The Islamic Marriage Contract
The key to understanding any Islamic marriage (and 95% of all marriages in Egypt are Islamic) is the contract that is formed by the two parties. From a legal standpoint, the marriage contract establishes a series of rights and obligations between a couple that have a long-lasting effect on many aspects of their lives. In all schools of Islamic law, marriage is seen as a contract, the main function of which is to make sexual relations between a man and a woman licit. A valid and effective marriage contract outlines certain respective legal rights and duties for wife and husband, together with other rights and duties common to both of them. This contract, however, represents more than a mere exchange of money or material goods. It is a form of social exchange and is thus a legal, religious, economic, and symbolic transaction. The contract is attended to with utmost seriousness and is preceded by a set of lengthy negotiations, almost all of which center around the material protection of the woman and her unborn children once she enters the state of matrimony. Nevertheless, the marriage contract may include conditions that are advantageous for either or both spouses. Conditions that are specified in the contract range from the woman's right to dissolve the marriage, to an agreement that neither party may leave the town they agree to live in, and even that the husband may not marry another woman. The contract, as a matter of course, also acts as a medium for bringing the various members of the two families together and provides them with the opportunity to discuss in detail the preliminary workings of the marriage. Most important, the marriage contract symbolizes the public acknowledgement of the formation of a lawful sexual partnership that will be sanctioned both religiously and socially, and that marks the beginning of a family and the care and upbringing of children. Marriage remains the focal point for channeling sexuality, founding a family, and joining two extended families into a reciprocal relationship of obligations.
Changing economic conditions and new perceptions of the relative value of education and of wage employment have led to new configurations of family strategies among all classes of Egyptian families. Today, even in the most patriarchal family contexts, decisions concerning education, employment, and spending are to a large extent collectively reached. Further, economic circumstances force many Egyptian families to depend on the earnings and contributions of women and children as well as adult males. Access to new opportunities in Egypt and abroad have been distributed unequally and have led to perceptions of relative economic disadvantage. Nevertheless, not all families, even those within a single class, have experienced these shifts in identical ways. Family strategies reflect this range of experience.
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