x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Unmarried women do not want pity

Jordan's 30-somethings say they are fed up with being labelled spinsters and are trying to change the attitudes of a disapproving society

Zakiyyah Bourini works with single women above 30 in Amman.
Zakiyyah Bourini works with single women above 30 in Amman.

AMMAN// It may be considered odd for women who hit their 30s to remain single in a society that highly values marriages, but Jordan's unmarried women are trying to change how society views them and say they do not want to be labelled as spinsters nor do they want to be pitied. "The problem is not with being single but it lies with those around me," said Faten Dabbas, 36, a lawyer. "'Poor her, she is not married'. That's what people say. You feel the pity in their eyes. They ask me 'Why aren't you married till now?' as if there is something wrong with me. What a dumb question." With the rising cost of marriage that includes the shabka (gold), the dowry and the housing, the marriage age has been delayed in recent years: 29.5 for men and 26.4 for women. Unemployment officially stands at 12.7 per cent and 14.7 per cent of Jordanians live below the poverty line of less than US$800 (Dh2,934) a year. Inflation registered record heights of nearly 15 per cent last year. In the late 1970s women on average used to marry at the age of 21, men at 26. According to official statistics, 7.8 per thousand women over 35 are unmarried. Although many women, according to sociologists, tend to delay marriages to pursue their education and careers or simply because they did not find the right mate, Jordanian society still regards unmarried women with disapproval. Zakiyyah Bourini, founder of Harraer Charitable society, created in February last year for unmarried women in Jordan and the first such organisation of its kind, is fed up with people calling unmarried women spinsters. "It is a word that invokes pity. It refers to the mare [female camel] that has aged and has become useless, or a dull palm tree that doesn't yield fruit. "Many have helped their parents in raising families, and contributed all their salaries to pay for the education of their brothers. They have been used and once they become jobless, they turn into victims and a burden on their families. What they need is society's respect and their family's appreciation." Ms Bourini is hoping the society will go some way towards dispelling the negative misconceptions about unmarried women. "We are using the name Harreera instead of spinster, which means the pure sand or the rainy cloud that has so much to give." Ms Bourini is holding meetings across Jordan with unmarried women, trying to raise awareness about the society and at the same time find income-generating projects for them, particularly for those who are less privileged with basic education and no means of income. But she is looking for donors. "Do you want to be a burden on society? Do you want people to pity you?" she asked 10 women gathered at a meeting in a poor area in eastern Amman last week. "We would like you to work from home. We don't want you to live under anybody's mercy and we do not want to be an outdated commodity or ostracised. "It is true that we do not have a supporter we can rely on, but we have the energy." The women raised their hands when she later asked if they would be interested in learning how to sew clothes. Suad Awad, 43, is one of the women eager to join the Harraer Society. "My uncle's wife reproaches me and calls my older sister and I spinsters," she said. "I feel pressured and sad." What makes matters worse for her is that she is unemployed. Ms Awad lives with her older sister and aunt in a family house, and they all survive on her sister's retirement income of $160 a month. "When my father was alive, he was very strict and wouldn't let us leave the house except when necessary. So I am used to this life," she said. "But now I wish I could have an income of my own." She said she can arrange and plant flowers for decoration, although she suffers from rheumatism. At the society, the women also provide emotional support for each other. Ms Dabbas, who has been living by herself since her parents died 10 years ago, said the society provided her the chance to share her feelings with others who have similar circumstances. "It is emotionally comforting," she said. Noha, 39, is another woman who wanted to join Harraer society. She lives with her parents and younger brother. Her other five brothers are all married, as is her identical twin sister. "I had suitors before but they were not suitable for me. It doesn't bother me that I am not married but if someone decent proposes to me I do not mind. When I see that there are others like me who are unmarried, I feel at ease." Meanwhile, Noha is taking care of her father who suffers from high blood pressure and poor eyesight. When it comes to Jordanian bachelors, there is less of a stigma to being single. "Society considers it their choice to remain single although people continue to ask why they haven't married," Musa Shtewi, director of the Jordan Centre for Social Research, said. He also recalled how his father considers marriage the cornerstone of manhood. "My father told me that 'You have now become a man' when I got married 11 years ago when I was in my early 40s," he said. smaayeh@thenational.ae