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Page last updated at 08:24 GMT, Tuesday, 12 August 2008 09:24 UK

Spotlight on Egypt's marriage crisis

By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC News, Cairo

Ghada Abdelaal with her book Ayza-Tgawwiz
Abdelaal's story started as an online log - now she's working on a sitcom

"I want to get married" is a perfectly normal thing to say for a young Egyptian man. But when a girl says it in such a conservative society - let alone writes a book with that title - she is making a political statement.

"Girls are not supposed to be actively seeking something, a girl simply exists for someone to marry or divorce her," says the author of the top-selling book, Ghada Abdelaal. "To say she wants something is seen as impolite."

The book started as a blog, before it was spotted by an Egyptian publisher and printed as a series of comic sketches in which flawed and failed suitors came knocking at her parents' door.

A paranoid policeman, a hirsute fundamentalist, a pathological liar and other hilarious caricatures are portrayed in sparkling Egyptian vernacular.

Marriage anxiety

The veiled, softly-spoken Abdelaal is a sharp and witty observer of social incongruity in Egypt, a feisty spirit trying to tear up stifling tradition.

They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married
Ghada Abdelaal

She says her target is not Egyptian men but a tradition known as "gawwaz el-salonat" (living room marriage), where a stranger is brought to the family home and the daughter must decide whether to marry him on the basis of this brief encounter.

"People who go for a picnic need to know each other a little longer than that - let alone make a lifelong commitment," Abdelaal says.

The book's popularity - it is in its third print run with a sitcom in the offing - reflects a widespread anxiety in Egyptian society. More and more young people cannot afford to get married.

Although the book focuses on finding Mr Right, she acknowledges finding an affordable flat remains an almost insurmountable obstacle. Many young people stay engaged for years before they can save up enough money.

"By the time they actually get to live together, they are already tired of each other," says women's rights activist Nihad Abou El Qoumsan. This causes the unusually high rate of divorce among the newlyweds in Egypt, she says.

Such is the impact of property prices on the marriage crisis, a popular talk show has invited engaged couples to join a draw to win a flat.

A new apartment will be given away by a wealthy businessman every day of the fasting and holiday month of Ramadan, in September. Huge numbers have registered.

Sexual frustration

Some describe it as a social time bomb. Religious customs mean there is no sex before marriage. So how do young people react to this situation?

I don't think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated
Anthropologist Hania Sholkamy

Sociologist Madeeha al-Safty of the American University in Cairo believes one consequence is sexual harassment of women and rape reaching unprecedented levels in Egypt.

"If you are frustrated, there is the possibility that you take it out [through] violence.

"Some people choose the safer way in moving towards a more religious attitude - not necessarily extremism, but it might reach the point of extremism," she adds.

But anthropologist Hania Sholkamy hesitates to link the problems of sexual harassment and rape to the marriage crisis.

"I don't think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated. There are many millions of people who are extremely frustrated, but they do not harass women.

"I think the issue is one of violence and gender disparities, pure and simple."

Gender disparity is a theme running throughout Abdelaal's book, from the provocative title questioning the women's passive role in a traditional society to the way children are brought up.

"They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married.

"Even after she goes to school they tell her that a girl's only future is in her husband's home. So what happens when a girl for any reason cannot get married. Should she set fire to herself?"



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