x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

More Arabs getting to know spouse before marriage

Higher education is leading more Arabs to get to know each other before agreeing to get married.

Ahmad Roustom and his fiancee, Aseel Shahin, met while attending university. They got to know each other for four years before they were engaged to be married.
Ahmad Roustom and his fiancee, Aseel Shahin, met while attending university. They got to know each other for four years before they were engaged to be married.

Once upon a time, a girl's future husband was decided from birth.

By their mid- to late 20s, the groom and bride-to-be would be pressured to marry that certain someone who matched a checklist of what their parents deemed suitable.

However, in light of increasing divorce rates, experts say the Arab community is beginning to take a second look at how relationships are formed before marriage.

While both traditional and modern approaches to marriage can be justified, many young couples are now opting for the latter.

Ahmad Roustom, a 26-year-old Syrian who is now engaged to his university sweetheart, Aseel Shahin, would not have it any other way. Mr Roustom met his 24-year-old fiancee while both were students. They built a friendship for about four years before getting engaged.

Mr Roustom argues that times have changed, thus requiring a change in mentality.

"Our parents have given us the opportunity to go to university and get an education, and through this, we have developed the skill to make educated decisions. It doesn't make sense that parents empower us with this ability and then take away our privilege of choosing our life partner - the most important decision we'll probably ever make," he said.

Rima Sabban, an assistant professor of sociology at Zayed University, said another contributing factor to the changing approaches to marriage is the progressing role of women in society.

"Women are now getting an education and working. This changes the position women carry in their families," she said. "It makes them more equipped and empowered to bargain their position and gives them a greater sense of purpose."

Ms Sabban added that what men currently look for in a relationship greatly differs from what they used to seek.

"Men and women are now viewed as two equals who build their life together, rather than the man being the patron and the wife being the follower," she said.

Many young adults say they do not necessarily disapprove of the traditional methods of marriage, but argue that they should be adapted to fit today's lifestyle within the boundaries of religion.

Mr Roustom said that the issue does not lie in agreeing to meet people through family, as that is only a channel through which you meet others, but rather in what happens afterwards.

"There is a lot of pressure when you meet someone through family, and you can't really discover a person naturally through all that pressure," he said. "Things seem to be going alright and you get married. Suddenly, you're alone under the same roof and everything changes."

Hind al Yousef, a 25-year-old Emirati, said she does not necessarily agree that "love marriages" will always work, and that other important factors contribute to a successful marriage.

"You see plenty of people marrying out of love and ending in divorce all the time. That's because love develops into something else, whether it be companionship or respect. A lasting marriage depends on how willing the couple is to make it work. Impatience is a problem we're facing in today's generation."

According to Ms al Yousef, marriage is still approached traditionally among the local community; however, people are opening up.

"People used to follow the traditions blindly, without real consideration to religion. People were also constrained to marrying within a certain tribe or social class," she said. "Although this still exists in some families, parents today are allowing longer engagement periods and more flexibility in choosing the partner, so long as it does not conflict with religion."

Ms Sabban asserted that a single approach does not work for everyone. The best solution, she said, is variety.

"Change and diversity is beautiful but it's all happening too fast, and this becomes problematic and painful to families. Yes, arranged marriages do work, but people need to be given more options and the right to choose and interact with each other. The more variety we have, the better the opportunity for families and youngsters to adjust themselves to these dramatic changes."

Ms al Yousef highlighted the importance of considering the individual's needs.

"Some parents are forcing their children to marry when they are not ready. This is particularly an issue with guys where they are pressured to get married when they are not yet mature enough or have no desire in doing so.

"In addition to considering compatibility, parents should not force their children to marry when they don't want to," she added.

Another important factor is that today, women can opt out of an unhappy marriage, Ms Sabban said.

"Before, if a marriage didn't work, women would stay because they had no other option besides returning to their families," she said.

"Now, if she's not happy, a woman can continue her life. She can work and support her children," she said.

"This feeling of 'I can do it' is very important, because a woman feels like she doesn't have to be dependent on a man to make it through life."