x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Unmarried Arab women suffer from damaging stereotypes

The "age deadline" that some Arab men - and women - have is outdated. At what age does one become a spinster, asks Rym Ghazal.

At almost every gathering of women, this question is bound to come up in some form or other: “Why are there so many unmarried women?”

What is exactly is a spinster? The age at which a woman gets labelled that differs from one culture to another. But, recently, it seems that the “age deadline” is getting earlier, with women in conservative communities finding themselves labelled as “spinsters” in their early 20s.

As if life wasn’t already hard enough on single women, there is an earlier mad rush to find someone “special” and get married as soon as possible.

To become a spinster, one of the conditions seems to be that you reach the “unmarriageable” age, whatever that may be. For men, age rarely seems to be a factor.

So many studies have been done on the “rise of spinsterhood”, with researchers and analysts pondering the factors that have led to this increase, if indeed there is an increase, and what can be done about it. One Arabic news website even claimed that the percentage of spinsters in the region ranges from 7 per cent in Palestine to 85 per cent in Lebanon. The highest reported number of unmarried women in the Gulf, according to the website which quotes a study, was in UAE (75 per cent), followed by Saudi Arabia (45 per cent).

Factors like demands by women’s families for a high dowry, expensive weddings and unrealistic expectations by partners were cited as some of the main reasons for delays or cancellations of marriages.

It is sometimes simply because there are too high female-to-male ratios. I often hear things like “for every man, there are seven women”. This makes women feel even worse about their prospects, and the men feel more empowered and relaxed about settling down.

But perhaps the strongest arguments I have heard for why so many amazing well-accomplished kind of women are unmarried came from men. “Before, you couldn’t even get a chance to look at a woman unless you married her,” said an older Arab man. “Now, you see so much skin, and you can easily date the women of your dreams, that men don’t feel the need to marry unless they reach that period in their life when they want to have children.”

His sons were sitting next to us, nodding their heads. “It is you women who are to blame,” added his 30-year-old son. “You chase us, sometimes so aggressively and openly, so we, the men, have given up the chase.”

Of course, we can’t generalise from the opinions of a few people, but it is interesting what different people say about this topic.

I have heard women say that men feel intimated by smart, successful and independent women, and prefer to marry those who don’t challenge them “too much”. But I know of cases that show the contrary, where men admire self-made women and consider them a good “catch”.

For women, there are many difficult balances they have to master. A woman, in the eyes of many, can’t be too independent and too assertive in her needs and wants without turning off men of her culture. At the same time, she can’t be to submissive without betraying promises she had made to herself.

I have heard women stating what they want and what their expectations are, and then hear men respond: Oh, she is “too much”, too forward and not feminine enough. At the same time, I have known some really nice, kind men who have been burnt, and remain bachelors, a term with more positive connotations than spinsters or, worse, old maids. As usual, women get labels that have biased, negative social and cultural attitudes than men.

The word “spinster” rose from women who spun wool for a living. Popular culture, news, books and films constantly poke fun at spinsters, and it goes back hundreds of years, where they have been portrayed as too finicky, desperate, needy, not good looking enough and a lot of other stigma.

It is ironic that not too long ago, Bedouin women would be the ones sending proposals over to the man of their choosing, through the male members of her family. And if she divorced, it was no problem at all. She soon remarried.

Rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @Arabianmau