Photo by Omar Braika
Styled by Fadi Zumot, styled in 3O2BALK
Creative directed by Shukri Lawrence
Makeup by Nourr Al Salem
Hair by Franck Provost (Jordan)
Translations by N.H.
This article is part of the “Marriage and Weddings” issue
Mapping the terrain on the desire to marriage, societal pressure, and personal experience. Attitudes toward marriage in Arabic-speaking world and communities vary drastically between individuals, from marriage as a concept and institution, to its relative utility, to the pressures that one feels. This article is an attempt to chart points on that broad spectrum. It is formed from responses My.Kali collected in preparation for this issue, and they have been organized according to themes that emerged. We looked into general attitudes of marriage, questions more specific to age and social pressure, and personal experiences. Rather than making summative remarks or drawing conclusions, we invite you, the reader, to look at this range of responses and bring them into conversations or deliberations that you are having on the topic.
Mapping the Terrain
How do you feel about marriage?
“Marriage means responsibility. Some may get married in order to have children, or out of fear of becoming a spinster, or because they’re afraid of losing a friend with benefits. In our Arab society, there are many reasons people get married for. You might even marry your rapist, because your virginity preserves the family name!”
“I’m afraid of marriage for many reasons, such as my religion, my sexual orientation, and whether or not society will accept all this, and my family, of course. It depends on our traditions and customs when it comes to reproduction and how we pray to God, and stuff like that. Do we get married for any other reasons? For many, marriage is a sacred bond between two people who love each other and are prepared to live their entire lives together ‘till death do [them] part,’ but this is not the case in much of the Arab world. Most straight couples are unsatisfied with their marriages, let alone gay marriage. The only reason that should be behind a marriage is love or desire for marriage.”
“Marriage, in my opinion, is the desire to live your life with someone you love. I believe that marriage is a declaration of love and our desire to live with our partner. But, in reality, we get married because we have to, not because we want to.”
Why do you think people get married? Is the idea based on personal desire/conviction or on societal/external pressure?
“In the community I’m in and the people I’m currently surrounded by, marriage is something they truly want. When I was a child, it was considered to be something both men and women had to do, and there was always pressure coming from their families. Some children are raised to want to get married from a young age, which I think is a huge mistake. Some of us need marriage while others are forced to get married, depending on the circumstances of each person.”
“The need to meet society’s demands and comply with the law pushes us to get married. I, personally, was forced to get married, but I was lucky to find someone I loved. We had a premarital sexual relationship. It was dangerous and clashed with the law and society: visas, residencies between our countries, housing, neighbors, and landlords, coworkers, the insurance company, hospitals, and of course, family. Life’s easier when you’re rid of all this headache.”
“People get married for two reasons: some like the idea of starting a family and others choose marriage as an escape from pressure.”
“It depends on the environment we live in, and how people perceive unmarried individuals, and it depends on the family’s mentality.”
“I feel like people get married because of societal pressure. My family and friends now think that any relationships I am in will end in marriage. It’s painful to think that these societal molds and external expectations affect every relationship I have, even if I don’t think they do.”
“Societal pressure, no doubt. We get married because it’s expected of us. If you refuse to get married, you’re considered to be an outlier.”
How do you perceive the marriages around you?
“Some of them are very normal, in that the person was used to having a partner and got married for the sake of their family. Other marriages are successful and are based on love. Some others had no choice, because they were supposed to get married at a young age.”
“I imagine most of them came to be due to societal pressure. Some relatives from my extended family married for love, but what’s strange is that these relationships are not seen in their true form, maybe so that people don’t talk, but most probably if there was a relationship preceding the marriage, it is hidden so that it appears to be an arranged marriage! So that it’s seen as pure!”
“Most are traditional and lacking in love and emotions. They are marriages for marriage’s sake. It’s more like an exchange of benefits. Like a business deal. Or maye as a form of escape.”
“They’re all failed marriages that were built on exploitation and violence.”
Mapping the Pressure Points
At what age do you feel the need or pressure to get married? Is there a ‘must be married by’ age?
“For females, pressure begins to mount at the beginning of their twenties. Everyone starts to pressure females to get married because they’re at a suitable (or late) age!”
“There is no certain age. Every person should get married when they want to, and not because they were pressured to.”
“To be honest, when I turn thirty, I plan to get married to my boyfriend. We live in Europe and we agree on everything, but we still haven’t gotten married yet.”
“There isn’t a certain age for anything. If, for example, I turn 40 and decide to go to university to study a field I love, then what is wrong with that? Our brains don’t get smaller the older we get. Same thing with getting married at a certain age. All these foolish ideas are uttered by the ignorant and are believed by idiots. It shouldn’t apply to men, because it shouldn’t apply to women either. Men and women are creatures that fall under one category: humans.”
“32. I don’t like the way people look at girls like they’re lacking something, especially those who choose not to get married. But I also think it’s somewhat true when it comes to girls. If a girl wants to have a baby, then she must do so while she’s still fertile. I don’t believe that applies to men.”
What mechanisms are used to enforce societal norms or protect the status quo? Do the same standards apply to men and women, and should they?
“If I wanted to live in the same house as my girlfriend in our country, I would have to travel abroad to marry legally. Sometimes we need to feel like any other married couple, so we feel like we should marry and look for paths to emigrate.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to get married, because I know I’m incapable of dealing with all aspects of it. But on the societal level, women feel pressure to get married when they’re called ‘spinsters’, or when they’re told they won’t be able to have kids, that a woman’s true place is her husband’s home. Things like that. All this leads to women taking the decision to get married due to false fears. Some of this applies to men as well, but there’s a huge difference between men and women in this regard (and this discrepancy is present in every other facet of life), but this is not the only reason. There is a segment of society that thinks differently, that perhaps you choose to get married and for your own reasons, whether they’re good or bad.”
“We must get rid of the word ‘spinster.’ It shouldn’t be used to describe men or women! It is a humiliating word that attempts to put pressure on those who aren’t married to force them into entering the clutches of marriage (unlike the freedom to marry).”
“Spinsterhood as a whole is a patriarchal idea designed to psychologically pressure women into getting married out of fear of society.”
“[Spinsterhood] shouldn’t apply to any gender, male or female. An unmarried person, even if they are 60 years old, is a ‘bachelor/ette’. Nothing else. In the Arab world, the word “spinster” doesn’t apply to men. People start using it with women starting their twenties. Maybe even before that.”
“To label one a spinster is to exclude them from society. There’s a stigma attached to it that I’ve experienced. I always wonder who determines the age and form of relationship. Why do I have to get married and have kids in order to be happy? And why does society think this way? And why are unmarried women treated as a cautionary tale in the family or among neighbors? Spinsterhood should apply to men also if we want it to be a normal expression that we embrace and incorporate into our lexicon when we remove the pitying aspect of it! Like people who are divorced or widowed. But even with those, there is still sadness and pity directed at women!”
Mapping the Personal
Has anyone ever tried to arrange a marriage for you? What was it like?
“Yes, but I met the proposed idea with complete rejection, because I simply don’t want to get married now.”
“I turned down proposals from the ‘mothers’ of suitors, because I refuse to get married.”
“It felt horrible. I felt like I was being displayed like I was for sale. I felt like I was an object they were haggling over!”
“My relatives once discussed it, especially my aunts, since Mama is no longer alive. They want me to settle down. But the good thing is that they haven’t broached the topic till now because I completely opposed it the first time. I think tight-knits families, and ones with authority figures, use more force, pressure, and coercion.”
“No. There were attempts when I got employed for the first time, but I immediately dropped the bomb that I had a girlfriend and things got difficult. Because, contrary to what people think, men’s reputations are also affected in a conservative society. Families will at least worry that their son is messing around. The family’s reputation, especially if he has sisters at a marriageable age, will be affected. They stopped trying to force me into the whole role of ‘we’re looking for a bride for our son’ because they didn’t want people to start asking questions and find out about my premarital relations. One time, my aunt mentioned me to people, who did a background check on me, and reported back that I hung out with ‘devil worshippers.’ My privilege as a man is that I’m forgiven by family and society. They ask young men to repent before accepting them for their daughters. I believe it’s difficult for women, and it’s impossible for them to ask for forgiveness.”
Do you think LGBTQ+ relationships should end in marriage (as is assumed for heterosexual relationships) or that this should be an option?
“I don’t feel like they should be called ‘LGTBQ+ relationships’. They’re just relationships, and I believe I made clear how I felt about marriage in my previous answer, but I’ll add that there is nothing that human beings ‘should’ do, even breathing!”
“No, it’s not necessary. Not for any two people in the world, regardless of sexual orientation.
Every person is free to think as they want. Some people desire marriage, others don’t. I believe it’s a personal choice.”
“Just like straight people have the right to get married, gay people should also enjoy the same right. Marriage means stability more than anything, so it’s considered to be a need.”
“Yes, it should end in marriage, and it should be accepted just like straight couples. It’s necessary that they get married, because if they’re not accepted, they’ll have to marry a member of the opposite sex, and that will be a kind of deceit.”
“Arab countries don’t recognize gay marriage, or homosexuality even. That’s why if there’s an intent or desire to get married, it’s only possible by traveling abroad to a country that allows it. That’s why some people in relationships stay together without a marriage contract. They’re connected spiritually instead. And some, unfortunately, are forced to marry the opposite sex. As for me, my opinion is unimportant. Some people might prefer to get married while others might not need to. When it comes to me, I don’t want to get married, not even to a girl. Even if I wanted to, there’s no capacity for that. In my future relationships, if there are any, our connection will be spiritual and emotional.”
“I don’t know. We know our countries: marriage is only an option for straight couples. Our society considers all of us, even trans people, to be sick. The shari’a court, at least in Jordan and Palestine, consider non-normative sexualities to be diseases and grounds for divorce. The dangers that face LGBTQ+ people, whether married or in secret relationships, are numerous. Maybe there are people who know how to escape societal pressure, but they’re all individual solutions, and they all involve risks, even just to reputation, or legal punishment. I was bullied by members of the community because I chose a straight marriage. When I got married, my friends thought that I couldn’t have married because of love. They are also from the LGBT+ community and know that members of the LGBT+ community can’t simply get married like other people. But I can’t blame them for bullying me, because I know I’m very lucky and I’m living life leisurely. That wouldn’t have been the case if I had fallen in love with a guy.”