On Wedding Nights and Honeymoons in Contemporary Egypt
Writing this piece has been somewhat of a challenge. The nuances of cultural traditions and customs related to marriage and wedding nights in Egypt today are not easy to describe. Like many of our social traditions, these customs are evolving, but the innovations and subtle transformations that are taking place reflect two very different trends. The result is that old traditions and customs are being pulled in two opposite directions simultaneously. Another important point is that people continue to observe the form of traditional customs, even when the actual basis behind them has been drastically modified.
The Source of Tradition
Socially and culturally, much of Egypt's rural population and a considerable part of its urban population remain steeped in ancient tradition. Many contemporary Egyptian marriage traditions date back to ancient Egypt where marriage was both a civil and legal relationship. Over time, these traditions have been modified by a series of cultural and religious intrusions (Greek, Roman, Christian and Muslim) and by the influences of our modern era. The contemporary Egyptian perception of marriage, and how it is celebrated, are a product of all of these elements combined.
In most ancient societies, including ancient Egypt, marriages were arranged by the families of the bride and groom. This is still true in Egypt today where parental consent is of primary importance. Marriage contracts in ancient Egypt were drawn up between the bride’s father and her prospective husband, although the bride often signed the contract too. They spelt out the rights and duties of the couple to be married, were signed by three officers and registered by a ‘priest’. A standard Egyptian marriage contract, dating back to 219 BC, contained the following:
- The date (the year of the reign of the ruling monarch)
- The contractors (future husband and wife)
- The names of both sets of parents
- Husband’s profession
- The scribe who drew up the contract
- The names of the witnesses*
The ancient tradition of the groom's family proposing to the bride continues to be the norm in Egypt, and the official steps toward marriage remain very similar: the suitor and his family visit the bride’s family to ask for her hand in marriage, and to discuss the terms of the marriage. After the two families come to an agreement, they fix a date for the engagement. When the home of the new family is ready, a date is set for the wedding. Muslim and Christian Egyptians share the same values concerning the importance of family involvement and approval.
Almost all Egyptian families observe the formalities described above. This can be misleading to the foreign observer. The fact is that the steps towards marriage remain the same even when the choice of the partner, the timing of the wedding and other details are not decided by the family. A couple who decide to get married will normally inform their respective families - and then the official process begins. The symbolic ‘family negotiation’ is essential even when the marriage is not really an ‘arranged marriage’ at all. The actual reality of how marriage takes place may be changing, but people still insist on maintaining the traditional forms – which often are completely superfluous.
Male – Female Interaction
The degree of intermingling of the sexes varies greatly between rural and urban areas, and between different ‘social classes’. In Egyptian cities, for example, young people meet one another at work, universities, schools, clubs and other public or private places. This is definitely rarer in the Egyptian countryside - especially in the south where people (Muslims and Christians) are generally more conservative. Normally, the engagement period allows couples to get to know one another, and breaking off an engagement is both perfectly acceptable and quite common. Nevertheless, there are still cases where a couple (more especially the woman) is forced to marry against their wishes.
Strong differences also exist as to what is acceptable in terms of interpersonal behavior between men and women in the private sphere. Normative changes resulting from the influence of Western ideas and the spread of mass education have promoted Western family values in certain social circles where it is perfectly normal to date, even for teenage girls who (in these circles) are considered too young to marry. For most urban (and some rural) middle class families, it is absolutely normal for boys and girls to meet in groups in public places.
The Wedding Night
Nonetheless, sexual promiscuity is considered unacceptable behavior for both genders in all Egyptian social sectors. Furthermore, while men or boys may be reprimanded, sexual promiscuity among women or girls is an extremely serious matter. Men may sometimes attempt to portray themselves as “moral” when proposing marriage so that they are eligible to marry a ‘respectable girl’ and because of the common belief that past behavior predicts future behavior, but the common assumption is that all brides will be virgins on their wedding night.
Historically, bridal virginity was prized in many cultures. A young woman was expected to maintain her chastity until she was deflowered on her wedding night. In some of these cultures, this led to the ancient custom of showing a bloodstained cloth on the wedding night as “proof”* of the bride’s virginity. Incredibly, this custom is still practiced in some Egyptian villages to this day. Relatives of the bride and the groom actually sit outside the newlywed couple’s room on the wedding night waiting for the bloody bed sheet to be exhibited. One version of this custom requires that a midwife (daya) follow the couple into their bedroom and proceed to deflower the bride using a clean white handkerchief that is then paraded before the assembled guests, whereupon the bride’s mother starts singing and is joined by all the women present.
Since Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country, and because of the widespread view of Islam as a religion which subjugates women and limits interaction between the sexes, readers may understandably jump to the conclusion that this wedding night custom is an Islamic one. Islam, like most other religions, prohibits sexual intercourse outside of marriage – for both men and women. However, the custom described is as common among extremely conservative Coptic Christians as it is among extremely conservative Muslims. It is simply a cultural manifestation of the patriarchal organization of Egyptian society.
In Egypt, as in the rest of the Arab world, descent is traced through the male line. A woman remains a permanent member of her father’s family, keeping her father’s name even after she is married and is incorporated into her husband’s family. Thus any ‘dishonorable actions’ she may have committed before marriage traditionally affect her father’s family, while any involvement in an extramarital relationship threatens to dishonor both her father’s and her husband’s family. Again, this is true for Christians, as well as for Muslims.
The essential requirements for a valid Muslim marriage are the same all over the world:
- consent of the wife;
- consent of the legal guardian;
- two legal witnesses;
- payment of the dowry (mahr) by the husband to the wife;
- public announcement of the marriage.
Although all Muslim marriages must include these legal components, the customs and traditions related to Muslim marriages vary widely from one region or culture to another, and the various culture-specific practices incorporated into marriage are not all necessarily in line with Islamic values. The custom of showing ‘proof’ of a bride’s virginity is one example of such a practice. It is not rooted in Islam, nor does it reflect its values. I am sure it does not reflect the values of Christianity either. This practice is no longer the norm in urban or rural Egypt, but it does still take place in remote parts of the country.
Nevertheless, it is still believed that a bride must be a virgin on her wedding night. In most educated, or ‘westernized’ families, proving that the bride is a virgin has never been an issue – but that doesn’t mean that people don’t assume, or pretend to assume, that she is.
In reality, sex before marriage is more common than is usually admitted by most Egyptians. Pre-marital sex, at least in Cairo and other large cities, is increasing.
Starting in the late 1960’s, declining economic opportunities for men, the rise of the number of women joining the work force, and the drastic increase in the cost of marriage led to a rise of the age at first marriage. Young couples in Egypt are expected to accumulate sufficient resources before they marry to set up their own household - a radical departure from the not so distant past when many couples began married life as part of an extended household. Despite the trend toward later marriage, traditional notions about the appropriate age for women to marry (early 20’s or late teens) remain rigid. The result is that girls are betrothed early, but engagement periods have become longer. This is one reason why pre-marital sex is on the rise.
A previously unheard of phenomenon has also become quite widespread among young people in Egypt in recent years: secret common-law (urfi) marriage. This consists of a simple contract drawn up between the two partners and signed by two witnesses – supposedly fulfilling the Islamic requirements for a valid marriage. It is largely used by young people to circumvent the prohibition of pre-marital sex, though the option is not available to Christians. Since it is not registered at a government office, this type of ‘marriage’ has no legal status. It is also temporary in nature. The simple act of tearing up both copies of the contract is enough to dissolve the marriage. Common-law marriages are used to circumvent vice laws, and have become a cause for growing concern among both government and religious officials. The religious, as opposed to legal, legitimacy of this type of marriage is debatable. For most Muslim theologians a urfi marriage is not valid unless it is publicly announced.
To recapitulate, because time-honored traditions and symbols are so essential to most Egyptians, evolving customs related to marital intimacy are almost unacknowledged by society. Arranged marriages are no longer the norm, but everyone continues to honor the custom of ‘family negotiation’. Although pre-marital sex remains the exception (particularly among women), it certainly does take place and is increasing. Still, society will not accept this change. While the practice of parading ‘proof’ of bridal virginity has almost disappeared, it is still widely believed that a woman should be a virgin on her wedding night.
The normative changes in inter-personal behavior between men and women described above can be qualified as a departure from conservatism and tradition. At the same time, a new type of change is presently taking place in traditional Egyptian marriage customs. Equally a departure from Egyptian tradition, this is a trend toward extreme social conservatism imported from the conservative Islamic cultures of the Gulf States by returning Egyptian migrant workers in the late 1960’s.
External manifestations of religious observance have increased (for some women this means wearing a veil), and the form of social observances, including marriage, is changing to incorporate imported religious (Islamic) practices. Over the past ten years, it has become more and more common for weddings to take place in mosques, for example. This custom is foreign to Egyptian tradition, where marriage contracts have traditionally been signed at the home of the bride. The hypocritical use of common-law marriage is also a manifestation of this growing concern with religion.
Nevertheless (and despite the claim that these customs are in disagreement with the simplicity of the Islamic spirit), both the engagement celebration and the wedding reception following official Muslim and Christian marriages remain much the same as in ancient Egypt. These are always exuberant family affairs. Whether the couple is of modest means or wealthy, city-bred or country-bred, Egyptian engagements and weddings are resplendent with enough food, music, performance and ceremony to create what is always a spectacular social event.
The word for honeymoon in Arabic is “shahr el assal” which literally means “the month of honey” (a month is one moon cycle). Honeymoons are popular among Egyptian urban upper and middle class families. Like everywhere else in the world, where a couple goes on their honeymoon depends on their finances and the time they can afford to take off from work.
In the Egyptian countryside (where at least 60% of the population lives), newlyweds rarely go on honeymoons. Traditionally, the young couple stays home for the first seven days of their marriage. On the seventh day after the wedding, the bride's relatives and friends visit her bearing gifts and large amounts of food and supplies (symbolic provisions for her new home), called the ‘aashyan’, an Arabic word derived from the verb "to live". This is was also an ancient Egyptian custom. From this day onward, the new bride and groom are expected to provide for themselves - though secure in the knowledge that they can always count on their families’ support.
I met my husband at work when I was twenty-eight years old. He was thirty-five, divorced, with a three-year old daughter. He was not the first man I had ever known. I was twenty-eight, after all. We went out several times and discovered we were in love a few months later. We decided to get married. I knew my parents wanted to see me married, but I also knew that my father might not like the fact that my friend was divorced, with a child. So I made sure my father knew all the facts before I told my husband he could come speak to my father. We followed the traditional steps after that. He came (alone since his parents lived in another city) and received official permission to marry me. A date was set for my parents-in-law to come to Cairo. They came, and, again, his father officially asked my father for permission for his son to marry me! A date was set for our engagement, another a few months later for the wedding. The marriage contract was signed at my home just before the wedding reception. My uncle, one of the two witnesses to the marriage, brought the contract into my room for me to sign (I was with female relatives, trying to get into my wedding dress).
After the wedding reception, my husband and I spent a night in a hotel in Cairo. The next morning we drove to Alexandria where we spent a few days at a quaint old hotel overlooking the sea. It was nice to get away from all the well-meaning relatives – and we both needed a rest before getting back to work. My husband and I had not waited for the wedding night to have sex – although I am sure that many people took it for granted that we had. We had spent a few days together in Greece long before we decided to get married, and for me that was our real honeymoon.
* Tour Egypt!. 01/13/2006. Springer, Ilene. “The Ancient Egyptian Bride”. 10/12/2007. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/bride.htm
* Reportedly, brides and grooms have been known to use the blood of animals or to prick their own fingers to provide the bloody “proof” needed.