- Consuming Desires: Family Crisis and the State in the Middle East
In Consuming Desires, Frances Hasso offers an important and timely account of customary marriages in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the context of "family crisis" discourses as produced by state institutions. Highlighting the emergence of new sexual and marital practices, the book demonstrates how these phenomena intersect and contrast with state policies which aim to foster national development, among others by standardization and legislation in the field of personal status domains. While these policies are often defined as serving the well-being of the family and gender equality, one of Hasso's main arguments throughout the book is that the expansion of state power over family affairs is making women further dependent on undemocratic and authoritarian states that have absorbed systems of (in)equality only if it serves state interests.
In Chapters 1 and 4, the reader is offered a detailed overview of personal status legislation in Egypt and the UAE. Referring repeatedly to studies on Ottoman court records, she contrasts the old system — where legal flexibility gave qadis more possibilities to profess a women-friendly attitude — with the modern one — where the legal system became rigid due to codification and new procedures. Nowadays, judges are trained to simply apply written rules, according to Hasso. But where shari'a courts were not necessarily an arena of legal flexibility and autonomy, judges in codified legal systems are not simply bouche de la loi as the book seems to imply. Hence, it is of great importance to compare both classical Islamic jurisprudence and modern shari'a-based legislation against actual rulings and court practices.
While Middle Eastern and North African states produce and reinforce "family crisis" discourses in which phenomena such as higher rates of singlehood, exogamy, and secret marriages are attributed to economic factors, consumerism, and Westernization, Hasso rightly argues in Chapter 2 that these occurrences are related to and interact with changing indigenous practices and norms concerning sexuality, gender relations, and marriage. Hasso thus defines the customary marriages discussed in the book as relatively recent practices that "violate not only state registration but often witness, maintenance, housing, and other long-standing [social] expectations, such as agreement of the woman's male guardian ..." (p. 81). She says that what most distinguishes them from other unregistered marriages is that the former are kept secret, not only from state authorities but also from parents and other family members.
In this light, it is not entirely clear why Hasso discusses in the next section the phenomenon of so-called misyar marriages: polygamous relationships in which men are usually exempted from providing housing and sustenance to the second wife. While misyar marriages do not violate state registration, at least not in the United Arab Emirates, these registered marriages nevertheless have secrecy vis-à-vis the first wife as a key aspect. Moreover, while men often want to keep the second marriage secret from the first wife, women might opt for such a relationship precisely because they want to obtain the public status of a married woman. 1 In that sense, the book would have benefitted from including the narratives of women involved in "secret" marriages. It would have shed more light on the relationship between women's reasons for concluding such marriages and new expectations and practices concerning gender in Egypt and the UAE. [End Page 522]
Consuming Desires draws much-needed attention to the reality of family life in the modern Middle East. By focusing on the issue of "secret" marriages, it offers a range of novel arguments that will move the reader away from such idealized notions as the stable and harmonious Middle Eastern and North African family. In addition, Hasso's critical "governmentality" approach is all the more interesting in the present context, where undemocratic and authoritarian regimes in the region are greatly challenged by the public's ongoing demands for freedom and equality.
Nadia Sonneveld is author of Khul' Divorce in...