I remember when that look of worry started forming in my family’s eyes – their eyebrows would crease in a more pronounced way than the one usually reserved for utter disappointment. As I neared my 30s, still unmarried, and with no prospects as of yet, gentle probes into my personal life morphed from the occasional, “Is there anyone you like?” to the more curious, “How’s this or that person from work? They seem nice, don’t they? Are they seeing anyone?”
I’d hit my 30s, just out of a relationship, and with no potential suitors lined up. The panic within the household was palpable, felt in the undertones of conversation and in the polite segues necessary to field questions from strangers about their eldest daughter’s marital status. But mostly, in the fleeting expressions of distress in their eyes.
My family is actually quite liberal and so has never pressured me into anything. But sometimes what’s not said can be just as detrimental.
This, of course, is the privileged viewpoint of a 30-something woman from Egypt. For a vast majority, marriage is not simply an option but a requirement, a goal to be fulfilled, a task to be ticked off the list of achievements, and a barometer of worth.
Comparative studies done in 2021 on population changes in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, found that over the past decade, the MENA region – historically associated with younger marital ages – has witnessed a shift in marital trends. That is, marriage is being pushed to a later stage with a possibly higher percentage of the population remaining unmarried, as well as increasing divorce rates.
Despite these demographic behavioral changes, women in the region still face heightened pressure wherein their worth is somewhat dependent on their marital status. And the pressure increases as women get older for fear of what is still labeled by many as “spinsterhood.”
In a Womena Instagram poll, 29 women who are in their 30s and single responded to questions about how their marital status affects their mental health. Out of the 29 women, 19 responded that being 30 and single has caused them anxiety.
To a large extent, being single past your 30s becomes a cross to bear, and it feels like not finding a partner in your 20s is offensive to the world at large.
“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. I am, however, constantly made to feel like there’s something utterly wrong with me for not wanting to get married now. You know when something has been so ingrained in you that once the target isn’t achieved, you feel like you’re the one in the wrong?” says Sudanese national Nour Al Hajj, who is 32 and happily single.
“I have great days where I’m thinking to myself: ‘I’m good, I’m happy with where I am now.’ Then I’ll go out and there’s a conversation about marriage and I’m made to feel as if there’s something wrong with me. The whole world or society I live in seems to think that I’m not okay for wanting to be single,” says Nour.
The region has been witnessing a rise in the average marital age since the 1960s, but women still bear the brunt of the social stigma. Between Morocco, Lebanon, and Egypt, the median age for marriage is between 24.7 to 26.9 (as of 2014, 2018 and 2021, respectively) depending on the country and city.
These changing marital trends can be attributed to several factors, including the increasing financial cost of marriage, the rising cost of living, and changes in gender norms. Where gender norms are concerned, men are no longer the sole breadwinners in the household and more women are getting an education, which has resulted in women gaining financial independence.
Women in marriage
True reform and modernity have historically been gauged by the condition of women within a society – the degree of a woman’s liberation is a mirror of society’s progression. During the colonial era, both secular and conservative intellects alike ignited the discourse on a woman’s freedom in several arenas, one of which was education.
The pursuit of a woman’s autonomy wasn’t purely a question of rights and independence, though; the education of women was rather viewed as a means to ensure that every educated man had a suitable partner. Even in their liberation, women were still bound by their governance to men.
In the 1900s, Egyptian intellectuals began questioning the nature of marriage in the Arab world, and consequently discussing whether a re-evaluation of the status quo was in order. They started considering a shift to a more modern definition of marriage that emphasized friendship and perhaps even love.
In discussing these changes, Egyptian jurist and modernist Qasim Amin found that marriages, at the time, were doused in what he described as “lewdness and coarse sensuality,” which came as a result of the lack of love within these unions. It was from that vantage point that Amin inferred it necessary for a woman to be at the same intellectual level as her counterpart in order to breed a companionship based on friendship.
Offensive as these claims may have been for women at the time, and for women today, these kinds of arguments helped women gain some ground. In Egypt, women became increasingly more active in the public sphere and gained social freedom through education. These social changes reverberated across the Middle East and slowly brought on progressive reforms across the region.
By the 1930s, literature promoting the emancipation of women surfaced in Tunisia. These texts would in time lead to reforms such as the 1950s Code of Personal Status, which is a set of laws advocating for equality between men and women.
These remodelings of marriage and a woman’s role in the public sphere became the catalysts for romance and love marriages infiltrating the collective psyche in the region.
Standing your ground
In the Womena poll, 46 out of 48 respondents said they believe that the stigma surrounding women getting married over 30 should be broken. When asked for their reasons for still being unmarried, the responses ranged from not finding the right person, to having too liberal a mindset, to wanting to retain their independence.
“I don’t think I’m lesser-than, but the feeling is so forced upon me and I’m constantly reminded that just because I’m in my 30s and single, somehow, I should feel less. But I’m young, I’m in my prime, I’m smart, I’m beautiful. I don’t think I’m going to waste,” Nour says.
Today, more and more women are pushing the age for marriage in order to pursue their careers.
Salma Malaeb, a Lebanese 30-year-old living in the UAE, is at the peak of her career and is convinced that holding out until she finds the man who will respect her ambitions and goals is worth it.
“I’d rather be single than be with someone just to make society happy. I’m so happy with where I’m at with my career,” says Salma. “In all modesty, I’m super confident in myself and what I’ve achieved in my life.”
A few commented that their lax attitude towards marriage sometimes made them feel like they’ve got some sort of intrinsic defect for wanting different things. However, the women who are married responded that it was out of love, conviction and because they’d found the right person (so, here’s to hoping, we’re still romantics for the most part).
Rita Haddad, 32, was brought up between the UAE and Paris. “I think by old Middle Eastern standards, 32 might be seen as too old to get married. By those standards, I should be on my first kid by now. But currently, the Middle East is complicated economically, and socially. Many people don’t have the income to sustain themselves, let alone a whole household,” she says.
Despite what society tells us, holding out until you find the right partner isn’t all that crazy. Love, romantic or otherwise, is an intrinsic need. Women (and men) throughout history have fought for our right to choose today. With that in mind, the fight for women’s rights in the region (and globally) is still raging, but the torch has been passed on to our generation of women.
So, hold out if that’s what you want; don’t, if it’s not. In either case, your age isn’t and never was some sort of fantastical deadline or a looming expiry date. There is no one-size-fits-all life trajectory that dictates where you should or shouldn’t be, at this or that age. So throw out that fictional road map you were handed at birth, and do you, boo – that’s what I’m doing.