Egypt's "Spinsters" Fight Against Stereotypes and Discrimination

Egyptian activists are speaking out against the "spinster" concept and calling for a re-examination of how the country views women.

Cairo, Egypt – It is a challenge to be unmarried in Egypt and even more so if the woman is "growing old" according to Egyptian customs. This means any unmarried woman past her mid-twenties is seen negatively through society's lens, leaving many questions to be answered. However, a group of Egyptian female activists are speaking out against the "A'anis," or spinster, concept, calling for a re-examination of how the country views women.

Youmna Mokhtar is a young Egyptian journalist who became fed up with the use of this word in everyday life. So she founded the social group called "Spinsters for change" that aims to educate people on the use of "A'anis."

In Arabic, "A'anis" has at least three meanings – none of which have a relationship to its understood social meaning. The first is: a dull tree branch, the second is: one who looks at the mirror more often and the third is: a strong female camel. In Egypt and across the region, socially, it refers to a woman who has reached a certain age and is still unmarried.

"I started the group to initiate a dialog between women to discuss how we can change that social look," said Youmna. The group is outspoken against the social labeling and ill treatment of unmarried women. Although the word is commonplace in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, it remains a derogatory word.

Women feel the negative attachments to the word, which they argue attracts rumors, suspicion and pitying looks, as if asking; "what's wrong with her if?" (if she hasn't yet married). But, with the average marriage age continuing to rise, Mokhtar believes it is time to evaluate how language plays a role in societal perceptions.

"Although the group is called "A'anis for change," I am against the label, yet we used it to name the group [because] it is the term people use," Mokhtar explained. "First, we thought of calling it "girls for change," but it was not going to deliver the same meaning," she added with a chuckle.

"There are more important things than the name, it is the pattern of behaviors that comes with it," Mokhtar continued. The openness of the group is attracting more than just unmarried Egyptian women. Married couples and bachelors are also joining in as they explore the concepts of marriage and the intense pressure to marry cast today on a majority of Egyptian youth.

"First, in the family a lot of pressure is put on the girl to get married. Then the pressure turns into insults and condescension and they ask her why are you being snobby for refusing these men. And if that doesn't work, they use the fear factor, saying 'so what are you going to do? We are not going to live forever.' And then comes friends. All of her friends got married and she didn't, so in their eyes, she becomes the one who is going to envy them for getting married and she could even find herself not invited to one of her friends' weddings."

"A deeply rooted belief exists in the Egyptian culture that early marriage is better for girls," said a 2006 USAID report, "Preventing Child Marriage: Protecting Girls' Health."

"Pressure on women to get married often begins immediately following university. Some women have the luxury of waiting one or two years before the nagging begins. By the time a woman reaches 30-years-old, parents stop trying to force their daughters to get married, Mokhtar admitted. However, not because they don't want to see their children wed.

"They would justify it using the idea that it becomes unsafe for women to get pregnant after 35," Mokhtar said.

"Women who seek divorce in Egypt have two options, fault-based or no-fault divorce (khula)," said Cairo public prosecutor, Hassan Osman, during a 2004 interview on marriage law and legislation with Human Rights Watch. "Unlike men, women can only divorce by court action (tatliq). Regardless of which system they choose, a number of government officials are involved in the process, including judges, attorneys for both parties, and arbitrators involved in compulsory mediation between the couple. Public prosecutors are also often present in divorce cases, exercising considerable influence on these proceedings and the outcome of the case."

"What happens to women who refuse to marry in the first place?

"Many women in Egypt are married without their consent, often before they become adults," outlined Human Rights Watch. Women who do not marry, though, are often looked upon negatively as complete outsiders.

Although marriage in modern Egypt is seen as an equal contract between husband and wife, in practice it's not that easy. Many women on the edge of marriage are hesitant to ask for equal rights in the contract itself because of fear their suitor may decide to "back out" of the arrangement.

A female friend of Mokhtar, who is over 30, has turned down a number of possible suitors, which has left a mark on her village. A number of men have even taken the step to come to the friend's house, pretending to ask for her hand in marriage in order to glimpse the woman who refuses marriage past 30. Mokhtar believes this is part of the issue surrounding Egyptian society's continued wrongdoing against women.

"It shows how our society looks at women as wives and baby makers. She is born to get married and give birth no matter what kind of marriage she is in. Happily married or not, the point is to [get] married," Youmna added. The concept of a wife as "property" in marriage spans centuries in Egypt, but ancient history may point to a different story.

According to the Annenberg Foundation project, Bridging World History, the concept of marriage as a "family" identifier for parents and children in ancient times should be questioned.

"It is highly debatable whether there was a concept of [Egyptian] ‘marriage'; the sole significant family-establishing act appears to have been cohabitation for reproduction. The concept of fertility was important to social and political orders that evolved along the Nile… Like many other societies, ancient Egyptian society was patriarchal: men and their male heir controlled the majority of relationships. In the realm of the household, elite Egyptian women controlled property, business, ritual, and family matters. This is not always obvious from the surviving records," said the project.

Dr. Abdel-Halim Nureddin, professor of ancient language at the Faculty of Archeology at Cairo University, agrees that women in Ancient Egypt had numerous rights. "Ancient Egyptian traditions and laws gave much attention to women's rights in marriage, divorce, inheritance, as well as in cases of selling and buying," said Dr. Nureddin in a recent lecture.

In spite of a more liberal trend in ancient history, a majority of people view Egyptian marriage and divorce today with the belief that women are discriminated against in modern Cairo.

In Egypt an overwhelming majority (80%) thinks that divorced women are mistreated (a great deal, 38%; some, 42%), though interestingly a substantially lower number (48%) perceive this level of discrimination of widows," says, a respected global consortium of research centers from 25 nations (23 June, 2008).

Statistics prove, a greater percentage of citizens in Egypt today see marriage and women's rights under a very tight lens of societal rules and regulations. Others, like journalist, Youmna Mokhtar, see the limits of "acceptable" roles in Egypt placed constantly, and without merit, on the shoulders of women as the "barriers" to a better society.

As Mokhtar describes her recent group discussions, "Later many men joined [my] group and presented superficial cliché comments in which they blamed women for being unmarried. One man said that "girls are too romantic and they want to marry a knight or someone who looks like a movie star."

The idea goes further than simply marriage. The group addresses the discrimination against divorcees as well as unmarried women. It attempts to show the error in society's obsession with social patterns.

"People treat unmarried woman with pity all the time, praying for then to get a good man and a good home, very similar to the way they treat the disabled: with prayers and pitiful eyes," said Asma Abdel Khalek, a 30-year-old single Egyptian woman.

"In reality, women are viewed as dependents whose primary duty is to the home and the family," said a May 2008 EUROMED study on cultural perceptions of women's productive and reproductive roles in Egypt.

Youmna Mokhtar revealed that a number of people, women and men, are increasingly excited about the idea of Spinsters for Change, which has them thinking of targeting a larger audience outside the Internet. The group is planning meetings to share their experiences and hold lectures to discuss the merits of marriage in order to re-examine why people "get married in the first place."

"The label [of a'anis] shames those who fall under it no matter if it was her decision not get married or it just happened. Either way, why shame her?" explained Mokhtar, on woman's right to choose marriage.

"Another important message we try to deliver to society is please leave the a'anis alone. Let her be and don't pity her," added Fairouz Omar, an Egyptian educational and social advisor for the group.

Joseph Mayton is a Cairo-based journalist whose work regularly appears in the Middle East Times, World Politics Review and other region-focused publications.
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