With financial burdens increasing for many in Egypt due to circumstances that began earlier with the floatation of the Egyptian pound and then extended to the Covid-19 pandemic, getting married has become more complicated even for the country’s middle classes.
In a bid to help out, seat of Islamic learning Al-Azhar in Cairo has launched an initiative called Yasero wa la Toasero (Facilitate and Don’t Complicate) that aims at facilitating marriage through raising the awareness of young people about to be married and their families about decreasing its costs, especially the dowries that are necessary in order to think about matrimony.
A shabka, or present of jewellery, usually gold, from the bridegroom to the bride, can reach LE25,000 to LE50,000, and the more precious the stones or diamonds that are used, the more one costs. The bridegroom pays a dowry that ranges from LE50,000 to LE70,000 in middle-class families, while it could be hundreds of thousands or even millions in the upper classes.
If a girl’s parents decide to organise an engagement party, it could cost them an average of LE10,000. However, most families do not organise engagement parties, but instead decide to split the costs of the wedding, which could cost from LE50,000 to LE120,000. The cost of the flat the bridegroom is required to buy could range from LE500,000 to LE800,000. It is the bride’s family that usually furnishes the flat, spending about LE100,000.
The bridegroom usually buys the wedding dress for his bride, which could cost from about LE50,000 to LE70,000. Renting one could cost LE500 for a simple dress to LE2,000 for a more elaborate one.
All these costs can add up, and as a result, various initiatives are working on raising people’s awareness about decreasing them and on helping young people considering marriage to understand it better.
“Yasero wa la Toasero is an initiative promoted by the Islamic Research Academy (IRA) at Al-Azhar University related to the real-life experiences of people and concerned with causes directly related to their lives. This is in line with directions given by Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb,” IRA Secretary-General Nazeer Ayad said.
“The main idea behind it is to build a strong and cohesive society that is able to upgrade the status of the Muslim family, focusing on the Muslim household and with the aim of social unity. This starts with facing the problem of expensive dowries that has prevailed for some time, resulting in many people being unwilling to marry because of increasing financial demands by both parties,” Ayad said.
He added that there were other problems that could appear, like issues in the relationships between couples after marriage because of financial burdens. “The family is the core from which an ideal society is built. It should be built using a moderate method without either excess or renunciation, so that there should not be too much attention paid to the financial side of marriage and neglect of the moral side of it,” he said.
The Al-Azhar initiative is being carried out through preachers of both genders in government institutions, mosques, clubs, and youth centres and is based on solidarity between families.
“Advice is given to young people and their families from people they know. It is suitable for all educational, cultural, financial, and intellectual levels,” Ayad said, adding that social-media campaigns have reached a large number of people, especially young people, with these being addressed always in the language they know. The campaign takes into consideration the social reality of people and their personal interests.
“The Islamic Sharia [law] and all its judgements are based on moderation without extravagance or renunciation. Islamic jurisprudence demands a bridegroom to pay a dowry to his future wife but not a sum that puts his household under pressure or that could result in consequences that may negatively affect the couple before or after their marriage in terms of dealing with life only through a materialistic perspective. This could affect the personalities of the generations to come, since it could make money their only goal in such a relationship, with the marriage then not taking into account the Sharia,” he said.
Assistant IRC Secretary-General for female preachers Elham Shahine said that the “initiative started last January as part of Al-Azhar’s plans for awareness campaigns aiming at tackling different family issues to obtain domestic and social security and peace and to eliminate negative habits such as the high dowries sometimes demanded by the parents of brides.
“The initiative was the idea of Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, who directed that there must be more social awareness about this important issue. He stressed that it is very important for the family to be cohesive, and for all of us to return to the sound habits and behaviour of our forefathers and those we were brought up on in our deeply-rooted Eastern societies. We should put an end to the wrong actions that have been spreading lately, like attempts to copy many negative Western customs that do not match our values and traditions,” she said.
Shahine said the main aims of the initiative were to raise people’s awareness about marriage costs in general as well as solve the problem of the expensive dowries that has been growing in society.
“The initiative teaches people to apply the teachings of the Prophet Mohamed, which facilitate marriage as well as take into account the current expensive dowries that prevent the formation of families in legal form and could drive young people towards actions that are against the Sharia and proper social life,” she said.
“Yasero wa la Toasero aims at solving problems that could become dangerous issues and social problems that threaten the welfare of Muslim families and society in general. It also aims at stressing that an ideal family is one built on facilitation in matters of marriage by applying the teachings of the Prophet Mohamed, which guarantee building families on a sound basis around the concepts of affection and compassion between family members.”
According to Shahine, the initiative operates by showing people practical examples. It works through preachers who visit the different governorates to meet people face-to-face, as well as preachers who use online platforms to talk to the public via videos to raise awareness. Around 3,000 preachers are participating in the initiative, presenting many religious and psychological guidelines about marital life. Due to the current coronavirus outbreak, they are using the Internet as a platform to talk to the targeted groups and raise awareness.
UNDERSTANDING MARRIAGE: There were around 200,000 divorces in Egypt in 2017, according to a study conducted by the Ministry of Social Solidarity, or more than 500 a day, the majority, over 80 per cent, being among newlyweds.
“This is a huge number,” said Ayman Abdel-Aziz, coordinator of the Mawada (Cordiality) initiative launched by the ministry to raise awareness and educate young people about marriage in a bid to lower divorce rates.
The idea is to give those who are about to get married the skills they need to form stable families. As for those who are already divorced, Abdel-Aziz said there were 200 conflict-resolution offices affiliated to the family courts of the Ministry of Justice to help.
The awareness and training of those as yet unmarried or divorced cover the social, health, and religious aspects of family life and divorce. Staff in the marriage process, such as registrars, are also given courses to be able to deal with trainees.
“Last December, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi launched the Mawada online platform during the Youth Conference in Egypt,” Abdel-Aziz commented. “This is the first online platform in the Middle East specialising in raising the awareness of young people considering marriage and providing married couples with consultations open to everyone.”
The platform is monitored by experts in the fields of sociology, psychology, and religion, as well as celebrities like actor Rashwan Tawfik, actress Nashwa Mustafa, and TV presenter Shafki Al-Moneyeri. “Because of the current coronavirus pandemic, we are currently organising training sessions online. Last March, the number of applications we received was 695,472. This month, the site had over a million participants or views,” he said.
“We have launched 17 videos by psychologists teaching participants how members of a family should deal with each other and become a team and how a father and mother can make a positive atmosphere for their children at home. If children are brought up in an atmosphere full of conflicts, this can have a negative impact on their personalities and their ability to make decisions in the future,” he added.
According to Abdel-Aziz, studies have shown that the largest number of divorcees who participated on the platform were from the three governorates of Cairo, Giza, and Alexandria.
The training courses have been accredited by the Higher Education Council, and the awareness lectures are now a precondition for graduating, “so students are required to study subjects to raise their awareness about building a family before getting a degree,” he explained. “These new graduates will then be the nucleus of new and happy families.”
Each student is given a certificate from Mawada, and thus far “we have trained over 100,000 university students, and the percentage of applicants for training through our online platform is 200 per cent,” he added.
The project’s initial phase is now in full swing in Cairo, Helwan, and Ain Shams Universities in Cairo, as well as at the Universities of Port Said and Alexandria. “So far, we have organised 30 training courses for young people and have already trained 884 trainees during the pandemic from 27 governorates,” Abdel-Aziz said.
Participating in the process are trainers from the frontier governorates and the governorates of Upper Egypt, which was not easy before the platform started operating. They are mostly young people themselves, so they are able to convey the messages of the initiative to participants who are mostly also from the younger generations. The percentage of females is 63.6 per cent and the rest are males, he added.
Evaluation is important in order to find out how much a participant has learnt after finishing the course, with this feedback helping to develop the platform. “For instance, we have had participants asking for sessions that can prepare them for changes that occur to a partner after marriage, as well as videos that raise awareness about superstitions about marriage, like ‘the more children you have, the closer your husband will be,’” he said. Other materials help participants to learn how to financially organise their households, which can be another cause of trouble between a husband and wife.
“Before the beginning of the lockdown, we thought that one of two scenarios could occur: either the percentage of divorces would increase, or partners would have a chance to become closer. So, we prepared for the worst by preparing 17 videos that teach couples how to respect one another and how to put themselves into each other’s shoes in order to avoid problems,” he said.
The project’s Facebook page has been viewed by 3.5 million people, and it also has a YouTube channel and a radio programme, Bil-Mawada Nekamel Hayatna (With cordiality we go on with our lives), Abdel-Aziz said.
A BRIGHTER FUTURE: “I think the work that initiatives such as Yasero wa la Toasero and Mawada is doing is good in terms of raising people’s awareness about issues like the dowries that a bridegroom has to pay, which are more than any young man can afford,” commented Cairo resident Gamila Mohamed, the mother of two sons.
“It is very important for young couples to understand what marriage is before rushing into it. If our young people want a brighter future, they should not focus only on money when choosing a partner for themselves, but on ethics as well.
“In a month’s time, we will be organising a course for engaged couples to teach them how to respect each other better and how to communicate effectively with each other,” commented Abdel-Aziz.
“We will work on raising the awareness of the community in two ways. The first is concerned with building the individual, who is the building block of the family. As for the second, it is about dealing with any issues that can appear, such as rumours and destructive thoughts, including indifference,” Ayad said, adding that the initiative will be working with government institutions to reach all sectors of society to provide them with essential needs after the coronavirus pandemic ends.
“We also have plans to expand our social-media activities and to reach a larger audience on the local and international level. We have designed an English-language website to address those who do not speak Arabic, in addition to an Arabic website that was designed many years ago as part of plans to support the local and international message of Al-Azhar,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly