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Egyptian working women's perceptions of marriage.

Trends in work and marriage have shifted dramatically in Egypt, particularly since the 1960s. Women are getting married later than ever and, although work opportunities have stagnated recently, women are working outside the home more than they did historically. Learning about the relationship between work and marriage may be crucial for understanding a number of other phenomena related to gender roles, including trends in education and childbearing. Population Council demographer Sajeda Amin collaborated with Cairo-based researcher Nagah H. Al-Bassusi to explore how working women in Egypt view marriage and work.

Amin and Al-Bassusi analyzed national data published by the United Nations on long-term marriage trends and by Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) on labor force trends in 1988 and 1998. The Population Council developed a set of questions about young people that were incorporated into the 1998 survey, administered by CAPMAS and also conducted a qualitative study of young female wage workers. The CAPMAS surveys were nationally representative. The 1988 survey reached 28,286 individuals, 2,709 of whom were women between the ages of 15 and 24. The 1998 survey reached 23,997 individuals, 2,438 of whom were women between 15 and 24.

The researchers found that, in 1988, 22 percent of 15-19-year-old women and 57 percent of 20-24-year-old women were married. By 1998, those figures had declined to 11 percent and 44 percent, respectively. (Exploring longer-term trends, demographers have determined that the decline in the proportions who married at young ages began between 1966 and 1976.)

Concurrently, the CAPMAS data showed that the rate of employment has not increased, while educational attainment has. In 1988, 27 percent of women ages 15-24 were in school, and 29 percent of them were employed. In 1998, those figures were 38 percent and 26 percent, respectively. An increase in women working has remained elusive despite the implementation of economic policies, such as investing in the textile export industry, that observers believed would boost young women's employment. Women who do work, however, are working longer hours than they did in the past.

Changes in marriage expectations

Several analyses of marriage in Egypt have suggested that the number of material goods obtained by young couples in preparation for marriage has increased in recent years. Moreover, newly married couples are more likely to want to live in their own household after marriage, mandating additional setup costs, rather than accepting the less-expensive option of living with extended family. These rising aspirations may have been driven by labor migration of young Egyptian men to the Persian Gulf region. This migration has led to an increase in income that allowed such expensive tastes to develop despite the lack of economic opportunities locally.

Engagements at a relatively young age have remained common, but the length of engagements has increased in order to provide time for the accumulation of goods now seen by many young couples in Egypt as necessary for marriage. Women's employment is one way of meeting costs and building a dowry. "The society appears willing to accommodate a lot of waiting and bargaining to meet these goals," says Amin.

Working women's views

The qualitative study of young female wage workers conducted by the Population Council between 1998 and 2000 took place in three locations in northern Egypt: an urban area, an investment zone on the coast, and a rural village. The researchers conducted multiple in-depth interviews with a total of 27 randomly selected women in these locations between the ages of 15 and 29. All of the women had experience working in formal, full-time jobs in sales and services, garment manufacturing, and small factories.

The women reported overwhelmingly that a primary reason they took a job was to prepare for marriage. Although arranged marriages are still the norm in Egypt, the women interviewed reported being actively involved in the process of finding a husband and exercised some control, either direct or indirect, in the decision. For example, one woman said, "I was engaged to my cousin about three years ago.... In fact, I did not love him. I did not treat him the way he would like," and the engagement was eventually called off.

Whether engaged or not, all of the respondents spoke of saving for marriage with the expectation of carrying a substantial trousseau (gebaz) into the new home. One respondent paid for her transportation from her salary, but saved the rest for her gehaz. Another respondent, who was recently married, contributed 3,000 out of the 8,000 pounds required for her marriage. In addition to working, many women and their families go into debt in order to obtain the money needed for marriage. "These women are not defying marriage by working," says Amin. "They see work as a way of facilitating marriage."


Amin, Sajeda and Nagah H. Al-Bassusi. 2003. "Wage work and marriage: Perspectives of Egyptian working women." Policy Research Division Working Paper no. 171. New York: Population Council.


The International Development Research Centre of Canada, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the United States Agency for International Development
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Title Annotation:Employment And Marriage
Publication:Population Briefs
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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