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Reviewed by:
  • For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis that Made Modern Egypt
  • Wilson Chacko Jacob
For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis that Made Modern Egypt Hanan Kholoussy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010. 188 pages. ISBN 978-0-8047-6960-0.

Why did Egyptian men stop marrying? This is not the question that Hanan Kholoussy explores in For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis that Made Modern Egypt, but it was a question of great concern to Egyptian men and women of various political outlooks in the early twentieth century. By tracing the making of this problem of marriage, which was rendered a veritable crisis by 1920, Kholoussy shows through an innovative juxtaposition of press and Islamic court records how gender and sexuality formed a fundamental dimension of the social and political history of the period, with imagined and real consequences. Kholoussy approaches the marriage crisis as representing a reiteration of norms that offer an Egyptian genealogy of gender and sexuality as modern formations of power.

Her study begins in 1898, the year in which the "reorganized Islamic court system" (4) started operating, and ends in 1936, "when discussions of bachelorhood ceased to dominate the pages of the press" (4). In short, the problem of bachelorhood emerged with the consolidation of (semi-)colonial rule and the crystallization of anti-colonial nationalism and later subsided as Egypt gained more sovereign rights through a renegotiated treaty of independence. A strength of this work is that it does not reduce the complex formation of the marriage crisis to the explanatory grid presaged by these bookends. Rather, Kholoussy demonstrates [End Page 106] her historical acumen by honing in on the specific arguments that were made during this period regarding the supposedly growing problem of bachelorhood while simultaneously examining the changing practices of men and women from across the class spectrum as they engaged the law in matters relating to marriage. The result is a multi-layered analysis of the institution of marriage that addresses a society-in-formation in which anxieties about being modern significantly determined discourses of gender, sexuality, and nation. In this context, new terms of legal and political representation were articulated and the subject of Egyptian modernity was formed.

What may become lost in Kholoussy's cautious demonstration of how the marriage crisis reflected a whole host of social, political, and cultural problems is the boldness of her argument about Islamic law. She shows that in the period under study, the field of legal practice became increasingly specialized and rigidly hierarchical. This narrowness was evinced partly by the oft-referenced fact that the rise of the secular state marginalized or confined Islamic law to issues of "personal status" (marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody), leaving criminal, commercial, and administrative matters to be adjudicated on the basis of Western legal codes. Kholoussy also shows how the dynamic elements of shari'a still regnant in the colonial era and in the more limited domain of personal status continued to involve complex negotiations among knowledgeable parties (within historically specific patriarchal and social constraints), even as those elements were gradually eroded and transformed over time. That transformation was not caused by any single factor but was effected by another complex formation: norms of masculinity and femininity that were intimately intertwined with the economic and the political. The latter entailed a series of crises and dislocations related to Egypt's incorporation into a global capitalist-colonial order and nationalist responses to the attendant forms of exploitation. Some of those responses, recorded by Kholoussy, were delivered in the expanding public sphere of the print media, and were constitutive of the discursive formation she calls the "marriage crisis."

This formation was the site of a re-articulation of gender and sexuality to conform to the terms of a colonial and nationalist modernity. The terms are delineated in a careful reading of different angles of the marriage crisis in Chapters 2 through 5. Chapter 2 explores the reasons [End Page 107] ascribed to men's refusal or inability to marry. The majority of press critics blamed the colonial economy for devaluing marriage, which they saw as important to creating proper men. But tracing the state of marriage through court...


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