Monday, August 18, 2008

In search of an Arabian Knight

This weekend was spent up in the mountains in Beirut. My friend Dana’s sister, Zaina is to be married soon after Ramadaan and Dana wanted to surprise her with a hafla (party). Dana and I flew down from London on Wednesday night and I returned to London this morning (yes I still had time to blog while I was there). It was a bit of a sad departure because I won’t be able to attend the wedding, and Dana will not be returning to London. We’ve been working together for about 2 years and have become as close as sisters. Her going home to Beirut made me think that perhaps its time for me to go back to my home. Let’s leave that discussion for another time.

Beirut was bustling, full of energy. We decided to have the party on Friday night up in the mountains, where Dana’s dad has a summer house. Zaina is 22 and quite excited about her upcoming marriage. Her fiancé has just qualified as a doctor and he’ll be working in Jeddah. Dana and Zaina’s parents thought that moving to a strange city, while being newly married might be difficult for Zaina, and suggested that Dana find a job in Jeddah and move there with her sister. Dana’s uncle, Jad and his family have been living in Jeddah for more than ten years, so there was a level of comfort that the girls wouldn’t be totally alone and would have their cousins as company. Hala, Jad’s daughter, is a 28 year old divorcee, about the same age as Dana, and also working in the banking sector. She had so many stories to tell, preparing the girls for their new home.

By Saturday night, we had cleared up and most of the guests had gone back to the city but a few of us girls decided to spend one more night in the mountains. In an eerie cloud of shisha smoke, Hala started to tell some horror stories. Not the ones that have ghosts in them, but some of the stranger tales that she’d heard of while in Saudi Arabia. The one that scared Dana the most was the daunting report about spinsterhood (yes they actually still use that term!). In Beirut and in London it’s not really an issue being 30 and not married or that her younger sister is marrying before her. But the khalijis (gulf arabs) seem to see the world in a whole different light.

Hala told the story of her friend Asma who is caught in a strange world between spinsterhood and a husband who wants her to “rot” in her father’s home. Asma was fast reaching 30 when her parents started to worry about her not having settled down. They were insistent that she be married within the tribe and her father, in desperation and to avoid having the family blemished by a spinster, accepted an offer from a man who was already married. In the Gulf, marriage has three stages: 1. the Nikah, or contract for marriage, which often happens at the time of engagement; 2. the Milka, a period when the couple can get to know each other, date, since they are legally considered married after the Nikah; 3. Wedding ceremony or celebration, which officially announces the marriage to the community and the couple are then able to cohabit. During the Milka period, Asma realised that this wasn’t the man for her. He was abusive and they had little in common, but with the threat of spinsterhood and her family pressurising her to accept the marriage, she tried to be patient. Bottling up her feelings didn’t last and before long, she retorted in one of their arguments. He called her father and said that due to his work commitments, the marriage would have to be delayed, while telling her that she would “rot” in her father’s home. It’s been three years since that day and Asma is still trapped. Her family, afraid of the even worse social stigma of having a divorcee, have prevented her from applying to the courts to be released from the marriage.

A recent survey showed that 2.6 % of women in Saudi Arabia are “spinsters” and about 2.4% are divorced. Somehow, being a bachelor or a divorced man doesn’t seem to have the same negative impact on the male population.

Zaina’s friend Eman, who’s been living in Dubai for the past 5 years contributed to the discussion and said that there was little difference in the Emirates. Traditions and social pressures have trapped women. She said that it was a regular occurrence to see articles in the newspapers about how spinsterhood and divorce threaten the social structures; and that what was even more upsetting was that women were writing these articles. Most of the time, the high costs of marriage and the exceptionally high dowries were thought to be the reasons for the phenomenon – as the Arab proverb goes: “He married on credit and sold his children to repay it!” It concerned all of us when Eman said that some people think that having academic qualifications contribute to unsuccessful marriages or men being uninterested in the women. There are even statistics that cite illiterates having more successful marriages. What does that imply about society? Did the Prophet (SAW) not say that he who spends of his fortune to educate two daughters or two sisters , paradise will be due to him by the grace of God? Eman heard that men in Kuwait and Qatar seem to prefer to spend money on their flashy cars than on marriage and that they blame women for being too materialistic. Her cousin, who lives in Qatar, told her that there’s a divorce every 27 hours, mostly in the age group of 25-29! (Bear in mind that those include broken engagements), While it is true that in the smaller Gulf countries, citizens have to apply for permission from the government to marry non-locals and often lost some of their rights when they did so, this was not the same for the Emirates but even then very few Emirati girls would even consider marry foreigners. The strangest story was of a matchmaker who wrote in to one of the newspapers saying that her Khaliji male clients prefer to marry foreigners because the Khaliji girls are too dark skinned or fat!

All these stories just depressed us! Most of us in that smoky room that night were in search of the happy ending. Ok so we get that marriage and relationships are challenging, but the world is supposed to be progressing, and most of the time there are such positive stories about young women, especially Muslim women making their mark in the world. Why then are they always saddled with stigmas and branded with labels. Are we expected to dumb down just so that we can be married? Massage a man’s ego and be illiterate just so he can feel a sense of accomplishment? Of course everyone wants companionship in life, but does that have to be at the expense of intellect? Why are we considered to be too fussy or high maintenance if we’ve got a degree? Surely there must be men out there who can rise to the challenge of a woman with a brain! Or will women be forced into unhappy situations like Asma? What happened to the freedom of choice and falling in love?

Poor Zaina! In all of this, she was still trying to be perky about her upcoming marriage. At least she found the man of her dreams, she said. And then she reminded the Arabs in room and enlightened the non-Arabs on the story of the Dahha Dance. In order to ensure that a couple enjoys the freedom of choice when it comes to marriage, the custom with some Bedouin people demands that the bride and groom perform a duel-dance at the feast on the eve of their wedding, each with a sword or dagger in hand. Presumably, the custom entitles either of them to use the weapon to attempt to warn the other of rejection even at this late stage. The proposal would then be rendered null and void yet the engagement presents would be retained. This of course doesn’t often take place but the custom of the Dahha Dance is upheld in some tribes as a symbol of freedom of choice in marriage partners.

May Zaina wear a gown of happiness that is soft and smooth on her wedding day, and may her marriage be filled with love and compassion!


n said...

What is it about a woman's existance that requires it to be defined by a man?

SHameema said...

your post makes me smile about the ritual of woman sitting together before a wedding, the hours of bellydancing and happiness and those few stolen hours where the closest of friends sit and let go of all inhibitions and talk about marriage. The time where it's so safe to talk about one's dreams and hopes from a partner. The time where the bride thinks Thank God I have found mine :)

Everytime I speak to family and friends in SA the only question they as is, have you found someone yet. Im 27 and they've been asking that since 18. I have accomplished so much in that time. I can list arms length of achievements worth mentioning and yet the only achievement that means anything is if i havea ring on my finger. I find that soooo sad especially when it comes from woman and that too some women in bad marriages. But wait he may be a bastard but she is a married women and thats the only achievement that counts.

Marriage to the right person will be awesome, but my existence is not defined by a man.