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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  • jessyz

    Marriage should be a special bond between two people who want to be married and happy together. A lot of women in Egypt are pressured to settle so they don’t have to carry the social stigma of a spinster and end up unhappy. This is also true for divorcees. I guess it does take strong women to stand up for themselves and tell the world we are going to wait until we are ready and until then we are not afraid to enjoy life and be who we are; strong, smart, productive and amazing.

  • Tom

    This is another example where you can only really be looked down on by society if you wake up every morning and choose to get on your hands and knees…

    Seriously, who is it doing the looking down? Are they people wose hoices in life you respect orant to follow?

    The coolest Egyptian girls I know are almost all single (or married “late”), and they all feel looked down on by the people around them – people who are not even a fraction as amazing as the “spinsters” are.

    Its like some scrawny little white guy on the basketball court, looking down on Micheal Jordan because he is black.

  • Rocio Vega

    I was just having this discussion with my girlfriends. We’re in our early twenties and are constantly asked about boyfriends and hearing the phrase, ‘when you get married…’ coming from our relatives.

    We took our frustrations in being called spinsters and turned it into a running joke about how we’ll be happy with our six cats and blue hair.

    To all my fellow ‘spinsters’ out there: We’re still fabulous, whether or not we’re married.

  • Broomstick

    oh DAMN! I’m 26 and single so I guess I’m a spinster too…. lmao

    the same stigma is also problematic for South Asian females (whether Muslim or Hindu) in the UK and overseas in the Indian subcontinent… in fact, it would seem that the word “spinster” and the stigma along with it, is prevalent almost everywhere, except here in the Western world (unless you’re the daughter of immigrants, that is).

  • just a Spinster

    Girls, this applies to every girls from Africa, Asia and Middle East :) not just Egypt.. at least egypt is talking about it, it’s good

  • SakuraPassion

    I feel like I can totally relate. Even here in the West it still seems that women are stigmatized for not getting married. Perhaps it’s because I live in the midwest, where women feel their main goal in life is to get married, and if they don’t they’ll become “old maids.”

    I think third wave feminists are also trying to reclaim the word “spinster.” I guess some people haven’t realized that women intentionally choose not to get married. Which is why I never really understood why they’re looked down upon.

  • Yusra

    Great post. I wasn’t aware of this anti-Anis movement online. I also didn’t know spinster was the English term. It sounds so unsexy and worse than the Arabic :/ Ethar you think Egy society considers you 3anis at 21? I think 24 or 25 and up is the new 3anis yeah?

    Mokhtar makes valid points and I hate the stigma (which is heightened for non-hijabis and ultra heightened for reasonably attractive, or stylish women) that women over 25 are “loose” but from an Islamic perspective, it makes absolute sense for women AND men to be married early. I’ve had men over 30 propose to me and I refused on the grounds that I know they ain’t virgins lmao, more to make a point than anything else. Like, I’d rather feel frigid than make out with someone just to get some, and sorry but I’m kinda convinced that waaaay more women than men share my view. THAT SAID, as a most of the time devout Muslima, I feel that pressure from myself and what I know to be right, regardless of society’s view. It’s only logical that sexual temptation becomes harder to resist when you grow into your womanhood or your manhood.

    Men from very conservative or religious family backgrounds are also pressured to marry and looked down upon when they are not (how many sheiks do you know of over 30 who are not married), but even then it’s not comparable to the female case.

    I think many more Muslim men and women would get married young if it were more practical, but many would rather wait to marry than live in their parents home while attending grad school,etc. And again, maybe I’m generalizing a little too much here, but from the female perspective, I think it has a lot more to do with finding the right person and being in the right place financially than playing around until your ready to settle down.

    I think this is the most contentious issue facing Muslim women-much more than the hijab-because it has the potential to alter every aspect of life: career, reputation, passion, children, parents, Freedom…I hate it.

  • Sobia

    This is also why so many “older” Muslim women are marrying non-Muslim men. I’ve known a few now who have chosen to marry non-Muslim men. A big part of this, I believe, is that a lot of Muslim men prefer young (early 20′s) women, regardless of their own age. Its also much easier to meet non-Muslim men as well.

    However, having said that, some of the friends in my life who always tell me that I’m not too old and that I have plenty of time to find a partner are Muslim guys. Or maybe its that I just surround myself with like minded people :)

  • Ethar

    @ Jessyz: Egyptian women are encouraged to settle not just so they can get rid of the spinster label, but because marriage is seen as the be all and end all—the ultimate aim of a woman’s life.

    @ Tom: lol at the scrawny white dude.

    @ Rocio Vega: Blue hair and six cats it is!

    @ Broomstick: You would think that since so many women are suffering from the label, we’d do something about it. Shouldn’t something become accepted the more prevalent it is?

    @ SakuraPassion: I’m guessing it’s because even if they understand some women choose not to get married, these women’s decision is seen as flawed, as in “poor women, they don’t know what they’re missing.” This also applies not only to marriage, but to childbirth.

    @ Yusra: Thanks! I was being a bit sarcastic with the 21-year-old spinster thing, I still have a few years to go before I become one =)

    Men over 30 can be virgins, just like women over 30 can be too. It depends on the person. In Egypt, men are getting married later and later because of the cost of marriage, check out this article In Egypt, love isn’t enough, which was written just last week .

    Let me give you my own generalization/ opinion here: I think that a lot of Egyptian women right now simply don’t want to ‘work hard’ at a marriage, or ‘grow’ together. Many would rather marry older, richer men than young men who still don’t have an apartment, are still starting out in their careers etc. Likewise, the men that reach 30-35 and are now rich enough to get married don’t want to marry their counterparts but young women in their twenties.

    @ Sobia: I think the phenomenon of Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men is definitely not an ‘Arab’ phenomenon as of yet, and relates more to Muslim women in western societies.

  • Ethar

    Possible related posts: Sell Fish People Should Die.

    lol, what?

  • Sobia

    @ Ethar:

    Yes, I was referring to a Western context. Sorry…I should have clarified that.

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  • Broomstick

    It’s sad because I WANT a Muslim husband, I have no interest in marrying a [non-Muslim] guy, but I am 26 and I am too OLD for Muslim guys… oh crap

    what am I supposed to do?!?!?!

    Time for me to book a flight to Dearborn, MI

    [This comment has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines.]

    Mod note: Broomstick, I know you didn’t mean it this way, but I removed the word “kaffir” because it’s taken on some very negative connotations when used by Muslims about non-Muslims. In the interest of keeping things “halal” (wink), I just substituted it with what I assumed you meant.

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  • miralilo

    nice talking guys .. but as a 26 single egyptian girl .. i’m saying that it is really very hard just to go through one day without having to face the consequences of choosing not 2 get married to any man that will provide me the appropriate social show window , especialy when your own families keep demanding that ..
    we need a real change of habits .. a difference in treating girls who are strong to risk staying alone for the rest of their lives .. i dont think that a facebook group is enough :S

  • Fatemeh

    lol @ Broomstick: I hear you, lady! I already joined the Facebook group! :D