Historians agree that the idea of the shabka, a present given to a bride from the bridegroom, usually jewellery and especially engagement and wedding rings, dates back to the ancient Egyptians. The drawings on the walls of some ancient Egyptian temples are proof.
The idea of the wedding ring came from the belief that the circle of a ring is a symbol of eternal love. A bride’s ring was usually made of reeds or papyrus, as was the custom of the ancient Egyptians. Other ancient cultures imitated the idea, but with alterations to suit them.
The Romans used the tradition to indicate the love between a married couple, coming up with the idea of a wedding ring made from silver or gold. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance era in Europe, new details were added, such as different designs or inscriptions and precious stones.
However, gold rings like other pieces of gold jewellery have been becoming more and more expensive recently, threatening the continuation of this ancient custom. The liberalisation of the currency exchange market and the floating of the Egyptian pound in 2016 have contributed to the rise in the price of gold.
Prices recorded a 37 per cent increase from 2016 to 2020, as the price of a gram of 21 carat gold rose from LE500 to about LE685. From 2020 to early 2022, gold prices increased by 31.4 per cent, after the price of a gram increased to about LE900.
Prices went up further in the beginning of June, rising 37.7 per cent with the price of a gram of 21 carat gold jumping to about LE1,240.
This month, the price of a gram is about LE1,650 and the price of a kg about LE1,423,375 after the second devaluation of the Egyptian pound. The dollar is now at around LE24.6 to the pound, and this too has had an effect on the price of gold, making it more and more difficult for the traditional shabka wedding gifts to be provided to Egyptian brides.
Professor of jurisprudence at the College of Islamic and Arab Studies at Al-Azhar University in Cairo Ahmed Karima told Shabbek news that marriage gifts are part of the culture of people across the world and are not just confined to Arabs or Muslims.
After the advent of Islam, the custom was to present a gift to the bride, Karima said, though this was not jewellery or gold. Some grooms used to offer clothes or perfumes. Gold could be a gift or part of a bride’s dowry as some Egyptians do today.
“I used to buy gold, but now I don’t buy it for myself because it is so expensive. I buy gold presents for my relatives, but I have to save up for months to buy a small piece like a gold earring for a newborn baby girl,” commented Marwa, a lawyer living in Faisal City.
“I buy gold coins as much as I can, as it is a way of investing money because the price of gold always increases,” said Hadya, a resident of Mohandessin in Cairo.
“Some of my relatives could afford to buy a shabka gift for LE100,000, while others could only buy a gold ring for their brides because that was all they could afford,” said Amal who lives in Giza and was shopping in the Mashabek area.
“It all depends on the budget you have.”
It is for this reason that initiatives are being launched today to help young men considering marriage to marry either without shabkas of gold or to buy symbolic gifts instead for their brides.
MARRIAGE WITHOUT GOLD: Galal Rabie is one of the co-founders of Zawag Bidoun Dahab, or “Marriage without Gold”, which aims at promoting marriage without increasing financial burdens.
“The idea emerged in 2016 when I was talking to colleagues at work about marriage. I was surprised that the price of a gram of gold had reached LE430 and was still going up. I was even more surprised at the extravagance that exhausts young people, given the high prices of dowries,” Rabie said.
“I wanted to reach out to the parents of these young people, so I came up with the idea of the initiative which was first called “A Burden-less Marriage without Gold”.
Rabie coordinates the initiative from his home in Beni Sweif governorate, the idea being to ease the burden on the shoulders of young people at a time when the phenomenon of the reluctance to marry has become noticeable in many societies.
“One of the reasons is the young man’s lack of responsibility and desire for greater freedom away from marital obligations. In Western societies, some people prefer to live with their partner outside marriage. This is not acceptable in Eastern societies,” Rabie said.
For this reason alone, it was necessary to make life easier for young men considering marriage and to work against the phenomenon of young people dropping the idea of marriage altogether in order to dodge the financial burdens that come with it.
“The impact of the economic aspects and the inability of young men to meet the demands of the bride’s family due to the high dowry are among the reasons that lead to their reluctance to marry,” he said.
According to Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) figures, in 2019 marriage rates in Egypt decreased by 25 per cent before slightly recovering in 2021.
“The aim of our initiative is to talk about the desire of young people to marry in affordable conditions,” Rabie said, adding that they talk to parents and the residents of every town and alley they can find. They also want to correct the misconceived notions of the parents of a bride who may want an extravagant and luxurious shabka that is beyond an average young man’s budget.
“Just five or six days after the campaign started, I received many encouraging messages. People started talking about it, and step by step we will find a solution,” Rabie said, adding that his group now works in the Beni Sweif, Minya, Daqahliya, Sharqiya, Giza, Alexandria, Qena, Assiut, Sohag, Gharbiya, and Arish governorates.
“Some 23 conferences have been organised in different governorates, and more than 27 marriages have been formalised solely as a result of the initiative,” he said.
A solution to the financial burdens suffered by young men does not mean that the rights of young women are ignored. “We are preserving a bride’s right to write down the amount of gold agreed upon in the marriage certificate, while accepting a small gift from the groom before marriage. At the same time, the bride’s family reduces the rest of the costs,” he added.
It is also not just a male-oriented initiative. There are a lot of women in the initiative, often selected through social media. They even choose women as coordinators for each governorate they work in, Rabie said.
“I hope that we succeed for the sake of young people who wish to marry, but are unable to fulfil the exaggerated marriage requirements that burden them. The idea of the initiative is to ease the burden on each young man who wishes to marry,” he said.
“Given the current financial circumstances of most young people, I think that initiatives like ‘Marriage without Gold’ are doing a good job in terms of raising people’s awareness about being reasonable when it comes to dowries and presents for brides. Some people ask for three jewellery sets for their daughters, which is too much really,” said Nada, the mother of two boys living in Giza.
“We plan to continue our campaigning from city to city, from village to village, and from house to house to make marriage easier for everyone,” Rabie concluded.
POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS: “Nowadays customers mostly buy gold bars,” said Mohamed Gamal, a gold shop owner in Giza. “In some cases, they buy old gold pieces that are cheaper for their personal use or just to keep them. They usually seek the pieces that weigh the least,” he added.
“Customers from different financial backgrounds buy gold. Anyone who has money buys gold to hedge against fluctuations in the value of money.”
Gamal said that some couples buy large amounts of gold, “but the people who buy shabka mostly buy wedding rings and other rings for the bride. Only around one per cent buy full jewellery sets.”
“Half my customers seek jewellery that can preserve its value and increase in value with time,” he added. Customers from rural areas prefer 21 carat gold, while those in urban areas prefer 18 carat gold. People from the upper-middle class and above prefer diamonds.
The solution for the high prices in Gamal’s opinion is “a stable dollar exchange rate that will give a stable price for gold.” He said the high demand for gold coins and bars is also increasing the price of gold.
“The price of a gram of gold is supposed to be LE1,250 instead of LE1,650, for instance, the first being the official price announced by the Central Bank of Egypt. We want to deal at the official price, not the one associated with the US dollar. People feel that the value of the currency is decreasing, and so they are buying gold as a hedge,” Gamal concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly