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Thirty and Single: Coping With Delayed Marriage

20 Feb 2008 in

Diane Singerman is Associate Professor in the Department of Government at American University's School of Public Affairs.

In the Middle East, young people and their families devote financial resources for years to finance the costs of marriage. This is what I refer to as the “marriage imperative,” an emerging concept to redefine the way we view marriage and its economic impact on the social fabric of the region.

 Recent trends across the Middle East show that 25% percent of men marry between the ages of 30 and 40, while only a third marry before the ages of 25. This was very different a generation ago, when over 60% of men married before 30. In part, this is due to substantial efforts by international and national policymakers to reduce fertility and improve education, especially among women. However, a large -- yet often overlooked -- factor is due to the high financial costs of marriage particularly in an age of high youth unemployment.

While the high rate of youth unemployment and underemployment would be difficult for any country to bear, in Egypt and the larger Middle East, high unemployment in light of the “marriage imperative” is even more problematic. In many parts of the world, the norm is that young people and young married couples start out with little and then bit by bit build their financial future.

In the Middle East, the process is reversed: young people marry at a standard of living as high as they can afford, after saving for years, and securing a permanent job or good position that has “signaled” their marriage eligibility. The new home represents the pinnacle of the financial efforts of the groom, bride, groom’s and bride’s family and parents are deeply involved in finding and vetting an acceptable spouse. Norms determine who pays for what, and the resources needed to buy or rent housing, purchase furniture and appliances, jewelry, exchange a dower, and finance wedding celebrations are quite steep, across the economic spectrum.

A 1999 detailed national survey showed that the average costs of marriage in Egypt were US $6000 that year or four and a half times GNP per capita. A more recent study suggested that marriage costs had risen nominally by 25%. If aggregated, the sums circulating in the “marriage economy” dwarf US annual economic aid to Egypt and largely equal the value of tourist revenues and foreign labor remittances in Egypt (see graph below).

Further, a groom and his family from the lowest paid ranks of waged workers in our national study had to spend 100% of their earnings for seven years to accumulate their share of the marriage expenses; while the next quartile took five years to pay for their marriage costs (see graph below).

As a result, many young men and women are experiencing, “waithood” or a kind of prolonged adolescence as they wait for (good) jobs, wait for marriage and intimacy, and wait for full participation in their societies. Why is delayed marriage and ‘waithood’ difficult for young people?

Marriage in the Middle East is not only the route to adulthood but it is the only socially and religiously-acceptable way to engage in sexual activities. Sexuality is housed, so to speak, within the institution of marriage. Yet, can young people be expected to remain celibate until men marry in their late twenties or early thirties, and women in their mid-twenties?

I would love to hear from Egyptians who experience ‘waithood’ and the financial and social challenges of marriage. How can young people and their families overcome these challenges and what is the proper role of government and other actors in Egypt to improve this situation of youth exclusion?

For further detail on this topic and questions raised, please read my recent publication.

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