ABU DHABI // Two-thirds of UAE residents do not want their daughters to marry before the age of 21, a survey has found.
But when it comes to a legal age limit for marriage, two-thirds are willing for it to be set lower than 21.
The gap between what people want for their family and their state emerged in a survey of 755 people for Al Aan TV's Nabd Al Arab (Arabs' Pulse) by YouGov Siraj.
Overall, the numbers show a society moving away from early marriage.
"Times have changed, and couples are now aware of the responsibility," said Dr Soaad Al Oraimi, a professor of gender and development at UAE University.
"Boys and girls must both go to school. And high school diplomas are no longer enough, so they both must seek higher education. After university they must find a job and will need couple of years to settle into one."
One income is no longer enough for an average family to maintain an acceptable lifestyle, Dr Al Oraimi said.
The UAE sets the legal minimum marriage age at 18. Before that age, permission is needed from a judge who must seek approval from the Ruler's Court.
Mervat Ardoumi, a mother of four from Syria, was 18 when she married a family friend.
At 44, she has no regrets but would not want a daughter - she has only sons - to marry so young.
"I would prefer that she finished her education first," Mrs Ardoumi said.
"Twenty-two or 23 would be a more reasonable age. Even if she does not work, that education would be valuable when raising her children."
Dana Shadid, the brand and business development manager at Al Aan Television, said today's parents "are much more aware and more educated on the importance of compatibility between a couple".
She added, "They would like to equip their children with a good education and a secure job before committing them to marriage, especially since life in each generation is much harder than the one before it."
In the survey, 60 per cent of respondents said the legal marriage age for men should be set at 21.
"Although times have changed our culture still expects men to cover the major expenses, such as the wedding itself, and the rent," said Hussein Ahmad, who married at 26.
"The burden of such payments cannot fall on the woman alone. Except for a few rare exceptions, there is no way a man can complete his education and find a stable career at an age younger than 21. Even then I believe it's still too young."
Despite changing perceptions, a quarter of respondents (26 per cent) said marriage before the age of 18 still happened frequently, with another third (35 per cent) saying it happened sometimes.
Two in five (43 per cent) believe early marriage continues to occur because of deeply entrenched cultural and tribal traditions that are unresponsive to legal reforms.
"Yes it does happen, but very rarely and usually without official documentation because the Government would not support it," Dr Al Oraimi said. "Most women who are educated would refuse to marry so young because they understand the amount of commitment involved. There is also a greater appreciation for childhood."
Most marriages involving a significant age gap are cases in which the husband is remarrying, she said.
"As an educated woman would not want to be married at a very young age, she also would not want to be a second wife," Dr Al Oraimi said. "This is another reason for the declining trend."
However, Mrs Ardoumi said marrying early is not all bad.
"I'm not against early marriage provided that it is at a reasonable age," she said. "If they have both finished their education and can support a family, then why not?"
The main advantage, she said, is being close to the children.
"They can grow together rather than grow apart," she said. "The children will also look to the parents more as their friends rather than someone they cannot relate to. It is really a beautiful experience if it is done right."
Nabd Al Arab airs on Al Aan TV at 8pm tonight.