Marriages in Egypt are somewhat different than in the West. Islam discourages dating, as single men and women are not supposed to be alone together if they are not related. Among the middle and upper classes, often the man and woman know each other from school or university, where young people gather in groups like they do in the West. In the lower classes, the chance for intermingling of the sexes is rarer, and sometimes families negotiate a marriage for an unmarried son or daughter.
However the couple is introduced, the steps toward marriage are the same. Either at the instigation of the couple, or at their own initiative, the two families meet to discuss the terms of the marriage. This discussion usually covers such topics as the dowry, who will pay for the wedding, etc. The two families then arrange a supervised meeting between the potential bride and groom, and either one can say no to the marriage. The wedding usually takes place fairly quickly, unless the groom-to-be is going abroad to work or study, in which case the marriage may be postponed.
As in the West, weddings in Egypt are a time of celebration. Many couples arrange for photographs in scenic locations, like this couple on the 6th October Bridge, overlooking the lights of downtown Cairo.
The marriage itself may be very simple, consisting only of the imam from the mosque presiding over the marriage contract between the groom and the bride’s father, who speaks on behalf of his daughter. Wealthier families spend large sums of money, sometimes renting ballrooms at the luxury hotels in Cairo to gather all their family and friends for the festivities, which may be spread out over several days.
Divorce is not very common in Egypt, although it does still happen. According to Egyptian secular law, both men and women have the right to ask for a divorce. Traditionally, upon divorce, the father is granted custody of any children, and any dowry paid by the groom to the bride’s family must be returned.
Like many modern Islamic societies, Egypt is trying to bridge the difference between what traditional interpretations of Islamic law say, and what many people feel should be the law, which is often based on western models. A woman’s right to ask for a divorce under any circumstance was put into law in Egypt in 1999. Many interpretations of Islamic law give women the right to ask for a divorce only in certain circumstances, such as her husband’s being mentally ill or infertile. The new law was written both by secular lawmakers as well as representatives of the Muslim clergy in Egypt in order to ensure that it would address concerns that might be raised by opponents. Such cooperation between secular and religious jurists is common in Egypt and other countries where traditional interpretations are being challenged.
An Egyptian father with his child. The birth of a child is one of the most important and celebrated events in Egyptian society.
Traditions of Birth and Death
Similarly, the birth of a child is an event to be celebrated. Boys are usually circumcised near birth. The birth of the first son is a momentous event, after which the father and mother are often called by the titles “Abu” and “Umm” (“father” and “mother”) followed by their son’s name. For example, if the first son is named Ali, then the father will be called “Abu Ali,” or “Father of Ali,” and the mother “Umm Ali,” or “Mother of Ali.” Families will also arrange for the slaughter of an animal — two for boys and one for girls — one week after the birth to mark the event.
Egyptians are careful never to praise the beauty of the child without adding the phrase mash’allah, meaning “thanks be to God.” This practice extends to many parts of Egyptian society, wherein you will always hear such phrases as insha’allah – “if God wills it,” usually used when discussing an event that is to happen in the future, and hamdulillah – “praise be to God,” used to express joy or contentment over something that has already happened. This reminds Egyptians of God’s presence and influence over all matters, and also that God has the power to alter anything thing at any time, so nothing should be taken for granted. Many Egyptians also believe in the power of the Evil Eye, for demons – djinn – are mentioned in the Qur’an. Repeating such invocations of the name of God are also considered to prevent harm at the hands of these djinn. Similarly, when a person dies, it is a significant event. In keeping with Islamic custom, the person is usually buried before sundown on the day of death, or, at the least, within three days. Friends and family come to pay their respects to the surviving spouse or children. The funeral is held in the mosque, where special prayers, called the janazah, are said. The casket is then carried on the shoulders of the male relatives to the cemetery, with the mourners following in procession. For forty days after death, there is an official mourning period for the deceased, in which special prayers and rituals are observed, and friends and relatives gather frequently to pay their respects to the surviving relatives.
Islamic dress, like that worn by these schoolgirls in Cairo, has become more popular in recent years.