January 18, 2019
“Russian gold rescues Jordanian women from spinsterhood” boasts a 2017 headline from Al-Arab. As the price of the required dowry of jewelry, or shabka, rises beyond the reach of many young men, couples are turning to gilded copper—also known as “Russian gold”—to allow the wedding to proceed while keeping up appearances.
Years ago, alarmed observers in Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine saw Russian gold as a trick to hoodwink brides into marriage without securing the wealth that would cushion them in case of divorce. Now, Russian gold helps solve a problem.
A shabka’s value fluctuates based on the economic status of the betrothed, but the typical set includes one to two ounces of gold and costs a couple thousand dollars. In Egypt, where the average monthly income is 3,000 £E (or $167), the shabka is a big investment. Those who had been saving for years were especially hard-hit by a currency devaluation, which caused the price of an ounce of gold to surge from 9,150 £E in 2015 to 22,000 £E in 2018.
Stories of engagements called off due to wedding costs have sparked campaigns to end the shabka requirement altogether. Other alternatives have been floated, too: renting jewelry for the party, replacing gold with less pricey silver, encouraging cash, or allowing more modest gifts. Resistance to this custom is not merely coming from poor young men and their families. Many well-to-do couples have decided that their money is better spent elsewhere, and religious scholars have emphasized that there is no Islamic precedent for extravagant shabkas.
Nonetheless, amidst a whirlwind of social and economic change, what endures is tradition—or at least an imitation of it.
This article is part of the CSIS Middle East Program series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.