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  • Resistance to Arranged Marriage among Nubian Youth:Ideology and Changing Times
  • Anne M. Jennings

This paper will focus on changes in the custom of arranged marriage among the Egyptian Nubians living near the town of Aswan, in southern Egypt. I lived among them in the village of West Aswan in 1981–1982 and again in 1986–1987. Additional fieldwork was conducted during shorter stays in 1992 and 1997.

In traditional Nubian village society, arranged marriages were the norm. According to the ideology underpinning this practice, marriages arranged by the older, experienced members of the family group for the younger, less experienced members were better than those that might be initiated by those younger members. Those holding this belief say that marriages contracted by elders are more stable; fewer end in divorce, and over time the married couple is more content together. Moreover, arranged marriages are considered more moral, in tune with Islamic teachings that enjoin young people to obey older ones, and older people to take care of and protect younger ones. Arranged marriages are thus seen as a way of protecting young people, especially daughters.

The arranged marriage system, however, takes little account of the personal desires of those who are being married. Although nowadays young men and women may be asked how they feel about their parents' choice for them, their opinions can be, and often are, overridden. As a result, young people dissatisfied with the old system are finding alternative, not always socially approved, methods of forming relationships with members of the opposite sex as a prelude to marriage. [End Page 13]

The ideology of arranged marriage stresses the role of the elder members of the family, especially mothers, in arranging marriages for their children. In the days before girls went to school in great numbers, they married between the ages of 14 and 18. The preferred marriage partner was a relative from either side of the family, and often siblings betrothed their children to one another. Although the senior female members of the family were usually the initiators and primary negotiators, it was important that both male and female seniors agree to the match before it took place.

The proper method of opening negotiations was for the mother of the young man to approach the mother of the young woman, never the opposite. The girl and her family could not appear too eager, even if everyone had been expecting the merger for years. This traditional attitude persists, and a young man who wishes to marry typically asks his mother's help in finding a wife. Or, a young man's maternal aunt may suggest to him that it is time to settle down, while indicating a certain young woman. In traditional times, women sought brides for their sons among their matrilateral relatives, but this practice has become rare.

When siblings married their children together, the young man's mother knew the young woman quite well—had watched her grow up, in fact—and knew her virtues as well as her faults. Nowadays, a mother must often look further afield, inquiring among her friends and relatives as to the availability of a suitable young woman. In its early stages, much of the search for an appropriate bride falls to the senior woman or women of the household, as information about the character and personality of the young woman (is she pliable or stubborn, hardworking or lazy, good-humored, witty?) is most readily available to the inhabitants of the women's domain.

When the young man's mother settles on a suitable candidate, she first approaches the young woman's mother, who will then speak with her husband and daughter about the offer. The daughter herself has first right of refusal, but if her father does not also approve the match, it must be abandoned even if the girl wants the young man. If the girl's nuclear family desires the union, they speak with other family members, both male and female, and any information concerning the past behavior of [End Page 14] the prospective groom and/or members of his family is advanced and examined.

The information garnered through the networks of the male members of the...


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