Written by Reem Mahmood
Translated by N.H.
Design by Lina A.
Image used within design, courtesy of Photo Studio Al-Ameen.
This piece is from the ‘Weddings & Marriages’ issue (here)
Memories, experiences and friends’ memories filled my head when I began working on this article on the pressure to marry, and my inbox flooded with messages after I solicited more stories on a closed Facebook group of women. Marriage is the only socially acceptable form of relationship between members of the opposite sex in our society, and this norm is essential for society’s survival and cohesion. Marriage is a “fact of life,” something commonly said in communities in our region. It is not only important but almost sacred, and thus thus becomes an immense pressure on young women and men that influences their professional, social, and personal lives.
It goes without saying that marriage haunts the lives of women more than men. From childhood, society convinces women that marriage is a marker of their worth, and the only thing that could guarantee them a good life. It is like an obsession. Pressure to marry becomes just another burden on the LGBT+ community in the region, in addition to the other social norms and constraints that they already have to deal with.
Marriage and Careers
Lama does not remember when she first felt pressure to get married. “There were always comments related to marriage. Prayers for every woman and man in our family for a good and quick marriage. But since I graduated in 2010, I was only aware of one thing: my desire to explore the world. I wanted to travel and learn about other cultures and peoples. This angered my mother. She, like society at large, thought professional or personal ambitions were not adequate reasons to sacrifice marriage or babies.”
Lama has been living in Russia for almost two years now, but her mother still pushes her point on every phone call. She tells Lama how upset she is that her 34-year-old daughter still hasn’t gotten married, and that Lama might not find someone to accept her ambitions, her life full of adventure, and the fact that she lived abroad.
No woman’s life is free of marriage-related pressure. As women, we grow up being taught that our world revolves around it and it is our only goal. Marriage is the end we are supposed to run toward.
It is not hard for women to recognize that society views them as a commodity in the marriage marketplace, a commodity whose value can decrease or increase depending on beauty, behavior, and how closely they conform to societal standards. In many cases, women are committed to their careers or are aware they are not ready to get married, but marriage intrudes and haunts them, forcing them to give up on their professional and personal aspirations. If women do not give in, they are told they are wrong and that they will come to regret their decision.
Laila, a 21-year old woman in her third year of medical school, said, “I will graduate and finish studying my specialization when I’m about 27. I plan on getting married after I seriously enter the workforce, in a way that guarantees a comfortable or at least sufficient living standard. Most of my friends have either gotten married or engaged, and some of them have become mothers. The whole thing has become a strange obsession. On the one hand, I want to start a family without having to give up things that have to do with my career. But on the other hand, there is pressure from my family and thinly veiled jokes about the advantages of an early marriage and pregnancy. Women are affected the most when they decide to pursue careers and invest many years of their life into this pursuit. Men do not have the same reasons to care about age as much as women.”
“…my father and older brother told me that I could not welcome my sister’s suitors. They didn’t tell me why, but it wasn’t the first time my family made me guilty that I was repelling my only sister’s suitors, especially since my sister was over 30.”
Marriage and Body Image
The idea that a woman’s worth or value revolves around her marriage status or whether she has children shapes women’s life in very practical ways. Once a girl shows the first signs of puberty, beauty becomes her primary virtue and pursuit, the thing she must work to achieve. If a woman neglects her appearance or does not (according to standards set by patriarchal society) prioritize beauty, this negligence will be interpreted as indifference toward marriage or toward attracting a man to get engaged and then married to. This will render her vulnerable to the opinions and advice of the people around her.
Samar, 27-years old, said, “During the last 5 years, I began to noticeably gain weight. I neared 80 kg. Pressure to lose the weight began to mount. According to my family and friends, I would not find a man to accept my current weight. The pressure to lose weight has doubled over the last two years. Though initially it was out of fear for my health, the concern has now changed to whether I will find a man to marry me.”
Most women have grown up with this fear of being alone, undesirable, or unacceptable in the marriage marketplace, and the bleak image of an old woman knitting in a corner of a home for the elderly has followed us since childhood. This image represents, according to society, the single major catastrophe that a woman might face.
Monsters can take several forms, and they accompany us throughout our lives. They might take the form in obsessing over losing one’s hymen, or whether someone conforms to societal beauty standards that might attract even the lowest choice of acceptable suitors. They might take form in the fear that following our dreams and professional ambitions will leave us to lead a life alone, or that any choice that does not point directly to marriage is a misstep.
Marriage and the LGBTQ+ Community:
We cannot ignore the LGBTQ+ community and their struggle when talking about the pressure that women face regarding marriage and having children, or fulfilling what is considered a “fact of life” by most.
Wissam said that, “Not a week goes by without my mother bringing up the topic of marriage with me: ‘I’ll find you the most perfect bride. I want to see you happy and I want grandchildren, my child. You’re my only son and I’m afraid I’ll die before I get to carry your children in my arms.’” Wissam is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but wasn’t able to come out to anyone except to a few of his close friends.The pressure he faces around marriage and having children is mounting, but he said that, “I can’t tell my mother about my sexual orientation, and I can’t continue to make up excuses as to why I’m reluctant to get married. My mother forced me, on more than one occasion, to visit the houses of relatives to see their daughters, which is something very strange. These visits made me feel how difficult and impossible my attempts to comply with society’s rules were, and they made me realize the extent of the pressure being put on me to hide my identity and truth.”
Like the women mentioned above, spinsterhood is present in the minds of many in the LGBTQ+ community from puberty like an ever-present monster, even as we are rejected from marital institutions.
Hashem is a 26-year-old in a family with four brothers. He talked about the pressure he faces because of his gender expression and the way he presents himself, which does not comply with the strict rules forced upon men in our patriarchal, heterosexual, cisgender society, which shows in the way they speak, dress, and express their feelings. “At the beginning of this year, my father and older brother told me that I could not welcome my sister’s suitors. They didn’t tell me why, but it wasn’t the first time my family made me guilty that I was repelling my only sister’s suitors, especially since my sister was over 30. The ‘need to marry her off’ became the family’s sole occupation and what kept my parent’s up at night.”
Marriage is a fact of life and a most virtuous goal.
This sentiment is forced on us by society and puts an immeasurable amount of pressure on the younger generations. Heterosexual marriage is an additional worry for many members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially considering they already struggle with their constant attempts to hide their identity in a society that denies their right to have such an identity. Presenting straight-marriage as the sole life institution or as life’s greatest goal or the reason we exist puts members of the LGBTQ+ community in an especially tough situation in our patriarchal, heterosexual, cisgender societies.
This is not to detract from the very difficult experience of women’s experiences with the pressure to marry. The moment a girl hits puberty, she is subject to a torrent of messages on the importance of marriage. It can reach the extent that women measure their worth on this metric of ‘marriageability’ alone.
Marriage is used as another tool to oppress women and control their professional and personal ambitions. It is a tool to confine and restrict any woman who dares to consider herself as anything more than just a vessel for sex and reproduction, or is audacious enough to place marriage and reproduction toward the end of her list of priorities. Society forces women to stay in marriages that are abusive and unsafe and that take a toll on their physical and psychological health. The monster-like grip of “spinsterhood” is luckily starting to lose its hold on us as women. Life is starting to appear more clearly to us, unobstructed by the patriarchal view that is forced over our eyes ever since the moment we enter into this world.