Hanan Kholoussy, For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt (Stanford, 2010).
In the early twentieth century, the Egyptian press was full of alarming stories of urban middle-class men who were choosing to remain bachelors on the grounds that they could not find the right woman to marry or could not afford the high costs of the dower and then maintaining a wife. Marriage creates families, the basic units of society, and men’s reported refusal to marry aroused tremendous cultural and social anxieties. The presumed rise in bachelorhood came to be called the “marriage crisis,” a phrase that turned into a metaphor used in the press for the fledgling nation, in reference to the difficult choices that Egypt faced on the path to modernity and independence, and as critique of the sweeping socio-economic and political change of the time.
In For Better, For Worse, Hanan Kholoussy gives a lucid and insightful analysis of the marriage crisis, and shows how marriage became a site for the negotiation of gender and national identities. She traces the beginning of the debate to 1898, the year when a new, state-supervised Islamic court system was established and also when Qasim Amin’s The Liberation of Women was published. This treatise became instantly and enduringly controversial, leaving its impact on debates over marriage, gender roles and family throughout the following century. Press discussion of the marriage crisis subsided by 1936, the year when the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty granted Egypt more formal autonomy and a new ruler, King Farouq, assumed the throne. This year was, in Kholoussy’s words, a time “when national identity began to acquire new and different meanings in a more sovereign Egypt.”
Kholoussy is not the first to recognize the centrality of marriage to society and nation, or the link between gender and national identities. But her approach is novel in two respects: her focus on marriage as a window upon the study of nationalism and her use of press sources in tandem with court records. Her source material sheds light on the contradictory ways in which Egyptians — in the press and in the courts — understood and used their gender identities to shape their marital and national identities, and vice versa. The articles from the press reflect the views of marriage among literate, urban and middle-class Egyptians, while the court records show how men and women of all classes in marital disputes used the law to further their interests. Gender identities were governed by the Egyptian Islamic Code of Personal Status, the 1875 codification of Hanafi law, amended through major legislation in 1920 and 1929. The classical jurists’ conception of marriage — men provide and women obey — was now inscribed in a new structure of courts whose rulings delineated the scope of negotiation. The court records tell a familiar story: Wives petition for divorce, maintenance funds and custody, while husbands petition for obedience. The general respect for Islamic law left little room for contesting such inequality in marriage, a problem that the nationalist movement did not redress. Though women participated in the 1919 revolution that brought about the inaugural parliament in 1922, nationalist leaders failed to give women the vote, leading Huda Sha‘rawi to found the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923. The Union’s members chose not to put their energies into the marriage crisis and seldom entered into the press debates. For them, the main struggle was for women’s rights in education, work and suffrage.
For Better, For Worse crafts an engaging account of how men and women manipulated changing notions of manhood and womanhood to further their interests as husbands, wives and Egyptian national subjects. Egyptians used the marriage crisis in the press to define a new masculinity and a new femininity; to discipline bachelors into responsible and moral subjects; and to blame the institutions of child marriage and female seclusion for holding girls back in their appointed tasks of being worthy wives and full subjects in the emerging independent, post-colonial Egypt. The court records tell the other half of the story: Unequal rights in marriage prevented the new gender identities from going too far toward gender equality.
The story of the marriage crisis that gripped the Egyptian press a century ago is a story that all those struggling for gender equality and family law reform in Muslim communities in the twenty-first century need to know. It is a story that has parallels in more recent times and in other majority-Muslim countries, a story of how the state has adopted and promoted a patriarchal conception of marriage and gender identities, and of how the scope for negotiation of marital disputes in the courts has gradually narrowed. Kholoussy’s book offers insight into the historical origins of the patriarchal family laws that prevail to this day in most countries of the Middle East. It is true that women in Egypt and other parts of the region gained many of the political and economic rights that they marched for a century ago; in law and on paper, they have attained the rights of education, suffrage and employment outside the home. But women continue to face many disadvantages and significant discrimination, notably in marriage, where legal equality escapes them.
The demand for the reform of family law remains a hotly contested issue. In many ways, in fact, the “marriage crisis” continues, in Egypt and elsewhere. What would an examination of today’s press and court records reveal? Stories of young men and women who enter into secret (‘urfi) unions because they cannot afford to set up a family? Stories of women who are reluctant to get married at all, choosing a life derided by society as spinsterhood because they cannot find men who share their values? Court proceedings against husbands who have failed to provide, filed by women petitioning for divorce and custody rights? The answer is likely all of the above.