Hanan Kholoussy For Better, For Worse: the Marriage Crisis that Made Modern Egypt
Hanan Kholoussy For Better, For Worse: the Marriage Crisis that Made Modern Egypt. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010, pp. 188, bibliographical references, index, ISBN 978-0-8047-6960-0 pbk.
Published in Middle Eastern Studies 2011-10-21
As a self-conscious group with its own economic mode of production, normative worldview, consumption patterns and styles of being and behaving, spokesmen of the middle classes often frighten society with stories about men not marrying, the disintegration of contracted marriages, and the break up of the nuclear family. Shunning away from marriage among urban men of this class is guaranteed to create a cross-cultural, almost a universal anxiety associated with elevating a personal choice into a political and national agenda that announces not only social ills and psychological turbulences but also communal disintegration and the withering of the nation as a whole. Such urban anxiety does not often find echoes among the traditional old peasantry or their equivalents among industrialised agricultural communities.
With the rise of the Egyptian middle class at the beginning of the twentieth century, Egypt joined other nations in exhibiting an anxiety over marriage under what was constructed as a ‘marriage crisis’ that many would see as existing only in the minds of those who coined the term. By the time the Great Depression hit colonised Egypt, nationalists, social reformers and ordinary middle class people were already fetishizing the marriage crisis by which they meant an increasing number of effendis choosing bachelorhood over marriage. While the Egyptian press of the 1930s was the platform where the crisis was debated and condemned, Egyptian courts offered platforms for the unfolding of the many facets of the crisis. To use Egyptian colloquial Arabic, the effendi was an educated urban professional multilingual middle class man in a white collar job. Like their colonised counterparts elsewhere in the world, the effendis were obsessed with modernity and its impact on society. Marriage became a platform upon which critiques of society can be constructed while promoting new visions of modern marriages. Modern marriages were entangled with not only new husband-hood but also a new nation that was in the process of being imagined and constructed. Writing articles in the press, reformers and nationalists wrote about bachelorhood as a metaphor for the ills of the nation, from colonial subjugation to socioeconomic downfall. Needless to say, those who went into frenzy over the alleged crisis were urbanites, newly educated salaried spokesmen of an emerging middle class.
An historian at the American University of Cairo, Hanan Kholoussy’s new book considers marriage a central lens for studying anticolonial nationalism in Egypt. While previous historiography focused on gender, the nuclear family, women, and the home, Kholoussy builds on this tradition by bringing a new central dimension in the study of early twentieth century constructions of Egyptian nationalism and national identity.
For Better, For Worse is an excellent historical account of Egypt’s so-called marriage crisis as it was constructed on the pages of the local press in the twentieth century when the country found itself under an awkward quasi-independent and semi-colonial British rule. In addition, analysis of Egyptian Islamic court records and cases offers a comprehensive study of conceptions of marriage, gender and nationalism. The combination of these two sources allows the author to move away from elitist constructions that sit comfortably on the pages of the local press to the working of courts, judges, and litigants. A broader perspective is achieved as the testimonies of plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses are incorporated in the analysis.
The first chapter is an introduction to the study, its theoretical underpinnings and methodology. Chapter two explores a rich repertoire of press articles in which authors blamed bachelorhood on the economic crisis during the Great Depression. A combination of inflation, unemployment and greedy fathers who raised their daughters’ dower meant that men delayed marriage or simply made beyond the reach of most middle class men. Those were accused of spending too much time in coffee houses, brothels, and bars. The unruly bachelor needed marriage to tame him and turn him into a good member of society, serving the nation through its most cherished nuclear family. The marriage crisis became a platform for critiques of economic domination and middle class materialism. In such a context, new masculinity was in the process of being defined. A man needs to become a husband to fulfil this new masculinity.
In Chapter 3, kholoussy turns her attention to court records in which she found a plethora of cases dealing with the marriage of minors. It is in the context of the court that a wife’s duties are reasserted, while arranged marriages, and obedience orders were imposed on women. This chapter is very interesting as it reflects how the discourse of the press, which had very limited circulation at the time, and meant very little to the majority of illiterate Egyptians, was being reinforced in the court room. Both created boundaries for wifehood at a time when increased educational opportunities for women were being felt by a small section of Egyptian society.
The break up of marriages created anxieties over the future of the nation. This is discussed in chapter 4. Here again, nationalism seems to restrict divorce, seen as a threat to the nation’s reformation and modernisation, both were seen as dependent on making marriages more permanent. Both nationalist reformers and legislators cooperated to construct modern marriages as pathways to an independent and modern Egypt. While the permanency of marriage was stressed, women were seen as less appropriate guardians of children in cases of divorce. In chapter 5, Kholoussy shows how courts increasingly awarded custody of minor children to fathers while the press highlighted the role of women as mothers of the nation. In this chapter, the divergence between legal and nationalist projects appears as Egyptians debated divorce cases in the press. While Egypt may not be unique as a colonised country with a small but growing effendi class and social reformers, both struggling with colonial modernity, its early twentieth century marriage crisis was uniquely Egyptian, according to Khaloussy. It was constructed out of the unique social, political, legal and economic crisis of the 1930s. Kholousy concludes that the crisis became a space to criticise colonial domination and construct a new middle class masculinity. At the root of this crisis was an economic depression, inflation, unemployment, and low wages. If Egypt shared anything with other nations that found themselves in the same colonial context, it must be the fact that debates about marriage are often deployed in order to articulate, represent, and conceive national hopes and futures.
After a revolution that overthrow President Mubarak’s regime on 25 January 2011, we find that Egyptian youths have been the most active in a revolution that was not only concerned with individual freedoms, corruption, political and civil rights, and economic depression again, but also with a contemporary marriage crisis, beautifully and humorously dramatized in a book entitled ayza atjawez, (I want to marry). Contemporary social scientists looking for causes to account for the recent Egyptian revolution will benefit from reading For Better, For Worse.
The book contributes greatly to understanding not only Egyptian past concerns over marriage but also the rest of the Arab world where nationalists, Islamists and governments continue to focus on marriage not only to define their nations but also to divert attention from more pressing political and economic concerns. Marriage (nikah) and the recent resurrection of many old forms and names, (muta, misfar), with each one constructed according to different duties and responsibilities, remain one of the hotly debated institutions across the region.
For Better, For Worse is an excellent historical document capturing a national anxiety that a hundred year later is still felt across all classes in Egypt. The book should be read by historians and social scientists working on politics, gender, and nationalism. Although the book is a relatively short historical monograph, it is succinct and written in an accessible and enjoyable style. It should appeal to an audience wider than the usual academic circles.
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