MESA Book Awards
Kennth M. Cuno
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
2015 Albert Hourani Book Award Winner
Kenneth Cuno’s book, Modernizing Marriage: Family, Ideology and Law in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Egypt, is an original and deeply researched historical study of one of the central institutions in Middle Eastern society (or indeed any society), namely the institution of marriage. Although Islamic law and tradition has a great deal to say about marriage, Cuno shows how the marriage system that is still very much in operation in Egypt today, and the family ideology that accompanied it, developed in the late nineteenth century, several decades before the codification of family law began. It was, he argues, a hybrid creation, drawing on Islamic tradition but also departing from it in important ways. Expanding out from previous scholarship on the development of a feminist movement in Egypt in the same period, Cuno demonstrates that the emphasis on domesticity and child-rearing in Egyptian feminism was also a dramatic departure from accepted ideas about the purpose of marriage and functioning of the family, even as other, older ideas were retained. At the same time, the modernization of marriage was not a battle between imported western ideas and Islamic resistance. The new emphasis in the west on the importance of domesticity was easily folded into the pre-existing model of the “maintenance-obedience” model of marriage in Egypt, whereby a husband was obliged to support his wife and she, in turn, was obliged to obey him. In explaining these changes Cuno makes excellent use of the tools of social history and, among other things, his book is a vivid portrait of Egyptian society in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century. The changing structure of the khedival family, the end of the slave trade, the increasing availability of professional careers which allowed men to delay marriage and rural/urban divides in marriage patterns all figure prominently in his study. With a masterful and lucid Introduction in which Cuno lays out the historiographies on women, family and marriage, and how they both connect and diverge, Modernizing Marriage is essential reading for anyone interested in the modern Middle East.