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Les métamorphoses du mariage au Moyen-Orient

Barbara Drieskens

Marriage and Divorce in Egypt: Financial Costs and Political Struggles

Diane Singerman

Entrées d'index

Mots clés :

mariage, divorce, économie

Géographique :


Texte intégral

  • 1 The statistical analysis of the data was carried out with the tremendous help of Ph.D. students at (...)

1In the Middle East today, many young people face financial pressures which exacerbate their already difficult economic, social, sexual, and political anxieties, yet governments, political parties, civil society organizations, and political scientists seem to ignore them. The challenges for young people, however, are made graver and have a particular urgency to them because of their struggle to marry. This paper will argue, using Egypt as a case study, that the political economy of youth, if you will, is dominated by the central material and social struggle to marry. Marriage is almost a universal norm and its financial requisites not only involve young men and women but their parents and extended families in protracted economic planning and savings strategies.1

2Yet despite this patently plain fixation on raising funds for marriage throughout Egyptian society, this issue is not only ignored by scholars and policymakers but more importantly by those who analyze, measure, and try to shape policies that directly impact, and are impacted by the material struggle to marry. With this presentation of simple statistics and analysis, we hope to provoke a new research agenda on the costs of marriage in the region and the implications of this challenge for young people, national political economies, savings and investment behavior, educational and career paths, and gendered social norms.

  • 2 Cincotta, Engelman and Anastasion 2003.
  • 3 Ali 2002.
  • 4 World Bank 2004, p. 5.
  • 5 World Bank 2004, p. 51 and Yousef 2003.
  • 6 World Bank 2004a, p. 130.
  • 7 Maynes 1998.

3From a demographic angle, it is clear that Egypt (like many of its neighbors) has been experiencing a “demographic transition” which has led to reduced fertility, delayed age at marriage, increased public education, reductions in the literacy gap between men and women, and improvements in public health and access to contraception.2 Various national, regional, and international funding agencies have invested in the training, education, and health of women, to develop the nation and reduce high population growth rates in the region.3 In addition, the age structure of the region has produced a youth bulge typical of the demographic transition. While fertility and infant mortality rates are declining, across the region 60 percent of the population is under the age of 254 and a third of the population is between the ages of 10-24.5 One out of every three people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a woman below the age of thirty.6 In the next 20 years, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen will experience a youth bulge.7 These young people, similar to the influence of the baby boomers in the 1960s in the United States, are having, and will continue to have, a profound impact on social, political, and economic structures throughout the region whether that means engaging in radical Islamist movements which challenge their governments, dressing in new ways, protesting authoritarianism, working in the private sector, migrating abroad or internally, working two or three jobs simultaneously, or joining the public sector.

  • 8 See Mensch, Singh and Casterline 2003.
  • 9 Rashad and Khadr 1998.
  • 10 Rashad and Khadr 1998.

4Today, women and – particularly – young men remain adolescents (traditionally defined as between 10 and 19) for far longer than earlier cohorts and by 1996, twenty percent of Egypt’s population were adolescents. It is only through marriage that adolescents gain adult status due to social, cultural, and religious norms, yet young people marry at a later age in the Middle East (31 years of age for men, 23 for women) than anywhere else in the globe except for China, and early marriage among young women has fallen more dramatically than anywhere else in the globe.8 The proportion of Egyptian women aged 20-24 who were married by age 20 in 1970 was 65 percent, while this proportion dropped to 41 in 1995.9 Similarly, the median age of first marriage for the age cohort 25-29 in 1970 was 18, while in 1995 it increased to 19.2.10

  • 11 One study of controversial unregistered or common-law marriages (‘urfî) among young people of both (...)
  • 12 Inglehart and Norris 2003, p. 64-65.

5Marriage is the only socially-acceptable way to engage in sexual activities particularly for women who bear disproportionate costs for transgressing social norms.11 It is clear that the fertility “benefit” of delayed marriage has been partially offset by a social “cost” which places young people in an untenable limbo between the prevailing conservative norms which forbid sexual relations (reinforced more recently by Islamist political movements and political discourse) and the onerous, and at times, unreachable costs of marriage. Based on their analysis of recent data from the World Values Survey in 70 countries, Inglehart and Norris argue that the real fault lines separating values between Muslim nations and the West have much more to do with eros than demos.” Unlike youth in the West, the younger generation in Muslim nations “have remained the most traditional societies in the world” according to public opinion data. 12

  • 13 Yousef 2003.
  • 14 According to a recent World Bank study of MENA, unemployment falls disproportionately on the young, (...)
  • 15 El-Tawila and Khadr 2004, p. 2.
  • 16 See Assaad 2004.

6The “youth bulge” in the Middle East unfortunately coincided with the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1990s and high unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa in the 1990s, that approaches 15 percent – second only to sub-Saharan Africa.13 This unemployment is due to general global recession. Structural adjustment in the 1970s and 1980s reduced guaranteed employment in the large public sector of Egypt, and other countries in MENA, but despite three decades of structural adjustment the government still accounts for 26% of total employment in Egypt today.14 A recent study suggests that youth unemployment is now 20% in Egypt and that “the structure and characteristics of the unemployed revealed that over 94 percent of them were new entrants to the labor market and over 70 percent were in the age group 20-29.”15 Female unemployment tends to be higher than male unemployment since hiring in the public sector (which was generally perceived as safer for women and more conducive to motherhood than the private sector) has diminished with structural adjustment.16

7A disproportionately unemployed youth cohort, particularly among those that are the most educated in society, is problematic enough on its own, but in Egypt and in many other places in the Middle East, the economic burdens of young people and their social liminality (too old to be an adolescent, too poor to marry) is further compounded by the financial demands of marriage. Young people must save significant sums of money in order to finance their marriages, typically assisted by their families as well. Thus high unemployment for the young means that marriage remains out of reach until young men and women and their families work for years to save for their marriages.

  • 17 Singerman 1995; see also Hoodfar 1997.

8The high “entry” costs to marriage and delayed age at marriage for women and men has been addressed in ethnographic research, including my earlier study of the politics of the Egyptian sha‘b, or popular classes. The question of marrying off the younger generation dominated the financial concerns and social strategies of many families and communities, as I explained in detail in my book, Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics, and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo.17 Individuals, couples, parents, extended families and the local community was engaged in facilitating this goal. The cost of marriage was so high that many young people spent years accumulating marriage costs – and thus remained at home, maintaining their status as “children” despite being twenty or thirty years old. The “lag” between engagement and marriage in Egypt is reflected at the national level by a new census category which was introduced in 1986 by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS): engaged but not married. Between the 1986 and 1996 Egyptian census, couples “caught” in the stage between katb al-kitâb, or signing the marriage contract (which means one is legally married), and the final stage of establishing marital residence, gawâz and consummating the marriage – had increased four-fold.

The “Attic” and the Egyptian Political Economy

9A story from my field work serves to best illustrate the economic resources that are invested in marriage. One Friday morning, the mother in the family I lived with for a year remembered that she needed to collect the old brass trays from her original trousseau that a metals dealer had wanted to buy, and her recently engaged teenage daughter opened up a small attic I had been unaware of, over the bathroom, to find the heavy, old brass trays. While she was there, she said, she might as well “check” on her own trousseau and figure out what she still needed for her upcoming marriage.

10I was amazed as she kept pulling more and more suitcases and boxes from the attic. She proudly displayed her treasure of kitchenware, small appliances, linen and clothing which was astonishing considering their frugal standard of living. Typically, if anyone broke an inexpensive glass by accident it was a family tragedy and caused great commotion. But out of this attic came suitcases full of dresses, fabric, and kitchenware of all types: 132 glasses including 18 champagne glasses, 21 trays, 87 bowls and plates, linens, decorative swans, a three-tiered cake stand, 25 gallabiyyas (housedresses) and pyjamas, fabric, cutlery, an infant’s bath, etc.

11This stash from the attic had been accumulated over many years, largely from gifts from returning migrants or pilgrims or savvy purchases from local sales or peddlers. I teased them by suggesting that they needed a government inspector to license their store. They were very proud of their skill in building such a rich trousseau which would outfit not only this future bride, but other unmarried girls in the extended family. Their savings acumen (in cash and kind) was not particular to this family but widespread.

12Wherever I went marriage entered the conversation in one way or another. It was one of the most basic needs that structured this community’s social and material life. I devoted a chapter of my book to the important goal of “reproducing the family” that Egyptian families share. Ethnographically I – and many others – have understood the centrality of marriage in Egypt, but I was always surprised that most social scientists and policymakers ignoredthis basic facet of economic and communal life at the macro level.

Making the “Attic” Treasures Legible:
A New Quantitative Approach To Marriage

  • 18 Yanow and Schwartz-Shea 2006.
  • 19 King, Keohane and Verba 1994.

13Unfortunately, the insights of ethnographers often fall on deaf “policy” ears, if they are not generalized and supported by nationally aggregated data. Similarly, the lessons of case studies, in my discipline of political science, are routinely dismissed as too “particular” or quaint narratives that have no relevance to “theory” and policymaking.18 Social scientists, more recently, have encouraged “triangulating” research, using various methods to support and expand one’s empirical research.19 In this project, we have started from an understanding of the norms and requisites of marriage based on extensive ethnographic research and deliberately tried to aggregate data to explore the meaning and impact of financial struggles surrounding marriage at the macro level and to communicate these conclusions to those disciplines and policy actors which are much more impressed by statistical analysis.

  • 20 Datt, Jolliffe and Sharma 1998; Bouis and Ahmed 1998; Haddad and Akhter 2000.

14Somewhat serendipitously, Dr. Barbara Ibrahim (who at the time was the Regional Director of the Population Council in Cairo) and I learned of an ongoing small nationally representative household expenditure survey that was being conducted by the International Food Research and Policy Institute (IFPRI) and we jumped at their generous offer to design and add a “marriage module” to it. Prior to that, in 1997, IFPRI in conjunction with the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Trade and Supply, had launched a 2400-household, nation-wide expenditure survey (Egypt Integrated Household Survey, EIHS) to better understand food subsidy policies and poverty.20 A sub-sample of the 1997 households was re-interviewed in 1999 in order to create longitudinal data on poverty and subsidy policies.

15The marriage module collected data about major component costs of marriage, methods of accumulation, and which party to the marriage paid for them. It was administered to every household in the EIHS survey reporting a marriage event in the preceding five years (1995-1999). It resulted in 105 complete cases drawn from seven governorates in Upper and Lower Egypt, out of the larger sample of 380 households. The EIHS survey was complemented by the 1995 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS 1996). That national survey of 12,000 ever-married women aged 15 to 49 asked several questions about costs of the woman’s first and most recent marriage. We constructed cohort data representing five-year marriage intervals from 1965 to the present and adjusted those figures for inflationary trends. Because the EDHS only asks about contributions from the bride’s family, it had limited utility in estimating total marriage costs. However, questionnaire items about the relative share of costs borne by the bride and her family enabled us to look at trends in cost and cost-sharing over time.

16The results of these surveys allowed us to understand a national “map” of marriage costs in Egypt and look at urban/rural variation; it allowed us to draw a picture of the distribution of marriage costs among the bride, groom, bride’s family and groom’s family; it allowed us to develop a preliminary sense of how marriage costs have varied over time and to explore the influence of macro- economic indicators such as the Open Door Policy, structural adjustment, and recession on costs of marriage, and it gave us a sense of the huge investment in marriage that Egyptian families make.

17Due to the results of our findings, and discussions and presentations with a range of scholars and audiences, Ragui Assaad invited us to include and refine our marriage module for the 2006 Egyptian Labor Market Panel Survey (ELMPS) sponsored by the Economic Research Forum in Cairo and the University of Minnesota, under Professor Assaad’s direction. The survey has been carried out by CAPMAS and has already begun to allow us to understand more variation in the costs of marriage. The ELMPS is a longitudinal survey that revisits households from a 1998 Egyptian Labor Market Survey. With this panel data, we will be able to use both descriptive and inferential statistical analyses to follow trends surrounding marriage in the panel population and sub-populations over time, since more than 8,000 households will be surveyed. But in this article, we only draw upon the results from the Egyptian Labor Market Pilot Panel Survey (ELMPPS) that was carried out in November 2003 and March 2004 on a sub-sample of 348 households from three governorates (Cairo, Giza, and Menufiyya). The marriage module was administered to all married women up to 64 years old producing 344 individual respondents. This survey will also allow us to further investigate the relationship between marriage timing, labor force participation, and employment since some specific questions were added to other parts of the survey about the link between marriage and employment. (For results from this survey see Singerman 2007).

18Since the size of the ELMPPS was small and it was not nationally representative, we will treat this data in a qualitative fashion. In other words, we are using basic statistics to count and analyze the data, as if we randomly surveyed married women in 348 households. We are looking for patterns and variables which explain the data, but this snapshot of a small population of Egyptian households is only meant to be suggestive. What is most exciting is that we have another “data point” that allows us to compare our new results to our earlier research in 1999, to build more knowledge about the costs of marriage, and to understand marriage in a more historical fashion due to the cohort data in the new survey.

19The cost of marriage is an aggregate figure that includes items that custom and/or religious law dictate that the parties purchase or attain before a marriage can occur.We divided typical marriage costs in Egypt into six component parts, including (1) housing, (2) furniture and appliances, (3) jewelry or gifts of gold to the bride (shabka), (4) dower (mahr), (5) celebrations, (6) the bride’s trousseau (gihâz, kiswa) consisting of kitchenware, less expensive furnishings including lamps, carpets, sheets, etc. and other gifts exchanged during the courtship period.

20Our survey tracked the four contributors to a single marriage: the bride and her family; and the groom and his family and delineated contributions to marriage costs among these four parties. Although conventions change slightly over time, there are strong norms about which party contributes specific component costs of marriage. For example, the groom is responsible for the mahr (dower), housing, most of the furniture and appliances, and the shabka, or significant jewelry for the bride (guwai‘ish or heavy bangle bracelets and for more middle class or upper class brides, a set of gold jewelry). The bride’s family accepts the mahr and usually doubles it to provide for the gihâz (clothing, bedding, dishes, etc.), some of the furniture, and small appliances. We should remember that the total costs of marriage are borne by more than one individual and in fact are pooled among the individual shares of the bride and groom, and their families.

How High are Marriage Costs in Egypt?

  • 21 IBRD/World Bank 2000, p. 12.

21Among 105 Egyptian households in the 1999 EIHS study, the average total cost of marriage was LE 20,194 ($5,957). This exceeds GNP per capita by four and a half times ($1,290 in 1998).21 In rural areas marriage costs were LE 17,373 (four times per capita income) and in urban areas, they were LE 24,969 (almost six times per capita income).

Table 1: Total Marriage Costs Relative to Annual Household Expenditure Per Capita, EIHS/IFPRI ’99


Total Cost of Marriage for

Total Cost of Marriage Relative to
Household Expenditures Per Capita


Above the Poverty


Below the Poverty Line

All Households

Above the Poverty Line

Below the Poverty Line

All Households






















  • 22 A comparison between our ’99 EIHS and ELMPPS data is very encouraging because of the similarity of (...)

22Nationally, the cost of a single marriage was eleven times average annual household expenditures per capita. The average cost of marriage was equal to the entire expenditures of all the members of a household for two and one-half full years (i.e. the sum of the expenditures of all members of one household). The marriage burden is particularly harsh for those households living below the poverty line in rural areas (15 times per capita household expenditures).22

  • 23 Vignal and Denis 2006, p. 116; Saad 2002, as quoted by Williams 2006, p. 271.

23Another way to think of the magnitude of these costs is to estimate the value of marriage costs in the national economy annually. Since an estimated one in twenty of all 13 million households in Egypt experience a marriage each year according to the 1999 EIHS survey results – the national cost of all 650,000 marriages equals LE 13,11 billion or $3,867 billion. This figure, by comparison, dwarfs the figure for total economic aid to Egypt from the United States in 1999: $2,1 billion. It also exceeds total foreign remittances ($3 billion) from 1,9 million Egyptians migrants working abroad, and approximately equals tourist revenues ($4 billion) from the five and 1/2 million tourists who visited Egypt in 2000.23 Clearly, marriage transactions are financially significant in the national economy and deserve greater policy attention.

Figure 1: Average Nominal Marriage Costs as % of Average Per Capita Household Expenditures (LCU), 1965-2004, ELMPPS.

Figure 1: Average Nominal Marriage Costs as % of Average Per Capita Household Expenditures (LCU), 1965-2004, ELMPPS.

24When we see the cost of marriage over time based on results from the ELMPPS, the large “presence” of marriage in the political economy of marriage is obvious. While the relative burden of marriage has decreased over time, it is still quite significant. In the 1965 cohort, the average nominal costs of marriage as a percentage of average household expenditures per capita, were 2500% (see Figure 1). In the early years of the Infitah when consumer goods flooded Egypt and wages rose, this proportion rose to a high just over 4000%, declining since then during the recessionary years of the 1980s and 1990s. In the 2000-2004 cohort, the costs of marriage were still 400% greater than nominal household expenditures per capita, as it largely was in 1995-1999 cohort, despite a spike in urban marriage costs around 1997. The DHS data also support these trends of rising and declining marriage costs due to larger macro-economic forces, even though they rely only on data from the bride’s side of marriage costs.

  • 24 In our 1999 EIHS, 33 percent of the households fell below the poverty line. Sa’ad Nagy’s national s (...)

25The motivating logic of this project evolved particularly out of research and debates on the relationship between structural adjustment and poverty in Egypt. During President Sadat and Mubarak’s tenure, the government had vastly reduced its expenditures, including food subsidies, guaranteed employment, and other services of the provisionary state. One of the consequences of these economic policies has been high growth rates – punctuated by regional and international recessions. On the one hand, Egyptian policy makers wistfully hope to make it the “Tiger on the Nile” while a host of critics complain about growing poverty and argue that poverty has increased in scope and depth (i.e. severe poverty).24

26What does it mean that those living below the poverty line had just spent LE 9,466 on marriage costs, or twelve times annual household expenditures? How can households living under the poverty line accumulate such savings, and what does this huge cost mean for their other economic needs and their economic futures? Do poor families indebt themselves and compromise their futures to finance marriages? Clearly marriage must be at the center of their economic decision-making and this priority must logically influence many other economic decisions such as job choice, educational investments, investment in their businesses or careers, their health and their family’s health, etc.

  • 25 In the spirit of Amartya Sen’s notion of capability poverty, it seems that one of the most basic un (...)

27These questions demand far more research, and prevailing poverty alle-viation strategies which ignore the financial aspects of marriage can only be irrelevant or somewhat flawed.25 Social scientists must certainly understand better the “meaning” of poverty and indigenous economic priorities and structures that influence such areas as employment, savings and investment patterns, education, and fertility if they hope to solve some of these problems.

Trends Surrounding the Component Costs of Marriage

28Marriage takes place in several publicly observed stages, marked by celebrations and material exchanges, and increased interaction among the engaged couple. The fâtiha seals an agreement between two families: reading the opening sura or verse of the Qur’an is considered to be an informal agreement of engagement. The shabka “ties” the couple with a gift of rings or gold jewelry and is typically given by the groom to the bride when the marriage contract is signed, but this can vary. The katb al-kitâb is the formal signing of the marriage contract which may or may not take place with the dukhla or celebration of the first night of joint residence. Just before the dukhla, many families, particularly in rural areas, hold a zifaf or wedding procession which proudly and publicly displays all of the new household furnishings and gihâz which and follows a bride toward her new home.

29As stated above, the time period of engagements varies widely but various types of evidence suggest that lengths of engagements are increasing. Data from our most recent survey (ELMPPS) found that the average length of an engagement increased from 12 months in 1965-1970 to 20 months in 2000-2004. Since arranged marriages are still quite common and socially acceptable in Egypt and being financially “ready” for marriage may prompt a sudden engagement, families use long engagements to “test” the suitability and character of the engaged couple. Many engagements are broken off without too much damage to a young person’s reputation if they do not behave “appropriately” during this time, or are found to be cheap, uncooperative, or abusive to either each other, the parents or members of the extended family.

30It is also likely that growing consumerism in Egypt, whether due to globalization, increased media advertising and television viewing or the influx of cheap imports, may have also increased the material demands of young couples around marriage.

Figure 2: National Component Costs of Marriage, 1999 EIHS.

Figure 2: National Component Costs of Marriage, 1999 EIHS.

31What our data does tell us is that newlywed spaces are now larger than they used to be. In 1965 couples acquired only one “room” of furniture, but by 2000, three were more typical (“rooms” of furniture are conventionally sets of furniture sold together as bedrooms or salons). We also know that housing costs absorb about a third of marriage costs; but furnishings are 28% of marriage costs. The furnishings of a house are very important to the status of the couple and reflect the reputation and financial standing of their families. Complex negotiations about the quality and quantity of appliances, curtains, and furniture rage throughout engagements – and disputes over these items have sabotaged many of them. In urban areas the proportion spent on housing is slightly higher (36%) than in rural areas (28%). But couples spend nearly the same on furniture in both urban and rural areas (29 and 26% respectively).

32What has changed in the price of marriage from the ’99 marriage module according to our new pilot survey, is that urban and rural costs of marriage are converging. In the 2000-2004 marriage cohort young people from both urban and rural areas are spending similarly on the various components of marriage. In this cohort, the nominal costs of rural marriages are higher than urban ones, which is a new trend and contradicts common perceptions of the higher costs of living in urban areas.

33The marked decline in the cost of housing from 34% in the 1995-1999 cohort to 20% in 2000-2004 cohort may be due to the new Rent Law of March 24th 1996, which went into effect in 1997 (see Table 2). This controversial new law reversed the commitment to urban rent control established firmly in the Nasserist period, since it allowed for fixed rental contracts for a limited time period, significantly increasing the rental market beyond furnished flats and luxury apartments available only to the very rich. Some middle income young couples may now be renting apartments, avoiding a much higher outlay on “key money” (which is tantamount to buying an apartment) for their newlywed housing. In addition, the new mortgage law (Law 148 of 2001), which hadn’t been fully implemented, may still be partially influential in decreased urban real estate prices.

  • 26 Nasr 1999.

34More importantly, the repeal of land reform that removed rural land rent guarantees in 1992, implemented in 1997, is no doubt increasing rural land and thus, housing costs. Only one year after the new law went into effect, land rents had already multiplied by more than fivefold.26

Table 2: ELMPPS Real Marriage Costs by Marriage Cohort (1969 = 100)

Marriage cohort
































































1995-1999 EIHS
















35While housing prices in the most recent cohort (2000-2004) declined precipitously, expenditures on the mahr, the shabka, furniture/appliances, and the gihâz/other all increased slightly (in average real component costs by cohort). What is also clear is the volatility of housing and furniture/appliance costs, while the costs for mahr, the celebrations, and shabka/jewelry have remained fairly consistent.

  • 27 El-Tawila and Khadr 2004, p. 52.

36Marriages among relatives or consanguinity remains high in Egypt, which remains a puzzle to demographers who originally proposed that it would decline with modernization and urbanization. Yet, perhaps the popularity of kin marriage in Egypt still makes financial sense, as it did historically when communities did not want to fragment their land through marriage to other families. Our data found that kin marriages have held steady at about a quarter to a third of all marriages. In the 1965 cohort of the ELMPPS, 23% of all marriages were to relatives, in the 2000 cohort the rate had declined to 21%. The most common kin marriage was to a father’s brother’s son, followed by marriage to a father’s sister’s son. The lowest rate of consanguinity reached 14% in the 1990-1995 cohort. A recent study of university students found that preferences for kin marriages remain high. El-Tawila and Khadr found “that 39% and 27% of never married males and females respectively ha[d] a specific preference for kin marriage” and that it was stronger among the less educated.27

37Financial incentives to marry one’s kin remain high since our data suggest that marriage is “half price” if relatives are involved. In particular, housing costs are almost 50% lower in relative marriages than they are in non-relative marriages (see Table 3). It is only the mahr, which maintains its value across the board.

Table 3: Average of the Costs of Marriage Across All Cohorts, Consanguineous and Non-Consanguineous Marriages, ELMPPS





Total Cost








Gihâz or Other












Jewelry (shabka)




Dower (mahr)




The average cost of housing in CM is about 39.43% of the average cost of housing in NCM.

N (CM) = 80; N (NCM) = 237.

  • 28 In the EIHS survey, although we did not have data about consanguinity, 39% of the households lived (...)

38Many consanguineous couples also live with their relatives while others set up their own nuclear households, but the former arrangement also reduces the cost of marriage. In the ELMPPS 2000-2004 age cohort 67% of the consanguineous marriages live in an extended family setting, and 45% of the non-consanguineous marriages live in an extended family arrangement. Surprisingly, these ratios remain very similar to the relationship between consanguinity and extending family living in the1960s.28 Whether young people marry their relatives or only live with them, clearly family ties are still very strong in Egypt.

39The housing costs of couples living with their family were significantly lower than for couples that set up housekeeping as nuclear families (for example, twelve grooms in the sample contributed nothing to housing costs). The average cost of housing (paid for by the groom’s side) in a nuclear residential pattern was LE 8,566 (21% more than the total mean), compared to LE 4,801 in an extended family situation (32% less than mean housing costs). Housing costs remain fairly significant, however, even for extended living arrangements. This is presumably because the new couple may renovate their space or add additional rooms to the family dwelling.

Who Pays for Marriage?

  • 29 The overall mean across the nation from the EIHS is 22% contribution from the bride’s family and 2. (...)
  • 30 Amin and Al-Bassussi 2003.

40In short, the primary burden for the cost of marriage rests on the groom and his family, who provide three-quarters of all expenses (see Table 4). As many young men will complain, al-ragil mazlûm or “men are oppressed” and there may be some truth in that as the bride and her family see it as their duty and right to secure her financial position (this is particularly salient since marriage is probably the largest source of intergenerational transfer of assets for Muslim women who only inherit half of what men do under Islamic law). The bride’s side, particularly her family, provide a quarter of the expenses.29 While grooms and their families still contribute the lion’s share to marriage, brides and their families have been bearing more of the costs recently as they have become more engaged in paid employment, at least before they marry.30 According to EDHS data, the percent of women reporting equal sharing of costs increased from only four percent in the 1960’s marriage cohort to 25 percent in the1990-1995 cohort. Even more revealing, because of the role reversal it implies, 15 percent of marriages contracted in the 1990s involved a lower contribution from the groom’s side (compared to only 6% reporting a lower groom’s contribution in the 1960s (EDHS 1996).

Table 4: Contributions to Marriage Costs by Region (%), Marriage Module, 1999 EIHS


Groom’s Family

Groom’s Share Alone


Bride’s Family

Bride’s Share Alone























41While some brides are contributing more to the costs of marriage due either to their employment status or control of resources (housing), education and age remain important factors in the marriage market. In a preliminary regression analysis we found that for every additional year of schooling of the female respondent, the real cost of marriage increases by LE 230, holding age and region of respondent constant. This suggests that the higher the education of the bride, the higher the cost of marriage, ostensibly because either the education of the bride is highly valued or those that are wealthier (and thus have higher costs of marriage) tend to have more educated daughters.

42Holding regional location and consanguinity constant, there is a negative and significant relationship between age at marriage and total marriage costs. For every one year increase in age of female respondent, conceivably real marriage costs fall by LE 59. In other words, as brides age, their costs of marriage decline. Moreover, there is a statistically significant and positive relationship (as we would expect) between total real marriage costs and father’s education. For every increase in father’s reported level of education, real marriage costs increase by LE 148.28 – which is quite a lot. For example, the total real cost of marriage in the 2000-20004 cohort was only LE 835.

43Interestingly, there also seems to be an association with delayed marriage and education for grooms as well. Those with only a degree from a higher institute have the highest age at marriage (see Figure 3). These are usually two year institutes (not universities) in less prestigious fields which suggests the young men were not academic achievers or probably came from modest backgrounds with long waits ahead of them for low-paying public sector jobs.

Figure 3: Groom’s Median Age at Marriage by Education (N = 234), ELMPPS.

Figure 3: Groom’s Median Age at Marriage by Education (N = 234), ELMPPS.

Marriage Substitutes

44The challenging cost of marriage in Egypt, coupled with late age at marriage for men in particular, is producing new consequences and arrangements in society. Although these consequences were not addressed in our surveys about marriage costs, newspapers, public discourse, sermons, governmental and academic research centers engage in sensationalized and controversial debates about sexuality, gender relations and morality in Egyptian society. While deserving of far more research, here it is important to mention only a few important related phenomena which have received growing scrutiny. Although it may be unsettling for some to rely upon a neoclassical model, economists tell us that if the price of a good rises and demand is inelastic (i.e. marriage is a universal desire), then the market will find another equilibrium by finding cheaper substitutes. If young people delay marriage because either their families insist on placing difficult financial demands on a groom and his family or they simply cannot afford marriage, more people will find other, perhaps less socially acceptable ways of interacting with members of the opposite sex.

  • 31 Allam 2000; Shahine 1998; Ezzat 2000.
  • 32 El-Tawila and Khadr (2004, xiii). In 2000, the Minister of Social Affairs had argued that the incid (...)

45In Egypt, we find increasing, if indirect evidence for the growth of marriage substitutes. For example, common-law or ‘urfî marriages that are secretive (i.e. the couple’s family and the larger community is unaware that a marriage has taken place) and unregistered with the government are increasingly popular among young people because these types of marriage reduce expenses when couples do not cohabitate but only occasionally meet in hotels, furnished flats or borrowed apartments. Secrecy denies families a role in supervising the financial aspects of the union and the choice of the spouse. Estimates of the number of these marriages are crude and range from 20,000 to 30,000 a year.31 In the most comprehensive study of ‘urfî marriage, Saher El-Tawila and Zeinab Khadr estimate that ‘urfî marriages are prevalent among 4% of the total population of youth 18-30, increasing to 6% for university students.32 It is much lower than popular perception yet grave problems surround the self-reporting and perceptions about the prevalence of ‘urfî marriages.

  • 33 El-Tawila and Khadr 2004, xiii-iv

46Often the reason why both women and men enact an ‘urfî marriage is that even though they would like to marry in the conventional manner, they and their families do not have the financial resources. Male students, particularly those from Upper Egypt, are transgressing norms in different ways than women are by enacting an ‘urfî marriage, since they are ignoring familial authority. “Negotiating these [marriage] plans to reach a compromise that is both plausible and acceptable is an alien concept, hardly ever exercised among family members of these young men. Moreover, the contradiction embodied in their uncontrolled mobility on the one hand and the parents’ tendency to overlook their relationships with the opposite sex further complicates the situation.”33

47One of the key findings of their study of ‘urfî marriages is that they have become more common as financial impediments to marriage have grown. They also emphasize the continuing disjuncture between the aspirations of parents and their tradition of arranging marriages for their children and the emotional and sexual desires of young people.

  • 34 El Tawila and Khadr 2004, p. xi.

“[The] lack of financial means and inability or unwillingness of the young man’s parents to help with the expenses necessary to initiate marriage, stand out as the main reason for late marriage among young males. Providing the youth with employment opportunities which are sufficiently rewarding to sustain acceptable standards of living is imperative. However, the social pressure young couples confront with regard to the material requirements needed to initiate marriage remains a gigantic obstacle that society at large will have to overcome.”34

  • 35 Paternity disputes are common among urfî marriages because the contract is written by the couple th (...)
  • 36 Singerman 2005.

48Unfortunately many of these marriages fail and they account for the vast majority of eventual paternity cases as women sue men for financial support of their offspring.35 Until recent reforms in Personal Status Law in 2000, women in these marriages had not been able to seek divorce, since they often had no proof that they had ever been married.36 But the social outcry and concern about these marriages led to new legislation in 2000 offering further legal and bureaucratic protections to the wives and children from these marriages.


  • 37 Abaza 2001.
  • 38 El-Tawila and Khadr 2004, p. 60-61.
  • 39 El-Tawila and Khadr 2004, p. 65.

49The material anxieties surrounding marriage, the social problems of an unending adolescent status, and the sexual dilemma of “forced” celibacy among young adults is compounded or complicated further by the power and popularity of Islamist political leanings and Islamist public discourse. Religious authorities, tied to state-supported institutions or popular newspapers and media sites debate the legality and morality of ‘urfî marriage, while generally acknowledging changing sexual norms in Egypt.37 The majority of young people also “perceive widespread relationships outside of marriage” and “1/3 of young males and 1/4 of females report having had a previous relationship” although the definition of a “relationship” is still somewhat vague. Young people that live in urban governorates and attend university are the most common to report relationships outside of marriage.38 Yet, when asked directly, only 1.4% of males and only 2% of females actually admitted to having had a sexual relationship.39 The picture of sexual practices among young people remains controversial and an extremely difficult topic to research and analyze. However, demographic data does confirm the rising age at marriage, as mentioned earlier and so it is not surprising that there will be more sexual relationships outside of marriage. Rather than condemn young people for these new arrangements outright, or representing changing sexual norms as a national threat, some observers suggest young people are simply trying to make the most of a difficult position.

  • 40 Abaza 2001, p. 21.

“If it is true that ‘urfi marriages have become widespread on Egyptian campuses – as the press likes to make us believe – one may argue that this generation has been smart in solving the growing sexual tensions in a society that idolizes marriage and is rigid in conventions regarding the financial requirements of the institution. One may even speculate over the spread of ‘urfi marriages as a hidden protest of second-generation post-Islamist youths.”40

50But to return to the primary focus of this article, this research does confirm that the costs of marriage are substantial. We cannot yet make a causal argument about marriage costs delaying age at marriage or influencing sexual practices, yet we do know that the financial demands surrounding marriage can only color many key decisions that young men and women and their families make. We cannot yet theorize about the normative implications of the high cost of marriage without much more research and do not mean to suggest that investing such sums in marriage is negative, since it may establish a new household at a secure level to raise children, provide the groom and bride with important financial assets, and protect the household against future economic vulnerability. On the other hand, financing purchases of gold, consumer goods and housing at a young age, might only deflect needed capital investment from business and commercial activities, further education and training for young people, or healthcare and financial security for the older (parents’) generation. Perhaps this research agenda raises more questions than it answers, but it is meant to provoke more detailed work on the problems facing young people in Egypt, and in the Middle East more generally.

51Sensationalizing the problems of young people will not solve their problems and governments need to respond to the demands and needs of 58% of the population in MENA. If young people who are already politically and economically marginalized from society are increasingly sexually and socially marginalized, one cannot expect them to be passive subjects. I do not mean to suggest there is a possible explosion brewing in MENA, nor do I mean to indulge in crude psycho babble about repressed young people, but I do believe that we must pay attention to the conflicts in society today and the anxieties which they produce. The real struggle for Middle East governments is to be responsive to their own populations.


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1 The statistical analysis of the data was carried out with the tremendous help of Ph.D. students at American University, Mary Breeding, Mee Young Han, and Ali Ozdogan. Earlier data analysis for this project was conducted by Amina Hegazy, David Spielman, and Fatma El-Hamidi in collaboration with Dr. Barbara Ibrahim (see Singerman and Ibrahim 2001). Financial support by the Population Council, the American University Senate Research Award, the New Arab Demography Project of the Social Research Center at the American University in Cairo, and the Mellon Foundation is also greatly appreciated. Special thanks are due to Akhter A. Ahmed and Lawrence Haddad at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) for sharing their data and agreeing to add a battery of questions on the cost of marriage in Egypt to one of their surveys and to Ragui Assaad for access to the 2006 Egyptian Labor Market Panel Survey (ELMPS) sponsored by the Economic Research Forum in Cairo and the University of Minnesota.

2 Cincotta, Engelman and Anastasion 2003.

3 Ali 2002.

4 World Bank 2004, p. 5.

5 World Bank 2004, p. 51 and Yousef 2003.

6 World Bank 2004a, p. 130.

7 Maynes 1998.

8 See Mensch, Singh and Casterline 2003.

9 Rashad and Khadr 1998.

10 Rashad and Khadr 1998.

11 One study of controversial unregistered or common-law marriages (‘urfî) among young people of both sexes report little to no consequences for males engaged in relationships before married, but over 1/2 of respondents perceive such relationships to be detrimental to the females’ “reputation” (El-Tawila and Khadr 2004, p. 63).

12 Inglehart and Norris 2003, p. 64-65.

13 Yousef 2003.

14 According to a recent World Bank study of MENA, unemployment falls disproportionately on the young, with a simple average of 53% for all countries for which data is available (World Bank 2004, p. 90). In 1998, youth unemployment in Egypt (34%) was more than triple total unemployment of 11% (Yousef 2003, p. 14).

15 El-Tawila and Khadr 2004, p. 2.

16 See Assaad 2004.

17 Singerman 1995; see also Hoodfar 1997.

18 Yanow and Schwartz-Shea 2006.

19 King, Keohane and Verba 1994.

20 Datt, Jolliffe and Sharma 1998; Bouis and Ahmed 1998; Haddad and Akhter 2000.

21 IBRD/World Bank 2000, p. 12.

22 A comparison between our ’99 EIHS and ELMPPS data is very encouraging because of the similarity of our ’99 data to the 1995-1999 cohort data from the ’04 survey. There is only a LE 5,000 discrepancy which suggests our ’99 costs of marriage may have been slightly under-estimated. Among 105 Egyptian households, the average Total Cost of Marriage in the ’99 EIHS marriage module was LE 20,194 ($5,957, 1992-1997). The nominal cost of marriage for the same cohort (1995-1999) in the ELMPPS was LE 25,174, an increase in about LE 5,000 from our ’99 marriage module. By 2004 the cost of marriage in the ELMS ’04 survey had risen to LE 24,734.

23 Vignal and Denis 2006, p. 116; Saad 2002, as quoted by Williams 2006, p. 271.

24 In our 1999 EIHS, 33 percent of the households fell below the poverty line. Sa’ad Nagy’s national survey on poverty in 1995 found that 37,3% of the households were objectively poor (Nagy 2001, p. 42). Assaad and Rouchdy found that at least one quarter of Egypt’s population is poor by any standards and another quarter lives on the margins of poverty (Assaad and Rouchdy 1998).

25 In the spirit of Amartya Sen’s notion of capability poverty, it seems that one of the most basic understanding of an entitlement, or what people are able to do, is to reproduce the family or marry (Sen 1997).

26 Nasr 1999.

27 El-Tawila and Khadr 2004, p. 52.

28 In the EIHS survey, although we did not have data about consanguinity, 39% of the households lived in an extended family setting (31% of urban couples and 44% of all rural households).

29 The overall mean across the nation from the EIHS is 22% contribution from the bride’s family and 2.3% from the bride.

30 Amin and Al-Bassussi 2003.

31 Allam 2000; Shahine 1998; Ezzat 2000.

32 El-Tawila and Khadr (2004, xiii). In 2000, the Minister of Social Affairs had argued that the incidence of ‘urfî marriage among university students was 17% (Abaza 2001, 20).

33 El-Tawila and Khadr 2004, xiii-iv

34 El Tawila and Khadr 2004, p. xi.

35 Paternity disputes are common among urfî marriages because the contract is written by the couple themselves, perhaps with adult witnesses. However, in the case that the man, who usually holds the contract, wants to end the marriage and escape financial obligations to his children from the match, he can merely rip up the contract and deny the legitimacy of the union.

36 Singerman 2005.

37 Abaza 2001.

38 El-Tawila and Khadr 2004, p. 60-61.

39 El-Tawila and Khadr 2004, p. 65.

40 Abaza 2001, p. 21.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Average Nominal Marriage Costs as % of Average Per Capita Household Expenditures (LCU), 1965-2004, ELMPPS.
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Titre Figure 2: National Component Costs of Marriage, 1999 EIHS.
Fichier image/png, 21k
Titre Figure 3: Groom’s Median Age at Marriage by Education (N = 234), ELMPPS.
Fichier image/png, 27k


Associate professor au Department of Government, School of Public Affairs, à l’American University (Washington, DC).en

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