EGYPT: Matchmaking under an Islamic banner
In a matchmaking office in a poor Cairo neighborhood, Mohamed Essam, a divorced cook sat for the first time this week with Gehan, a divorced accountant.
The meeting was not meant to break the ice for a potential couple. It had to be short and to the point. Both were upfront about their desire to get married and their expectations.
“No exchange of phone numbers or addresses is allowed,” Hany Hassan, the matcher, said in a strong tone.
In no more than 20 minutes, Essam and Gehan were introduced to each other and discussed financial arrangements related to their potential marriage.
Essam and Gehan are among hundreds of people who resorted to Hassan’s office after failing to find a suitable partner by conventional means.
In a hesitant voice, Essam said he could just barely furnish a bedroom and a living room.
“Do you have any further questions?” asked Hassan.
“I have another question which I feel very embarrassed to ask in your presence,” replied Essam.
Eventually, he spoke out, addressing the potential bride.
“Did you get divorced because you had any problems with giving birth to children?”
Gehan replied in soft low voice, “No, not at all.”
According to Hassan, Egyptian society became acquainted with matchmaking services no more than six years ago.
“There is a dire need for such offices now because young people should get married and have a stable life. We are trying to surmount the poor economic conditions and low salaries. When someone who earns only US$90 a month comes to me, I try to fix him up with some girl who works and can help him in sustaining the family."
Several studies suggest that the number of single men and women is on the rise due to falling incomes in a country where nearly half of the population lives in poverty.
“When a girl’s father comes to me and asks for a groom who owns a house and can present a LE30-thousand diamond ring, I tell him stop it," Hassan said. "How can a young man afford all that?”
Hassan’s office is an Islamic version of matchmaking services in the West. Accoridng to the ads, which circulate in the Cairo subway, the office uses “Islamic thinking" in bringing couples together.
“What we mean by Islamic thought is to bring together people who can suit each other, facilitate marriage and prevent the couple from staying in private before marriage,” said Hassan.
“The idea was strange in the beginning but even from a religious perspective, Islam says that marriage should be facilitated. Unfortunately, people do not facilitate marriage anymore and tend to exaggerate with the financial requirements of marriage such as the apartment, the dowry, the furniture…”
The Islamic impratur encourages some girls, like Gehan, who covers her hair with a yellow head scarf in pious Islamic fashion and wears little makeup.
“I felt relieved when I read that they follow Islamic principles because most young men don’t want religious or veiled wives but seek easy-going girls that wear makeup. So here I felt I would have a chance to find someone,"
However, the service is not limited to veiled girls, Hassan said.
Such offices stand as a modern turn on the traditional go-between women who used to match couples in popular neighborhoods. Each applicant is expected to pay US$13 in application feeds. If the match goes well, the couple pays US$54.
By applying to such an office, Gehan, 35, has already rebelled against the norms of a traditional society that deems it inappropriate for a woman to express her desire to get married.
However, Gehan could not find another way
“In the family or at work it's hard to get to know people, so you find yourself forced to seek such an option,” she said.
The office’s services are not restricted to men with limited resources. Hassan also helps rich businessmen find exceptionally beautiful girls who come from distinguished social backgrounds.
Hassan, a former clinical pathologist, says that his office has matched more than 500 couples in the last two years.
— Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo
Photo: The ad for Hassan's office appears in a local advertising booklet. Credit: Noha El-Hennawy