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Arranged Marriages in Egypt: Haven or Last Resort?

November 23, 2014
Newly wed brides dance at a mass wedding ceremony in Cairo, Egypt (2010).

By Hanan Fayed, The Cairo Post

“There is dishonesty and perfidy from both men and women in relationships, while in salon marriages the bride or the groom says ‘no’ from the first or second meeting if they do not like each other,” Cairo matchmaker Cherine Adel, 34, told The Cairo Post.

In Egypt, arranged marriages are usually referred to as “salon marriages,” because couples usually meet for the first time in the sitting room of the bride’s house, under the supervision of her family.

In a culture where even premarital friendship between men and women can be frowned upon, salon marriages can be a way to satisfy family pressure to get married, while preserving one’s reputation.

Adel, who has arranged around 15 marriages, said there is a sense of safety in salon marriages because the groom is usually an acquaintance of the matchmaker’s, whom women trust.

There is no waste of time in this kind of “respectable marriage;” the couple could get married in a matter of six months, said Hajja Kawkab, 63, who has been the matchmaker of approximately 50 marriages.

The marriage trade

For Mona Fath el-Bab, 33, salon marriages are just a way to meet people when one cannot find a person he or she likes in their circle of acquaintanceship.

“It’s like a job interview. When you’re recommended [by the matchmaker], your chances are higher. You get to tell the matchmaker what you are looking for and she does the job for you,” Fath el-Bab said.

Both Adel and Fath el-Bab were married after meeting their now-husbands in a salon, and now arrange marriages in Cairo for free. They said that couples get to meet several times before deciding if they want to go ahead and become engaged.

The matchmaking task was first assigned to Kawkab by the administration of a mosque in Cairo, and then her circle of acquaintances surpassed her neighborhood but remained primarily in Cairo.

“Other men start a relationship without being ready, and you hear stories of women waiting until their partners are ready but then they leave,” Kawkab said. In salon marriages, the families are in the picture from day one, so there is “no room for manipulation,” added Kawkab, who said does not profit from her services.

Partners to order

Beauty to men is being fair-skinned, said Adel. In her attempts to arrange marriages, many women were rejected primarily for not being “light enough,” and the second most prevalent reason is being overweight.

“When I say the bride is fair-skinned, they want to meet her, no matter whether they are religious, well-educated or rich. When I say she is tan, I have to explain her other qualities, such as ‘she’s really beautiful, slim, cultured, has a good sense of humor and from a good family,’” Adel said.

“I’d tell a potential groom that the woman I recommend is not ‘white’ but is ‘of a pale complexion’ to convince him to meet her,” Adel added.

When men are rejected, it is usually because they are “short,” “too heavy,” or of a “low social status,” according to Adel.

When men tell a matchmaker about their preferences, they usually ask for a beautiful, fair skinned and thin woman, said Kawkab.

“I listen to him at first, and then negotiate, because such women would already be married. I convince him that if he has five conditions, for example, he could accept a wife who meets four of them,” Kawkab said.

Fath el-Bab said that while women ask for “religious” men, in expectation of a “good treatment,” many men set a condition that they only meet women with hijab, but what they mean by that varies. Sometimes they just mean a headscarf, sometimes they mean a big headscarf that also covers the chest, and sometimes they mean a woman who wears only abayas ( a loose fitting cloak,) Fath el-Bab explained, adding that some men set these clothing conditions even if they do not identify as religious themselves.

“I describe the bride and say she is beautiful, and usually do not mention her skin tone. When he meets her, he can decide for himself whether or not she is beautiful. When I say ‘she is beautiful, but dark,’ he will not feel like meeting her because this kind of wording means she is ugly, which is not the case,” she added.

Adel and Kawkab, however, said they must provide detailed data and a description about potential grooms and brides and even their families. Kawkab said that if a woman or her mother, for example, provided a “false description,” she does not deal with her again. Adel said she fears men would feel deceived if they meet up with a woman and think they were not given a precise description in advance.

Parental conditions

“My son says he cares for his partner’s intelligence and sense of humor, but as a mother, I do not care about these things,” said Safaa Abdel Hameed, a mother looking to arrange a marriage for her 28-year old son.

Married at 17, Abdel Hameed said she is looking for a woman “significantly younger” than her son to “view his character as strong and to listen to him.” By “younger,” Abdel Hameed means a fresh graduate of around 21 years old, she said.

 Abdel Hameed’s son is a pharmacist, but she said the woman she is looking for does not have to be from the medical field because it is more important that she be “well-raised, good-tempered and beautiful,” and strongly prefers a woman with fair skin, even though Abdel Hameed herself has a dark complexion.

She noted that she wants her grandchildren to be fair-skinned, especially because her son is on the darker side, too. She added that if he were fair-skinned, she would not have minded him marrying a tan woman.

Marriage offices are “all about business” and the brides they offer “are not from good families,” Abdel Hameed said, adding that she would never seek their assistance.

Looking for love as a woman

Heidi Yousry, 30, said she initially met men reluctantly in the salon marriage style to satisfy her parents.

“But then I thought to myself that I see my options myself, get to meet different men and say yes or no, just like them. It’s not like they’re watching me and I’m not watching them,” said Yousry, an English literature instructor at Suez Canal University.

Yousry, now married to a police officer, said she believes that the conditions people set before meeting someone are not set in stone, and are often just the first impressions stated to the matchmaker.

“You can’t generalize anything, though. Some people do not compromise their conditions. Some people meet potential partners on whom their ‘conditions’ apply, but they just don’t feel comfortable,” Yousry said.

“Like most men, my husband wanted a wife with a fair complexion and soft hair who comes from a respectable household. But he was attracted to me. Women can feel those things. Besides, I’m a bit tan. Some men set stupid conditions but judge differently in the end,” she added.

To prove her point, Yousry told The Cairo Post that she previously met a suitor in a salon who had set a condition that his wife not work. However, he told her that he would not prevent her from working as long as she is “that ambitious.”

Yousri spent seven months getting to know her husband before getting engaged to him, and a few more months before getting married. In those months, all the “magic” happened, and she now feels she married him out of love.

Nesma Mostafa, 28, was engaged at 25 when she met her now-husband on a trip, and says she is happy to have met her husband and fallen in love with him.

“Not everyone has the privilege of choosing who they want. Some women are pressured into marriage by the family due to comparisons with other married women. Some get married just to reduce the burden of costs off their families. Some get married to escape from their family’s control, and some marry just to have children,” said Mostafa, an English language coordinator at a school in Saudi Arabia.

Aya Ashraf, 28, met men in the salon marriage style only to “satisfy her mother,” until she met her now-husband. They lead a happy married life and were able to overcome problems early in the marriage because their expectations were not high, she said, unlike love marriages where couples expect no problems because they “already know each other.”

Rehab Kamal, a 33-year-old operation manager at a UAE-based bank, does not trust men brought to her by matchmakers because she would not know his past. She recalled a situation of a friend of hers, where she was going to marry a “respectable, rich” man just to realize he was secretly married with a son.

Kamal unwillingly sees men in the salon marriage style to “make her family be quiet.”

“I always want to look like a 10, so that he’ll never be the one to turn me down. I turn them down,” she said with a laugh.

Comments (16)

  1. […] dette er kriterier egyptiske kvinner ikke er i stand til å etterleve, er visst sekundært. Ifølge en artikkel jeg nettopp leste er man mer ettertraktet på ekteskapsmarkedet jo lysere man er i huden. Det er så urettferdig at […]

  2. Arthur C. Hurwitz says:

    What racism! Why is “light” considered more desirable?

    1. Foamaniac says:

      It has nothing to do with racism “most” of the time, in the Egyptian culture a pale skinned woman is a pretty rare sight, maybe 1 in 20 has pale skin and as you know, most rare things are more precious and are a sign of great beauty.
      I have olive/tan skin and I’m extremely attracted to women with pale/pinkish skin, however every now and then I find myself attracted to a tanned woman but my 1st choice will always be pale skinned women.. Perhaps it’s something in the genes, darker skin men usually prefer lighter skinned women and the other way around, pretty much all the guys I know prefer women who have a different skin tone than themselves, whether it’s lighter or darker..

    2. Arthur C. Hurwitz says:

      It is a given that all humans are attracted to people of other colors and what is generally referred to as “races.” Nevertheless, the essence of my critique is not that, it is the interest of people in “marrying” people of lighter complexions which is an interest of value. The value of one color over another is the essence of Racism.
      In the USA, for example, many “whites” are more attracted to “blacks” then they are to other whites and most likely vice versa. Nevertheless, they would never marry them. Why? Because the value of having a Black husband or wife would be considered in the society less so than having a fellow-white spouse.
      That is the “Racism.” Not the attraction itself, but the value ascribed to it socially. In Egypt, in seems, the value of having a “lighter” spouse is considered higher than the value of having a “darker” one. That is my point…..

    3. Foamaniac says:

      In that case I completely agree with you, but I have to say that this is rarely the case in Egypt, it depends on the family and how the man was raised, in the case of that mother who wants her dark skinned son to marry a pale skinned woman because she wants her grandchildren to be of fair skin, that is indeed racist, but other than that, like it was said in the article most men compromise and end up marrying a woman that meets some of his preferences but not necessarily the skin color.

      Personally I don’t see marrying a woman of a darker skin complexion as marrying some1 of a lesser value than another, that is just a disgusting thing to even think of imo..

    4. Arthur C. Hurwitz says:

      I am not saying that this is hard core racism, but it could be called “racism light.” To the credit of the Egyptian people, even if “lighter” and fairer is what they aspire for theoretically, in practice, they are more accommodating……

    5. Tarik says:

      It’s called colorism, or shadeism. People can try to justify it this way and that, but it is what it is. It’s the end result of 2000yrs of being colonised by lighter complected people to the point where everything noble and beautiful is associated with light skin. The rejection of the dark is a reflection of the insecurity they feel within themselves. In their minds, their dark complexion is a minus and so they look to correct their insecurities by living through their children. “I may be dark, but my wife and my kids are white”. It’s a way to vicariously enter a club they feel excluded from by association, a subliminal attempt to have that white rub off. It’s very sad indeed. But because Egypt has never had the terrorism associated with “race” as in the west, it often goes unrecognized for what it is and taken for granted. Just the assumption that whiteness and beauty automatically go hand in hand speaks volumes!

      My parent’s marriage was ruined because my father defied the family and married a woman, who even by their own admition, was extremely beautiful, was too dark. The pressure they put on them eventually broke them apart. Wrong is wrong no matter how you slice it. Even putting beauty as the first priority over character is wrong.

    6. Arthur C. Hurwitz says:

      I think this problems is because of the Egyptian reality in which most of the people are mixed-“race.” Because there are still large families in Egypt, sometimes even brothers and sisters can have different shades of completion or “racial” features. That means that the genes are completely mixed and this drive towards the lighter color more obsessive and complex. On the other hand, as stated in the article, many people eventually marry people “darker” than they had initially wanted and that means that they also were willing to compromise their colorism for the sake other other attributes for a spouse.

      Of course character is the most important thing but no one can really be married to a spouse that they don’t find attractive.

    7. Tarik says:

      I agree. The reality is that the vast majority of people are not light skinned, so if you want to get married, you have no choice but to compromise. The tragedy is that the underlying mentality is not changed or even examined. In a way, they settle because they have no choice, not because of any meaningful intraspection in wich they realize how flawed and self loathing such ideologies are. What ends up happening is that these ideas are passed on to the children. They notice the subtle ways that they are made to feel less than perfect. It might be something like noticing how everyone dotes over the lighter skinned sibling while they are ignored. No one explicitly said, “you’re not good enough, beautiful, smart etc”, but that is the implied message they get. It can really cripple a person’s sense of self. I understand that Egyptian society has a lot on the plate right now, but their greatest assests are their people and that’s why it is so crucial that they beging to have more dialogue on the subject and work this stuff out. I know so many Egyptians who automatically assume that someone who is lighter skinned or foreign, (European), is more intelligent and capable than they are. How can you build a healthy nation if you think that you’re second best? Contrast this to the Japanese sense of self image. It’s not the only factor, but it is very important in my opinion.