Rania Salem

Studying Secret Marriages in Egypt: Virgins, Victims, Playboys and Paupers

A Lecture by Professor Rania Salem

By Danny Li

This mini-lecture organized by the Students of Sociology (SOS) @ UTSC took place in MW170 on Wednesday, February 26th from 5-6:30pm. Her lecture and research project centers on the rising phenomenon of “secret marriages” in Egypt. Marriage is extremely important in Egypt as the only way for Islamic youth to become adults and gain independence, sexual experience, and begin a family of their own. Traditionally, marriage would require the male partner to provide materially for the female partner in terms of a wedding, housing, and a livelihood in general. However, traditional marriages are becoming less common as youths increasingly engage in secret marriages. Professor Salem’s research questions is whether this phenomenon is the result of economic circumstances and the high costs of traditional marriages in Egypt (pauper explanation) or if it is the result of different attitudes towards sex in the younger generations (playboy explanation).

Professor Salem begins her lecture with three vignettes to illustrate some common experiences of marriages for modern Egyptian youth; frustrated love, love postponed, and forbidden love. The first vignette is the fictional tale of Elwan and Randa in Mahfouz’s The Day the Leader was Killed. Without the means to support Randa, Elwan cannot receive the consent of Randa’s father to marry. Randa ends up leaving Elwan for her boss who can materially provide for her. The second story is based on an interview conducted by Professor Salem in Minya, Egypt in 2010. Zeinab and Muhammed were engaged for six years while saving enough money to get a traditional marriage. The final vignette, forbidden love is the story of Usama and Shaima, a couple she interviewed in Cairo in 2012. Usama could not receive the blessing of his father to marry Shaima, being disgraced as a divorced women with a child. Usama then proposed that they establish a “secret marriage”/informal union in order to clear their conscious of their premarital romance and to allow for more intimacy in their relationship. This last vignette/situation of a secret marriage is the focus of the rest of Professor Salem’s lecture.

As previously stated, traditional marriages in Islamic cultures tend to be financially taxing on young couples. With high youth unemployment and a lack of affordable housing, traditional marriage is no longer a viable option for young couples. They have three options that the vignettes above illustrate; to break up, hold off, or engage in a secret marriage. A secret marriage is an informal marriage contract drawn up between two heterosexual Muslims. The contract is drawn up in front of two trusted witnesses and is never registered formally with the state. However, these informal contracts are often recognized by the judiciary in case of any incidents (divorce, custody, etc.). As a highly taboo and stigmatized institution, secret marriages, true to their name, remain a secret to most of the couple’s friends and family. Many aspects of secret marriages are gendered, often to the disadvantage of women. The practice began in the 1960-70s, as widows of the Six-Days War would have lost their benefits if they were to remarry. Polygamy for males is permissible in Islamic doctrine, with males being able to engage in a traditional and secret marriage simultaneously. Also, divorce under Sharia Law only requires the consent of the male partner with no consideration of the female partners’ will. Though potentially disadvantageous to women, secret marriages remove most of the costs of a traditional marriage as the couple do not cohabit, saving on rent, appliances, a wedding, etc.

As indicative of a “crisis” in the institution of marriage, Professor Salem wants to determine the cause of the increase in secret marriages. Her research compares and contrasts the two competing theories in explaining the rise of secret marriages; the high costs of traditional marriage coupled with deteriorating economic circumstances (pauper) or a shift in the attitude towards sex among Egyptian youth (playboy). Her interest in this topic arose as she was doing field research for the Population Council in the Middle East and attempting to come up with her thesis topic. She decided to choose secret marriages for four reasons; 1) it was important to ordinary people she encountered, 2) the ubiquity of this cultural artefact in public discourse, 3) the interest to policy makers and development theorists, and 4) the implications on gender inequality. She analyzes the current literature on secret marriages and finds two common themes. A) Theorists often depict secret marriages as a social and moral problem which could result in the slippery slope from secret marriages to “free love”. Increased uncertainties, disputes, and moral alarm arise around virginity, paternity and divorce due to its secret nature. B) Women are portrayed as victims of sexual desire, deception, and the legal system in these relationships. They tend to obscure the women’s agency in entering into, remaining, and leaving these marriages.

Professor Salem’s research evaluates the strengths of two competing theories in explaining the phenomenon of secret marriages; paupers or playboys. Professor Salem conducted a series of 40 semi-structured interviews with Egyptian couples/individuals engaged in secret marriages. All participants were aged 18-25, and due to the secretive nature of these engagements, were found through snowball sampling. Professor Salem proceeds to tell us a few more vignettes of the experience of four of her interview participants beginning with two examples of paupers. Mahmoud, a 26 year old with a BSc. in computer and information systems, proposed to Abeer, but was rejected by her parents because he lacked the finances to support her. They entered into a secret marriage, and Mahmoud continues to moonlight, save, and apply to public housing in the hopes of formalizing their marriage. She then retells the story of Usama and Shaima she used to introduce the concept of secret marriages to us (see above). Professor Salem then recalls two stories of “playboys”. Hassam, a 32 year old with a BA. in commerce, citing financial problems, suggested and entered into a secret marriage to Samar. Although his financial situation has improved, he is now considering another bride, nominated by his parents, for a traditional public marriage instead of Samar. Another story, of Abdel Razeq, a 60 year old, was coupled with a 31 year old Basma through a “middle woman”. Struggling economically, Basma approached a middle woman (sells young women off to rich, often Arab, men) and was sold and wed to Abdel for $350.

Professor Salem concludes that the pauper explanation is much more compelling; financial obstacles stand in the way of many young couples who wish to marry their loved ones openly. Although (secret) marriage was seen by all parties as a necessary framework for sexual relations, all also aspired to be in committed conventional/traditional marriages one day in the future. All want a traditional marriage, a home, and a family, values which could not be considered deviant from mainstream standards. Professor Salem sees these secret marriages as a new step towards traditional marriages/mainstream values in the face of economic hardship.

In closing, Professor Salem challenges the myth of female victimhood and the belief that patriarchy is always disempowering, while highlighting the gendered risks inherent in secret marriages. She notes that women are active agents when deciding to enter, remain, and leave these secret marriages, and not the passive victims they are often made out to be. She also notes that patriarchy can potentially help women in traditional marriages as male family members can exert pressure on a woman’s husband to provide materially for her. This mechanism of patriarchy is not present in the institution of secret marriages as nobody is aware of their existence.