Egypt’s Spinsters Fight Against Society Stereotypes

The definition of family in ancient Egypt may not have anything to do with marriage as we know it today.
The definition of “family” in ancient Egypt may not have anything to do with “marriage” as we know it today.

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.




Marriage is under public and private scrutiny today in Egypt. A 5:13 min news video by NEW TV Beirut, released by LINKTV Mosaic Jan 2008


An Analysis of Decision-Making Power among Married and Unmarried Women – Muzamil Jan and Shubeena Akhtar, Institute of Home Science – University of Kashmir, KREPublishers, 2008

World Public Opinion on the Treatment of Widows and Divorced Women,, June 2008

Women’s Movement in Egypt – With Selected References to Turkey – Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper Number 5, UNRISD – United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, April 2002

Role of Women in Economic Life – Women’s Economic Rights in the South Mediterranean Region – A Comparative Analysis of Law, Regulations, and Practice, EUROMED, May 2008


WNN correspondent, MANAR AMMAR, is an Egyptian freelance journalist and translator. Her work has been published in The Daily News Egypt and All Headline News (AHN). She is a professional translator, having worked on a number of international projects in the region. JOSEPH MAYTON, Women News Network – WNN journalist based in Cairo, has also written for this report. He is currently a correspondent for Middle East Times. His contributions are published regularly in The Middle East Magazine, The Media Line, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and Newsweek Turkey, among other publications.

Lys Anzia, of WNN, has also contributed to this special report.


Additional sources for this article include: EUROMED, The Program on International Policy Attitudes a the University of Maryland, Freedom House, USAID, Human Rights Watch, Cairo University- Faculty of Archeology, Institute of Home Science – University of Kashmir, Daily News Egypt, Bibliotheca Alexandrina and The Annenberg Foundation, Candice Goucher, Charles LeGuin, and Linda Walton (“Ordering the World: Family and Household,” from In the Balance: Themes in Global History, Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998).

©Women News Network – WNN


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