Egyptian Spinsters and Old Maids Sitting Happily on the Shelf

I am a 21-year-old spinster.

Yes, a spinster at 21. In my country, although many many Egyptian women are delaying getting married until they’re in their mid-to-late twenties, society still looks at them with a critical, disapproving gaze.

“Men and women were made for one another. You are a sinister spinster.”

“Better a man’s shadow than that of a wall.”

Both are Arabic proverbs reiterated by mothers, aunties, grandmothers and even friends, the former meaning that women who don’t marry are labeled “spinsters,” and the latter meaning that any man is better than being single.

I hate the word spinster, as I’m sure any woman does. It’s definitely no female equivalent of bachelor. Wikipedia tells us spinsters have a reputation for:

Sexual and emotional frigidity, lesbianism, ugliness, frumpiness, depression, astringent moral virtue, and overly-pious religious devotion.

Nice. And in Egypt, where according to the latest statistics there are approximately 9-10 million spinsters over the age of 30, unmarried women are (alternatively) rejected, stigmatized, mocked, gossiped about, pitied and constantly reminded of what they’re missing out on.

Yomna Mokhtar. Image via AFP Cris Bouroncle, Middle East Times.

Yomna Mokhtar. Image via AFP Cris Bouroncle, Middle East Times.

Which is why 27-year-old Yomna Mokhtar’s facebook group Spinsters*/ Old Maids for Change is such a breath of fresh air. Mokhtar (pictured right) is a journalist at Al Yom al-Sabe’, a weekly Arabic newspaper, and she set up the group in May ’08. True, I don’t know how successful a Facebook group of 600 (and counting) trying to change the Egyptian mentality of “spinsters” is going to be, but at least it’s an effort. The group has a media spokesperson, a social advisor, a religious advisor, and a psychologist. Impressive.

The group logo (pictured below left) is of Bridget Jones, the thirtysomething London spinster the world has come to love. Bridget Jones at thirtysomething is an Egyptian women at twentysomething. The caption reads: Spinster: I think about how to put an end to it.

The group’s mission statement states they are:

The group's logo. Via Facebook.

The group's logo. Via Facebook.

A social movement that seeks to change the negative attitude towards every unmarried girl who finds herself facing two dead ends: either forced to get married to any man so she can get rid of the ‘spinster’ title that’s suffocating her, or maintaining her position, insisting on waiting until she finds the right guy and [in the meantime] dealing with the curses that society will throw at her.

We aren’t seeking to make men enemies […] nor are we calling on girls to boycott marriage. But we reject the idea that girls should get married under pressure from their families or societies or just to get rid of the title ‘spinster,’ [so they don't] come back to their families […] carrying the label ‘divorcée.’

Discussion topics on the group include When spinsterhood is a choice, We won’t wear hijab or pray taraweeh [supplementary] prayers for the groom, Latest list of the groom’s demands, etc.

The first articles about the group were written in October within days of each other at Al-Lawha Online and at Al-Arabiya (the latter with hundreds of fascinating comments that offer great insight into Egyptian psyche and an interesting choice of picture. Though I disliked Mokhtar saying she is against semi-arranged marriages, which she says turn women into “cheap commodities.”)

A couple of weeks later, Mokhtar wrote a sarcastic column in the newspaper she works at, criticizing society for pressuring her friend so much about getting married that said friend had a nervous breakdown.

A couple of days later, an Egyptian forum posted a Q & A with Mokhtar. She told them:

My goal is to change the image of the spinster in our society, encouraging the woman not to isolate herself from it, and ingraining [in her] the idea that making the world a better place is not only through marriage and producing babies, but in improving your community through the abilities God gave you.

Unfortunately, the Q & A wasn’t exactly the best I’ve ever read. The reporter (who happens to be a man) asked her: “Why do you have such a negative idea about spinsters?” (duh, it’s not her, it’s Egypt), “Why did you use the words ‘for change,’ which are used by political movements?” (conspiracy theory much?), “Does your movement rebel against the the idea of marriage?” and most infuriating of all:

Why don’t you try changing the image of the spinster by trying to fix the behavior of some women who have helped give spinsters a bad name?

Thankfully, she pwnd him:

Your question encapsulates exactly the view of society towards women whose marriage date was delayed, who look at her as the girl with a bad reputation, and this is the viewpoint we are fighting against. Especially since a lot of [unmarried] women […] hold the highest educational degrees and the highest positions. But no, society begrudges them their success and considers it a way of compensating for delaying marriage.

A couple of days later, The Daily News Egypt picked up on the story from the Arabic media. In the article, Mokhtar said she used the label ‘Spinsters’ in the group title though she’s against it, because “it is the term people use.”

I also believe that using a different label for unmarried women would just be ignoring the reality of the term. By using it, they’re trying, in some small way to “take it back.”

Two weeks after that article came out, the story made the Los Angeles Times, where the author interviewed Mokhtar and brought up two great points. One, that men are also joining the Facebook group, and two, that this is not the first time an Egyptian woman discussing the issues surrounding marriage does so online, with the first woman being the author behind the satirical blog wanna-be-a-bride.

[And I''m being kind of catty here, but this article's translation of the group's mission statement needs some serious work].

Then two days ago, The Agence France-Presse wrote about the group, finally snowballing it onto the global sphere. (English version and French version).

The article was pretty inclusive, and I particularly liked the fact it mentioned that marriage is an obligation for all Egyptians—Christians and Muslims alike. The author also interviewed a well-known sociologist, which gives Mokhtar’s opinions added weight, and stops anyone from brushing off her comments as the rantings of a bitter spinster. The author also pointed out that the group isn’t asking for the right to be single or crossing any of society’s “red lines.”

(Though I’m sure the fact that Mokhtar is veiled was very important to mention—you know, to prove that she’s not one of those morally decadent spinsters. As was adding that mass Islamic weddings are held with the aim of preventing “deviant” behavior (a.k.a., homosexuality and premarital sex), and not simply with the aim of helping those without funds get married).

Another French interview with Mokhtar was also published on the same day at Lepetitjournal with the title Spinster Girls: Objects of Mockery. My French is a little rusty, but as a journalist I loved the lead:

O la la! The poor girl! She’s still not married? But why? When will she start a family? She risks living the rest of her life alone, the poor girl!

And the comment: “Not getting married is an unforgivable mistake; refusing to marry a punishable crime!”

It was also a Q & A interview, and Mokhtar explained that Facebook is not enough for what the group wants to accomplish. In the future, they will be holding seminars to raise awareness and meetings where spinsters can talk about their experiences to their family in the presence of a psychologist.

I messaged Mokhtar on Facebook and asked her what she though of the media coverage thus far. She said:

I liked the western coverage more than the Arabic coverage, which I only dealt with superficially. [There's been] other coverage in other print newspapers like Al-Masa’ and Rose al-Youssef. One reporter asked me if the role of the movement was to improve the behavior of unmarried women who don’t get married because of their bad behavior. I think the problem is not about the media outlet as much as it is the journalist. A good journalist, whether western or eastern, produces a good article.

I am feeling so inspired now. My new title = empowered spinster. Hmm, not really working for me. Bachelorette?

*The Arabic word used, ‘Anis, has several meanings in Arabic but is socially understood to mean spinster/ old maid.

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