By Cady Hekmat
At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, amid uncertainty about how long it would last and the widespread expectation that people’s financial situation would get worse, my mother gave me a piece of advice one night: to cut down my spending, especially anything deemed a luxury, and to limit my purchases of jewellery and accessories to genuine, yellow gold. She wanted me to adjust my habits from acquiring ornaments to accumulating savings. She said: "Do what Arab women do!", meaning I should buy yellow gold only and save it.
It wasn’t hard for me to understand my mother's advice, as well as her motivations and fears. The history of my mother’s family and their journey from the Caucasus to Turkey, then to Syria, and finally to Jordan, with all the loss of life and properties, and all the sorrow, has made her view the future with fear and suspicion. In her life, she calculated correctly when it came to savings; her accumulated life experience was more precious to her than obtaining a degree in finance or accounting.
In fact, I didn't take my mother’s advice as seriously as she expected me to do. I told myself that the times had changed; my life was definitely more stable and safer when I compare it with her life and experiences. However, that did not prevent me from thinking about that advice, because it came at a time when fear was controlling the whole world, and her last sentence "Do what Arab women do!" triggered many thoughts about the Arab society in which I grew up.
Because Arab society is in its origin a tribal society, the mentality and tribal ideas continue to strongly govern people’s relations with each other and with the things around them. Therefore, we cannot discuss the relationship between Arab women and gold in isolation from the society’s tribalism. The ancient struggle with the harsh desert on the one hand, and the raids, invasions, competition over water sources and pastures, and the continuous travel on the other hand were all essential elements of the life of these tribes. Such a life required a permanent state of readiness to face all that could be described as dangerous, whether the source of this danger was the harsh desert or the attacks of other tribes for the purposes of pillage, plunder, or revenge. One of the most important aspects of this state of alert was the ability to escape danger as quickly as possible.
The Arab World has always been in turmoil. Wars, revolutions, waves of asylum seekers, and forced migrations continue, even after the stage of direct tribal rule and conflict passed. Because human beings are the product of their environment, their mentality is shaped in a way to adapt to these environmental conditions. All this affected the view and goals of Arab women regarding the possession of gold as a precious metal and made it different from the view and goals of women in safer and more stable areas around the world. In the minds of women who are always threatened with one type of danger or another, it becomes more rational to save their money in the form of gold coins that are easy to carry or wear, and to be able to escape with the lightest and most valuable load possible when necessary.
After settling in Europe and travelling between European countries, I discovered a big difference in how European women (especially German women) regard owning jewellery. I noticed that they are more inclined to buy precious stones, and possess only a limited number of gold pieces, not for the purpose of saving, but rather for leaving them to their granddaughters as a family heirloom. They do not think about securing their own future with gold coins or pieces, like Arab women do, because the State takes care of that and relieves them of the trouble of worrying.
More recently, gold in the minds of Arab women went beyond its traditional importance as a way of saving in times of travel and war, to becoming a sign of the appreciation, respect, and authority granted to her by her family and husband. Gold constitutes the biggest part of the dowry that a groom gives to his bride. The groom presents the bride with the amount of gold dictated by her family, as a guarantee of his commitment, sincerity, and respect for her when he proposes to her. Therefore, this issue has remained a controversial matter and a stumbling block upon which many marriage proposals and love stories collapse. This practice often turns into a competition for the title of the bride with the most valuable dowry, which puts enormous financial pressure on the groom. And here is the irony of my mother’s advice at the beginning of this article. In Circassian culture the concept of a dowry, with gold as a major component, does not exist as an important condition for the completion of the marriage process. Like many of her contemporaries and contrary to her cultural roots, she sees gold more from an Arab perspective.
Offering gold to the bride in Arab culture is not limited to the groom; the bride's family also gives her gold as an almost obligatory ritual. While the groom presents gold as a guarantee of his loyalty and devotion to the bride, and as a way of giving her some financial security, her family gives gold to her as a financial aid to the newly-weds, and as a way of displaying the wealth of her family, thus granting her power and material security that the groom must respect and honour. Some of them also give gold as a means of bringing the newly-weds closer to each other. The gold that the bride receives as gifts and grants heralds the well-being and security of the future for both bride and groom, not only the woman.
Nevertheless, collecting gold in the life of Arab women has remained a highly practical way to show the abundance, luxury, and power that she enjoys. The life of an Arab woman is always threatened by her partner leaving or persecuting her. Arab society is patriarchal and male-dominant, and her family often opposes the idea of her divorce and separation; divorce has long been viewed as a disgraceful thing. As a result, an Arab woman finds herself compelled to keep her wealth in gold pieces as a defensive plan that enhances her feeling of strength and protection.
Today, as Arab women become more educated and increasingly go out to work, earning their own money, the equation has started to change. New and more effective ways and means of empowerment, as alternatives to storing gold, have become available. Certainly, this affects the extent to which they are now willing to buy or demand gold and to think of it as the only way of guaranteeing their future. It also affects how much they will accept the idea of subordination to their husband and subject to the customs of their tribe.
Through their education and work, Arab women are becoming more empowered and more confident in themselves, their abilities, and their capabilities. It is worth noting here that the laws in relation to women in Arab societies are constantly improving and developing, and the openness of people to new ways has increased a lot due to communication with other cultures.
All these factors have made Arab women more able to choose their partners on their own with less interference or pressure from their families. The newly-acquired ability to choose her partner necessarily means that she is now on his side in facing the demands of her family to pay dowry when he proposes marriage. After all, she is the one who chose him willingly.
Accordingly, women have started to resort to unusual methods and tricks to circumvent the customs and traditions that are sometimes difficult to overcome. One of the most common new tricks designed to remove material obstacles for women who choose a life partner is the purchase of fake gold (called Russian or Italian gold). Despite its low price, fake gold is very similar to real gold in its appearance and workmanship to the point that it is difficult to distinguish between the two. Thus, by agreement between the newly-weds, this method relieves the groom of paying large sums of money and saves face for the family.
These changes in the rights and power of Arab women that have occurred in the last twenty years are causing a significant development in the nature of the relationship between women and men. They are even changing the relationship between women and themselves with regard to their self-esteem and appreciation of what they can do. Women are now changing from security seekers, constantly worried about their future, to givers of security through their financial independence. Thus, the relationship between a woman and a man in the Arab World is moving away from the idea of paying gold-based guarantees before they begin their lives together, something which has become a naive, biased, and cumbersome idea. As a feminist, I am certainly pleased with this development and I see a lot of positivity in it, even if some see it as marginal. It makes the relationship between the man and the woman, in my view, healthy, logical, and more equal. It lessens the pressures that so often and unjustifiably have negative effects on the relationship and lead to the failure of
many of them or the suffering of the two parties in them.
Cady is a young Jordanian woman of Circassian heritage now living in Germany. She has a bachelor's degree in English Literature and a master's degree in Linguistics. Among her interests are languages, cinema, literature, social matters, and humanitarian issues. She is also very involved in women's issues.