By: Geoffrey Fitzgibbon Hughes and the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI)

Generations of feminist luminaries, from Wollstonecraft (1796) to de Beauvoir (1949) and down to the present, have explored how marriage promotes a range of largely unequal gender relations that come to suffuse most human societies. Start with marriage virtually anywhere in the world and you can quickly see how patriarchy impacts everything from household economics and family law to citizenship regimes, political allegiances, ethics, emotions, and aesthetics. Yet the flip side of the attraction of studying marriage, as a means of sleuthing out what patriarchal ideology minimizes and hides, is having to fight against a tendency to ghettoize the topic of marriage, or even to depoliticize it.

The Middle East is certainly no exception to this. At its worst, the study of marriage in the region can turn into what the anthropologist Lila Abu Lughod pilloried some decades ago as, “harem theory.” (1989) Inspired by the extreme sexual division of labor and domestic space that the “harem” represents in the Western imagination, Abu Lughod identifies a sort of transregional patriarchal “common sense.” Harem theory turns this sexual division of labor into an analytical division of labor that relegates anything ideologically associated with women (like marriage) to a secondary status. Doing so erases men’s dependence on the household, reproduction, and gender regimes, while simultaneously downplaying women’s agency within the broader society.

The identification of this theoretical tendency forces those of us who want to understand marriage to ask, “what is at stake when we define marriage in a particular way?” Peoples’ naïve understanding of things like marriage don’t just lead them to analytically separate things like the public and the private, work and home, and men’s space and women’s space. Evidence shows that people actually experience different spheres of social life as fundamentally separate and hierarchically ordered—and that institutions like marriage contribute to this ideological structuring of social worlds in this manner.

So how does the definition of marriage itself help construct these very analytic divisions as distinctive—and differentially valorized—“domains” of social life? (McKinnon and Cannell 2013)  And, knowing this, how should marriage be defined? Is it primarily a juridical-legal institution grounded in the state bureaucracy (eg. courts) and its associated practices (eg. cases, contracts, and regulations)? Or is the true core of marriage the conjugal bond and the marital abode, maybe even humans’ most deeply-held emotions and desires? Or might marriage be more of a ‘total social fact’ that transcends attempts to divide society into separate spheres, mediating everything from the transmission of wealth from one generation to the next to affective circuits and the formation of political alliances?

I have opted here to provide the full range of approaches, each offering a view of a unique sliver of the phenomenon. Happily, there is a lot of work to choose from that accentuates the different facets of marriage and illustrates their far-reaching ramifications. The topic of marriage in the Middle East has become so politicized that it cannot be ignored. Marriage, gender, family, and sexuality are all now loudly proclaimed to be in “crisis”—both within the academic literature on the Middle East and within regional public cultures. The regulation of marriage by the state (usually via official Sharia Courts), an obsession with demography, and the need to harness the full economic potential of national populations combine to produce a veritable “incitement to discourse” about marriage throughout the region.

In what follows, I try to provide what I think are the best historical, sociological, legal, anthropological, and ethnographic approaches to the topic of marriage in the region. Much of it was written by women who struggled against a hostile theoretical orthodoxy as well as a prejudice that both their gender and their topic of research somehow made them unserious. Hopefully the increasing recognition their work is now receiving serves as some vindication. Some of the studies will tend towards the juridical-legal, while others will linger primarily with people’s emotions and desires. All combine a commitment to understanding the specificity of the marriage practices they studied with an appreciation for marriage’s wide-reaching social and political ramifications.

Frances Hasso, Consuming Desires: Family Crisis and the State in the Middle East, (Stanford University Press, 2010)

Hasso’s book offers perhaps the best broad overview of the topic of marriage in the contemporary Middle East. Taking Egypt and the UAE as her two primary cases, she develops a sophisticated analysis that ties together an account of changing legal structures with ethnographic engagement and insightful discussions of popular culture. As the title implies, she finds that liberalization, with its renegotiation of the role of the state and its unleashing of new consumer desires, is leading to a profound sense in the region that marriage is in crisis. One of her study’s greatest strengths is its ability to connect the topic of marriage to the full gamut of contemporary political debates in the region in an organic and highly compelling manner.

Hanan Kholoussy, For Better or Worse: The Marriage Crisis that Made Modern Egypt, (Stanford University Press, 2010)

If marriage in the contemporary Middle East is in crisis, it would be wrong to see this as merely a recent development. Kholoussy uses contemporary marriage crisis discourse as a jumping-off point for her study of the first mass-mediated “marriage crisis” to hit the region. Crystallizing a whole range of anxieties around class, gender, and nation, the first colonial-era debates about marriage’s ‘crises’ reveal a lot about what it was to be Egyptian at the turn of the century—and why Egyptians of that era felt compelled to invest so much of their energies in the institution of marriage.

Corinne Fortier, Aymon Kreill, and Irene Maffi, “Special Section: Love in the Arab World” (Arab Studies Journal, 2016)

Focusing on the aspirations of young people contemplating marriage in Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, this special journal section offers a fascinating comparative look at a simultaneously old and new ideology in the Middle East: love. The authors show how the Middle East, which is so often conceptualized as failing to properly embrace “modern” notions of love, is actually a generative site offering new ways to think about love. The young people who they depict navigating societal expectations about marriage are forced to find creative ways to balance tough ethical choices with creative economic survival strategies and new modes of political imagination.

Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Marriage on Trial: Islamic Family law in Iran and Morocco, (I.B. Tauris, 1993)

Mir-Hosseini’s study draws on long-term, comparative fieldwork focused on the question of how government Sharia courts in Tehran and Casablanca mediate marital disputes.  The focus on divorce highlights what happens when marriage goes wrong. While she reports that many of her interlocutors in the courts found her research topic disturbing—even illegitimate—the focus on attempts to uphold Islamic norms in the breach is highly revealing. Mir-Hosseini shows how Sharia remains but one competing value system among others in the region, struggling to get a grip on local conditions with complex kinship, class, and gender dynamics of their own.

Hilma Granqvist, Marriage Conditions in a Palestinian Village, (Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 1931)

The work of a pathbreaking woman ethnographer in the 1930s, Granqvist’s encyclopedic two-volume work was ahead of its time in many ways. While still very much a product of her era, her positionality and commitment to rigorous description allowed her to write against prevailing gender ideologies (in both the literature and in the village she wrote about) in innovative ways. Granqvist could immediately see that the women of 1930s Palestine, whatever challenges they faced, were active agents of their own destinies who pursued their own dreams and aspirations with alacrity. She was also critical of the kinship ideologies that prevailed both in the village and in the ethnographic literature of her era, both of which privileged lineal descent over a notion of kinship grounded in alliance, neighborhood, and care.

Homa Hoodfar, Between Marriage and the Market: Intimate Politics and Survival in Cairo, (University of California, 1997)

Hoodfar’s study of marriage in lower income households in Cairo in the 1990s shows how an apparent revival of conservative gender roles could be grounded in strategic responses to liberalization. In Hoodfar’s account, women sought to survive as best they could, transforming society around them in the process. Far from being a passive audience to history, Hoodfar argues that working class Cairene women were active agents who forced both state institutions and authority figures within their own families to reckon with their creative survival and reproductive strategies.

Judith Tucker, In the House of the Law: Gender and Islamic Law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine, (University of California, 1998)

Primarily drawing on Ottoman Sharia court records, Tucker offers a glimpse of how marriage was administered in the urban Ottoman Empire. Her work helps to uncover not only the ideology that drove the Ottoman courts’ various initiatives, but also some of the strategies that families, and especially women, used to contest and evade the control of both patriarchal authorities and the state. Deeply aware of the limitations of court records, Tucker’s work is nonetheless a feat of meticulous world-building struggling against the formulaic nature of her archival sources.

Asifa Qureishi and Frank Vogel, The Islamic Marriage Contract: Case Studies in Islamic family law, (Harvard University Press, 2008)

Qureishi and Vogel focus on a particular bureaucratic technology of venerable pedigree: the marriage contract. With its roots deep in oral, pre-literate culture in the region, the written marriage contract itself has been a feature of Middle Eastern societies for almost as long as those societies have been writing. Understanding the twists and turns in the evolution and spread of this one genre of document offers a window not just into changing marriage practices, but also into broader shifts in the human condition.

Vassos Argyrou, Tradition and Modernity in the Mediterranean: The Wedding as Symbolic Struggle, (Cambridge University Press, 1996)

Of course, defining the boundaries of “the Middle East” is at least as vexed as defining the boundaries of marriage. Argryou’s study of Greek Cypriot weddings in the 1980s takes the discussion of marriage to the fringes of the “Middle East” and outside of the self-consciously “Middle Eastern” area studies literature. Argryou’s study shows how a whole range of practices that are often taken today to be quintessentially Arab and Muslim (like the obsession with female chastity) are part and parcel of deeper, shared, trans-regional histories—even amongst the self-consciously Christian and the, at least, ambivalently “European.” There is something usefully de-essentializing about attending to the similarities between contemporary marriage crisis discourse in the Middle East and the controversies that Argryou describes, in which gender, class, modernity, and the urban/rural divide likewise come to be negotiated through marriage.