Egypt's Women and the Heartbreak of Arranged Marriages

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Three women huddle around the couple. Two of the women are likely to be their mothers; the third in this decisive meeting is the matchmaker, the middle-woman or the khatba. She is the one who is brokering the marriage.

Anyone wandering through Cairo's cafes or social clubs is likely to have witnessed this scene: an arranged marriage in the making.

The matchmaker is supposed to know the bride-to-be and the groom-to-be, or at least their families. She contacts both families and speaks to each about the other. Then she organizes a meeting for the two families. Her role does not end there--after the meeting, she has the tough job of giving each side feedback from the other. She either delivers good news or she breaks hearts.

It is common to hear stories from Egyptian women in their twenties, thirties and forties about the many arranged marriage attempts each of them have been through. Yes, there are arranged marriages where it all ends happily ever after, but there seem to be many heartbreaking tales.

A successful arranged marriage often comes after numerous failed attempts. Amid a broad trend in Egypt of marriage at a later age--often not out of choice but circumstance--it is unmarried women who bear the brunt of social scrutiny, as Egyptian society is much harsher on unmarried women than it is on bachelors.

Women under pressure from their parents, their extended families, acquaintances and society at large agree to see one guy after the other in the hope of eventually meeting "the one"--or more crucially, someone who will give them the okay through the khatba.

As the rejections mount the pressure grows, often leading potential brides to accept the services of less scrupulous middle-women. This breed of middle-woman shows little regard for the feelings of the would-be-bride and often proposes a bachelor she knows little about.

One middle-woman contacted Sally*, an acquaintance in her twenties who happens to be unmarried, to tell her that she had been contacted by a potential groom who wanted to marry a girl who did not wear the veil, and this is why she automatically recommended Sally. Sally felt offended, not only because the man had set this condition, but also because the middle-woman knew nothing more about him--all she knew was this precondition and the fact that he worked in an Arab Gulf country and would have the bride move with him to where he lives.

Sometimes the middle-woman is a member of the groom's family, which hardly makes the process a more dignified affair. One middle-woman, Samar*, called up an old friend, Doaa*, whom she had not spoken with in years, to ask her if her sister was "conservative" enough. Samar wanted to match Doaa's sister with her brother.

It turned out her brother had recently divorced. Doaa's sister had never married. One of the unspoken rules of arranged marriages in Egypt is that those who have been married before should not be set up with those who have never married. Doaa was hurt by the untoward proposal.

But it seems the rules are being bent as society changes. Egyptian youth are breaking with tradition, and in many cases girls are kissing goodbye to middle-women and arranged marriages.

As for Doaa's sister, she'd had enough of arranged marriages and rejected the offer.

*Names have been changed to protect the women's identities. This article was originally published in The Majalla.