale elitist communities; a hard combo for even the toughest of souls to resist,” says an anonymous human rights activist.

“It is mainly the educated middle class that crowns the highest rate of unmarried women”

Ironically enough, it is mainly the educated middle class that crowns the highest rate of unmarried women between the ages of 25-40; because while this segment is rapidly declining, it does not have the luxury of either arranging lucrative “business marriages” or accommodating for a roof and bed as its upper and lower correspondents.

SOCIAL RESEARCHERS argue that Egyptians have a problem with evolution because a simple fact goes over the vast population’s head, which is that generalization is bound to overlook individual cases. So they persecute anomalies, and the society is headstrong and set on its obsolete and rigid ways, still under the impression that exceptions do not exist .The majority of families would rather have their daughters in an unfulfilling, even miserable marriage, convinced that she will somehow find a magical way to adapt, than see her alone – because women can hardly take care of themselves and that is the norm.

“Female independence is looked down on, as the majority of the self-deluded ‘spiritual’ or conservative societies perceive as deviation from a code that they themselves have forged and released to their own favor, while true religious scholars are the first to reject any form of overt or clandestine female oppression,” the activist continues.

But as always, there is hope. Many intellectual women today stand in solidarity and finally show that a woman’s marital status is mutually exclusive from her value and right to lead a healthy, fulfilling life of her own.

The views expressed are the author’s own.