Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 27 January 2020

What's a girl to do? Men everywhere, but not one to marry

New research is needed into issues of polygamy, male exogamy and spinsterhood in the UAE.

The 2012 edition of the CIA's World Factbook suggests that Qatar has the most gender-skewed population on the planet: 4.15 males, between the ages 15 to 64, for every single woman in the same age range. This ratio surpasses all the other 199 nations for which data exist.

The next closest to Qatar, in terms of the skewed gender ratio, is the UAE, with 2.75 males for each female. These gender imbalances are generally explained with reference to the large number of male expatriates in the workforce, typically employed in male-dominated sectors such as construction.

Ironically, despite the preponderance of males in these societies, spinsterhood, or anousa as it's known in Arabic, is increasingly viewed as a major social concern across the GCC states. Jamal Obaid Al Bah, the chairman of the Arab Family Organisation, suggests that around 30,000 Emirati women can be categorised as "spinsters". Another report in the Arabic language daily Emirat Al Youm offers a more alarming figure: there are around 175,000 Emirati spinsters.

Press reports from Qatar tell a similar tale, with one report claiming a quarter of Qatari women will remain unmarried. An estimate from Saudi Arabia proposes that up to 1.5 million Saudi women will remain unmarried.

A problem with these reports is that they don't give specific details about exactly how the data were collected, or how exactly spinsterhood is being defined. It is probable that a rising marriage-age accounts for a portion of what is, perhaps prematurely, being declared as spinsterhood. But there are some clear indicators that spinsterhood is increasingly an issue.

One of the suspected reasons has been the trend among GCC men to marry foreign wives, known in anthropological terms as "male exogamy". Mohammed Al Murr, the Speaker of the FNC and the vice president of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, relates that during the 1970s, Emirati men marrying foreign women went from the tens to the hundreds. By the 1980s, it was in the thousands.

Citing figures from the first half of 2010, the Dubai Statistics Centre estimates that over 30 per cent of marriages involved Emirati men and foreign wives.

However, the figures are silent on how many of the marriages were polygamous. How many of these foreign wives are marrying Emirati men who are already married to Emirati women?

There is little debate that the rate of male exogamy is substantially higher than the rate for females. If polygamy rates remain constant, with men increasingly marrying non-GCC citizens, while women do not, then logically this equates to an increase in spinsterhood.

The idea of women "marrying out", or even "marrying down" (to someone of lower social standing), is generally frowned upon across the GCC. The royal family of Kuwait proudly asserts that no "Al Sabah female has married out for at least two centuries", although men routinely marry out.

Some anthropologists have characterised this as a form of status assertion, crudely formulated as "we can marry your women, but you can't marry ours". Gulf women do, of course, occasionally marry foreigners, but in some GCC states this can be stigmatised. These relationships are often further complicated by laws prohibiting women from passing citizenship to their children. In the UAE, the government has only recently announced that Emirati women will be able to pass on their citizenship.

Why are GCC men increasingly marrying out? The most common reason offered tends to be financial. The mahr ("bride gift") and associated wedding costs are often judged to be prohibitively high. Recently, a group of young Saudi men, frustrated at their financial inability to marry Saudi women, started an internet campaign with a rather uncharitable slogan: "Let her become a spinster."

Much has been done to try to address this situation, from group weddings to marriage funds. However, new research into the related issues of polygamy, male exogamy and spinsterhood is also required.

For me, the financial explanation rings slightly hollow. What foreign wife of an Emirati man wants to believe her husband married her because he was cash-strapped? And what husband gazes tenderly into his wife's eyes and thinks - "bargain".


Justin Thomas is professor of psychology in the department of health science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi

Updated: November 7, 2012 04:00 AM