By Osama Diab
For Egyptian marriage offices, the search for profit has replaced the search for a perfect union.
It was a story of would-be love gone horribly wrong. Alaa El Din Mahmoud went to Al-Alamiya marriage office to find a suitable wife. The office made him a match, Mahmoud proposed and she said yes. He bought her gold, he bought her gifts, but every time he tried to talk about actually getting married, she evaded the topic. Finally the suitor sought help from lawyer Mohamed Konsouh. Together, they discovered that the woman was already married to the owner of the marriage office.
“The owner of the office listed his own wife as a potential partner for his customers until one of the customers got involved in a relationship with her,” Konsouh says.
Matchmakers, both formal and informal, have existed for as long as the concept of marriage has been around. But modern marriage offices have seemingly strayed far from the path of traditional matchmaking, often arranging temporary summer marriages for wealthy Arab tourists, or serving as a sort of immigration service by promising to match clients with partners of dual citizenship.
Aside from diminishing the sanctity of the act of marriage, it seems that the profit potential in this industry has led many businesses to take advantage of their more socially and economically vulnerable clients. Given the somewhat secretive nature behind this business, it can be difficult to determine which offices are legitimate and up front about exactly what services or partnerships will be arranged and which are promising something they can't deliver in an effort to make a quick profit.
In the Al-Alamiya case, the misdemeanor court of Heliopolis sentenced the marriage office owner Abdel Naser Attia Abdel Kawy and his wife Thoraya Ref'at Hamed to one year in jail for fraud and using fraudulent means to achieve material gains; the victim was awarded LE 5,001 in compensation.
Other potential clients have had similar experiences with matchmakers. A 26-year-old journalist, looking for a husband who would be understanding of her long hours and occasional nights away from home, says she turned to a marriage office because it is difficult to find a man who shares her passion about her job.
The journalist, who declined to give her name because her job is in the public eye, says that she thought a marriage office would function like an online dating website or the matchmaking offices in American and European countries. “My only criterion was that I wanted to set rules for the person I am going to marry, demanding [that he] never comment or disagree with my work requirements,” she says.
It turned out that the matchmaking service was more interested in their own criteria than in hers. “I went into this office and found a [male] reception[ist] interrogating me with bizarre questions and getting trivial, insignificant data from me that they're going to use in God knows what. It turned out to be a scam.”
al-Waleed al-Adel is the owner of Universal Marriage Office, the only marriage office that is closely supervised by the government and certified by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. Universal has been in business for 14 years and also has the approval of the Grand Mufti of Egypt. al-Adel advises people to scrutinize the way the offices advertise their services to avoid scams.
“We show all the applicants our official documents and give them receipts with an official stamp,” says al-Adel. “They should feel okay to ask for the documents that show the legal status of the marriage office.”
Also an English literature professor and radio and TV host for shows addressing social topics, Al Adel says Universal Marriage Office tries to provide a social service rather than simply make money.
“We are a charity organisation and we, for example, help single mothers, among other services, by giving them skills that would help them make money legally rather than resorting to crime or stealing to survive.”
Since economic difficulties are often a barrier to marriage, Universal teaches poor men willing to get married skills that will enable them to make money and support their future families.
“Our scope of work is family welfare, but one might ask what does matchmaking have to do with family welfare. The answer is that we care about the family's welfare even before the family starts,” explains al-Adel. “Therefore, we do our matchmaking from a socially conscious approach and we do everything that is in our power to facilitate marriage, to reduce the unaccepted forms of marriages that have spread in society lately.”
A good last resort?
Within a few seconds of the doorbell ringing at al-Nil for Marriages, a young woman opens the door and once the visitor cites the reason for coming, she invites the client inside and explains how to apply for a partner. The marriage seeker pays an initial application fee of LE 100 and then an additional LE 25 per match. al-Nil promises to find the applicant a life partner on his or her first visit to the office.
Some clients are looking for a partner, but not necessarily for life. Islam not only prohibits premarital sex, but also encourages marriage as early as possible to prevent Muslim youth from fornicating. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “when a man marries, he has fulfilled half of his religion, so let him fear Allah regarding the remaining half” (narrated by Anas).
Articles 274 and 275 of Law no. 58 of 1937 criminalises adultery (sex between a married person and someone other than their spouse) for both men and women, punishable by a sentence of up to two years in prison, says Konsouh. The religious punishment for fornication or adultery can be a lot more severe than the civil punishment: the Qur'an says unmarried women and men who have sex should be flogged with 100 stripes in front of a group of believers; the prescribed punishment for adulterers is death by stoning.
In addition to being prohibited by Islam, premarital sex and relationships are also considered extremely taboo, especially for women, by society as a whole. With such societal and religious constraints, marriage is the only acceptable means of having a partner or engaging in a sexual relationship.
Economics also plays a factor. Marriage offices capitalise on this by advertising potential partners who have both wealth and dual citizenship: highly attractive qualities to those trying to travel or work abroad.
“Marriage to foreigners is a fraudulent behaviour to obtain legal documents that would allow the person to travel, [and escape his] daily suffering,” says Nabil Abdel-Fattah, head of the Sociological Research Unit at the al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. He adds that deteriorating standards of living have led to a return of the ‘khawaga complex', where people perceive anything foreign as better than anything Egyptian. “This has happened because of the feeling of being held back and the wide gap between us and the developed world,” says Abdel-Fattah.
Not all applicants use marriage offices to find a wealthy mate, a ticket out of the country or a temporary summer arrangement; some really are hoping to find a compatible life partner. Zeinab Abdel-Metawakel, a 45-year-old government official, tried to consult a marriage office in hopes of finding an “understanding husband” after a divorce.
“I'm a woman and I have needs. I have been divorced for 12 years and that's a very long time for a woman to stay without a man,” she says. “It's not easy to find a partner here in Egypt, especially when you are divorced, and I thought that a marriage office that could arrange for me to meet a decent man would be the best idea.”
The kind of marriage she wanted was apparently not what the office was offering. She was quick to change her mind after being asked questions such as whether she was a virgin (and if not, if she would have an operation to restore her virginity). Another question put to her: If her husband requested a divorce, would she agree to it peacefully, without legal trouble?
“Once the [woman in the office] started asking me these questions, I felt disgusted, denigrated as a woman,” Abdel-Metawakel says, “and I regretted going to that place.”
A rise in Islamic conservatism that restricts interaction between men and women may be at least partially responsible for the growing popularity of marriage offices, says Abdel-Fattah. Before 1980, the country was arguably, at least in urban areas, considerably more liberal.
“The emergence of the new political radical Islamic movements in the late 1970s, the Egyptian mass migration to conservative oil-producing countries of the Gulf, [and] the spread of the veil changed Egyptian values regarding family and marriage,” says Abdel-Fattah. “The focus of these groups was on the female body and veiling it. Then, instead of love, friendship and respect, marriage became a means of reproduction and a legitimate framework for sexual relations.”
Abdel-Fattah compares marriage offices to the bygone role of ‘el-khatba' (matchmaker), a woman who would find suitable partners for people, usually from the same neighbourhood or area. She would keep a small database of ‘good' men and women willing to get married, carrying around their pictures to show to potential partners. The matchmaker's role, the analyst says, was more limited during the 1950s to 1970s, when a liberal society allowed women greater freedom to mingle with men at universities and work.
While some may view modern marriage offices as society taking a step backward, others point to matchmaking services in the West, especially those based on the internet, as positive examples of companies helping people fill social needs. Gihan Abou Zeid, a human rights researcher and consultant for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), cautions against this sort of comparison, saying that marriage offices may also exist in the West, but the reasons that people there use them are quite different.
“In Egypt, such offices are taking advantage of the conservative climate, while in the West [they serve] people who may be [busy] and don't have time for meeting others, or people who have psychological issues and are not able to take the initiative themselves,” Abou Zeid says. “Another difference is that such services in the West don't arrange marriages. They just bring people together and then they decide how it goes for themselves.”
Lined with shops, restaurants, cafes and hotels, Gameat el-Dowal el-Arabia Street in Mohandiseen is a summer haunt for Gulf tourists. At 2am, it's not uncommon to hear the giggles of teenage girls playing with fireworks while adults sit smoking shisha and watching the crowd. Away from this family setting, nightclubs in five-star hotels and on the Pyramids Road cater to Arab men who prefer to spend their vacation throwing cash at belly dancers and who often seek temporary wives to entertain them.
This spells profit for matchmaking services, which post ads directed toward local women on lampposts and walls, in public transportation and newspapers, offering Arab men for marriage.
“Style for Serious Marriages: Find the best life partner in the only office in Egypt where 22 marriages and six marriages to Arabs and different nationalities have been completed successfully in just one month,” reads a classified ad in Al-Waseet advertiser. “We are the future of marriage and matchmaking between people from all over the world.”
While these ads imply that the arrangements are lifetime commitments, they are often seeking to provide their rich Arab clients with a legal and religiously permissible cover for summer sex. Although prostitution exists, it is illegal, so those who want to engage in sexual relations need a front to keep the eyes of the authorities away and avoid (technically) violating Islamic law.
Marriage offices have gained a reputation for arranging informal unions that provide temporary, legal partnership status. One of the most common is the ‘urfi‘ marriage, in which the couple signs a secret marriage declaration. Most hotels and many landlords demand proof of marriage before allowing an Egyptian to stay in the same room with a partner; the urfi contract gives the couple just enough legitimacy.
These summer flings are not as harmless as they sound. Since urfi marriages are unregistered, and thus not legally recognised, women have no rights to protect themselves or their children from being left to fend for themselves. “Urfi marriage is a way of satisfying needs in a way [the couple] thinks is legitimate,” says Konsouh. “[But] what if the urfi marriage results in pregnancy? Will the man bear the responsibility and acknowledge the child or just evade the problem and escape, which is what happens in most cases?”
The Combating Violence Against Women project, a survey carried out by the National Council for Women and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), looked at the ramifications of temporary unions. Among them is the “summer marriage, where a low-income family marries a young daughter off to a wealthy Arab tourist in return for a bride price. In the typical scenario, the man divorces the girl at the end of his visit.”
Abou Zeid, who contributed to the study, calls summer marriages “despicable”. She explains, “It is usually arranged by the family without the girl's consent, [as] a deal between the old Khaleeji man and the brother or the father of the girl. This is almost a case of body selling, and it's usually a short-term marriage with a decided price.”
For impoverished families, the financial payoffs are often more attractive than the sanctity of their daughters.
Marriage offices are well aware of this allure of escaping poverty through marriage. El-Maleka (Queen) Marriage Office advertises in the Giza-Shubra metro cars frequented by masses of young, underprivileged men on the way to their schools or jobs. “We find you a suitable life partner on the first visit, all ages and all levels,” the El-Maleka sticker reads. “Unmarried, divorced women and widows with a house for living. Ladies and businessmen holding two nationalities for traveling and residency.”
Matchmaking ads emphasise promises of wealth or better living conditions with words such as “businessmen”, “Arabs”, “aristocrats” and “civilised”, reflecting how marriage today is increasingly perceived as one of the few means of mobility in a society where social class is very significant.
In the process, the rite of marriage has lost much of its sanctity. These days, rather than finding a loving relationship meant to last a lifetime, it appears more important to check off the boxes: find a willing partner for sexual relations, gain access to money and status, and achieve a desirable level of mobility and social acceptance. While some offices may legitimately offer the opportunity to find love, it appears that many companies are taking advantage of their more vulnerable clients' dreams, marketing a service that often ends up being nothing more than a scam.