Women marriage chancellors stepping into a man’s world
Cairo - A bridegroom once laughed hysterically when he discovered that the marriage registration official was a woman, not a man. Another time, the family of the bridegroom cracked jokes aimed at the female official.
Nonetheless, Egypt’s first female marriage registration official has never despaired. Amal Afifi knows that she has the right to tread into realms monopolised by men for hundreds of years in this predominantly Muslim country.
Appointed in 2008 as Egypt’s first female marriage registration official, known in Arabic as maazouna, Afifi still struggles for recognition.
“Some people are totally opposed to the notion of a woman registering marriages,” she said. “They think that marriage registration can only be done by men.”
This is exactly how it’s thought of.
Being a woman undertaking what is traditionally a man’s job, such as maazouna, is an uneasy task in the Arab world. In much of the region’s patriarchal societies, women are confined to household chores, such as cooking, cleaning and raising children, while men have the final say in all family matters.
In Jordan, a moderate state ruled by progressive and Western-educated royals, women hold senior public posts. For example, there are women cabinet ministers, lawmakers, ambassadors, judges, traffic police and servicewomen, air force and commercial airline pilots.
But there are no maazounas, evidently to spare Jordan’s royalty, which claims ancestry to Prophet Mohammad, sensitivities with the country’s ultra-orthodox religious circles as such posts are confined to distinguished males in the society.
Of all the region, there are women maazounas only in North Africa’s Egypt and Tunisia and in the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi. Recently, Palestinians appointed their first woman marriage officer in Tahrir Hamad, 33, who is already pointing to “cultural snags”.
“There’s nothing in the religion that bars women from holding such a post,” Hamad told The Arab Weekly in a telephone interview from Jordan.
“The only obstacles are the cultural snags and taboos imposed by our patriarchal society”, added the master’s graduate in Islamic law who dedicated much of the last decade to theology studies.
Since her July 29th appointment as maazouna, she said she had performed 13 marriages through August 12th. She’s also had five refusals.
“The grooms said they don’t want a woman marrying them,” Hamad said.
In Egypt, Afifi has performed 2,400 marriages. But there was some comedy. Traditionally, the bride’s family picks the marriage registration official in Egypt. When Afifi appears, however, the encounter is anything but predictable. Once, a groom and his family, after bursting into laughter, insisted on having photos taken with the maazouna, forgetting the bride, her parents, family and other guests.
“They all left the bride and her family behind and focused most of their attention on me,” Afifi said, laughing. Islam does not prohibit women to work in marriage registration, according to Islamic philosophy Professor Amna Nossier.
“Marriage registration is about paperwork and documentation, nothing else,” Nossier said. “It can be done by either a man or a woman.”
Yet some men, such as Ahmed Mustafa, a day labourer from the southern province of Assiut, refuse the presence of a woman during marriage rituals.
“The meeting is only between men. A woman cannot be part of it, in line with the traditions,” Mustafa said. He was referring to prevailing customs in conservative circles in which a male cleric documents a marriage attended only by a male representative of the bride, the groom and two adult male witnesses.
Intessar Amr, a university graduate from the Greater Cairo province of Qalubia, said she preferred a woman to document her marriage.
“The world is changing,” she insisted.
Islam Amir, head of the independent male-dominated Marriage Registration Officials Union, told a local newspaper recently that marriage registration is a man’s, not a woman’s, job. He said Afifi’s appointment was the outcome of pressure exerted by the wife of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak.
Suzanne Mubarak actively lobbied for women’s empowerment in Egypt. She was said to have been behind the appointment of Egypt’s first female judge in 2003 and also women ministers in Mubarak’s cabinets. When Afifi was given the job in 2008, she was the only woman maazouna, in Egypt. Now, there are 20 women maazounas in the country. The emergence of female marriage registration officials seeped out of real life and into TV drama in Egypt.
A TV serial, Nouna, the Marriage Registration Official, depicts the struggle of a female marriage registration official for recognition. The programme is comic in nature but it delves deeply into the suffering Egyptian women sustain when they do jobs generally reserved for men.