Untying the Knot

“Every two minutes, an Egyptian couple files for divorce – that's how long it takes to heat up pita bread” joked one TV host on Egyptian TV earlier this year.

As divorce rates fall in the West—where more and more couples are avoiding marriage in the first place—the number of divorces in the Arab world has been steadily climbing for decades. In Egypt, for example, the divorce rate skyrocketed by 83 percent between 1996 and 2017. Today, roughly one in four marriages in Egypt end in divorce. Recent numbers from Egypt’s cabinet claim the number is as high as 40 percent. That would make Egypt’s divorce rate the second highest in the region.

Amid a flurry of articles decrying increased divorce rates is an accompanying number debating the cause—from women’s changing expectations of marriage to decreased social stigma around divorce and increased financial independence giving women more freedom to leave bad marriages.

But in Egypt, one answer may lie in the age that couples get married in the first place. Couples that marry young are less mature, financially independent (increasingly less so), and stable in their relationship—all foundational parts of successful marriages. While young couples in the West are shying away from marriage amid rising economic pressures, young Egyptians still face pressure to marry young. In 2020, women’s average age at marriage in the United Kingdom was 35.7 years old. In 2018, the average age for Egyptian women was only 20.2 years old. The numbers aren’t only striking in comparison to the West. In 2015, 53 percent of Egyptian women between the age of 20-24 years old were married—the fourth highest in the Arab world, behind only Yemen, Palestine, and Oman.

As the Egyptian government tries to discourage divorce, it’s intervening before young couples even tie the knot. In 2019, the Egyptian government launched a nationwide campaign to help prepare young Egyptians to work through common marriage problems. The initiative hired thousands of professors and religious leaders to teach young Egyptian university students tools for conflict management and better communication skills before they get married. The program also established over 200 “marriage dispute settlement offices” around the country. Earlier this year, a bill in Egypt’s parliament went even farther—recommending mandatory psychological testing to adjudicate young couples’ capability.

Other state-affiliated institutions are taking their own action. Al-Azhar, the country’s most important Islamic center, recently founded an initiative to encourage young Egyptians to spend less on their weddings—eschewing the traditional financial obligations and trappings of Arab weddings to help couples start their new marriage with less strain on their wallet and relationship.

Egypt does not want to replicate the West’s experience of declining rates of marriage. The government is still encouraging young people to get married but hopes it can strengthen marriages by starting them off on the right foot.

Caleb Harper

Caleb Harper

Former Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Middle East Program