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The finanical burden of marriage and its societal repercussions

Political scientist Diane Singerman on Monday delivered a speech to a Women and Memory Forum-sponsored seminar on the high cost of marriage in Egypt and its financial impact on the average marital age for Egyptians. 

The forum, a local organization that strives to represent Arab women, hosted the seminar entitled "The Costs of Marriage, Egyptian Youth, and Changing Gendered Norms: A Different Set of Questions for the Women's Movement?"

In her speech, Singerman presented an analysis of the relationships between the costs of marriage in Egypt and the delay in marital age, drawing from statistical research gathered by Singerman and sociologist Barbara Ibrahim, both accomplished researchers on Egyptian marital practice.

Singerman explored the shifts in family dynamics, and resultant behavior of Egypt's youth, aimed at accommodating or circumventing the enormous costs of marriage.

These costs, according to Singerman, include everything from the mahr or dower through the gihaz or trussaud and expectations of the purchase of a home.

She points out that as costs continue to rise, women are getting more involved in marriage finances, either through their families or personal income.

Trends such as this fuel other cultural changes, including increased women in the workforce, more women pursuing higher education and a higher rate of the socially unacceptable practice of marrying below one's financial, or at least educational, level.

But Singerman concentrates on another issue in her research–the effects of the delay of marital ages to 32 years old for women and 39 years old for men.

“Society has a tendency to blame the youth,” Singerman explained. “But the financial predicament in which they find themselves does not allow them to marry in their 20s.”

Egyptian fathers and sons are expected to save 100 percent of their joint salaries for 3 to 8 years in order to save for marriage, according to Singerman. But with Egyptian saving rates currently at around 17 percent, it can take a father and son duo anywhere from 16 (highest income bracket surveyed) to 43 (lowest income bracket surveyed) years to come up with sufficient marriage funds.

Singerman said alternatives to traditional marriage are being pursued across the Middle East–contracts like urfi (social contract) and misyar (convenience) are sought to ease the burden of marriage costs and, in turn, allow men and women to satisfy natural sexual urges in a socially and religiously acceptable manner.

Singerman believes that policy-makers will benefit from research into these matters if Egyptians do, in fact, deem marriage an important societal institution, worthy of upholding.

Iranian President Ahmedinejad, according to Singerman, set up a “Love Fund,” while mayor of Tehran, to financially support couples seeking marriage and encourage younger couples to marry rather than foster relationships outside of wedlock.

Egypt’s government, in contrast, is “taking away the public patrimony through privatization and the lack of public funding,” Singerman said.

For women and organizations, such as the Women and Memory Forum, Singerman said encouraging legislation to protect women’s rights in marriage will only prove beneficial when considering the costs of marriage and the new financial roles women are assuming.

She suggested laws like khol, or extraction from marriage, and esma, the right to divorce, must be considered in light of the amount of money couples are investing in marriage. For some, divorce may prove financially impossible when all the money a couple and their family saved was put into pursuing the actual marriage.

Ibrahim adds that in many cases, a katb kitab (marriage contract) takes place but the dokhla (wedding night) is delayed due to financial constraints. Marriages, as a result, fall apart without ever fully taking effect.

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