A recent article in Arab News about the rise of divorce in the Kingdom had me reflect on the struggles of both divorced and single Saudi women in the Kingdom. Not only are divorces on the rise among Saudi couples but more and more Saudi women remain single having never married. Is there a correlation in these facts? Based on what I saw while living in the Kingdom I believe there is.
Most marriages between Saudis remain arranged. Generally it is not the man who arranges the marriage of the children but rather the mother, Grandmother and Aunts. Traditional Saudi families usually are more insular in that the circle of friends is typically extended family; hence this is the pool from which marriages are arranged. Weddings are not only a celebration for a newly married couple but for the single women of marriageable age to be seen in their finest. Much matchmaking among mothers and grandmothers actually takes place at weddings.
Many of the young Saudi women (and young Saudi men) will know little about their future partner. The young woman will generally know the women from the future groom’s family same as the man will know the men from the future wife’s partner. Because of the segregation which remains in practice, a young man or woman may know the relatives of the same sex better than their future partner. But just because the women or the men know each other, does that necessarily translate that the man and woman are suited for each other?
Most Saudi women do want to marry. Many will spend years fantasizing about their marriage, their dowry and all the fine gifts received. Yet a lot of the women have been sheltered. They have been taken care of by their father or brothers and may not know the responsibilities of taking care of a home or more to the point, the ingredients necessary to have a successful and loving relationship with a husband.
Few Saudi women will have had an opportunity to live away from their family prior to marriage. For many the wedding night is the first time she has left the family home. She’s not only leaving her mother with whom she is likely very close but now expected to sleep and be a wife to a man she has barely seen let alone know. Hearing about an individual or even talking on the phone occasionally with an individual is nothing like living with the individual.
There are not classes which prepare young Saudi men and women to be partners. Because marriage is a private matter between couples, the rituals of marriage are not openly discussed. The woman is going in to the marriage scared at the thought of leaving her family home and not knowing what to expect with this unknown man who is now called husband. The man is likely exhilarated and impatient to claim the woman who is now his.
Furthermore, pressure is typically applied to a young couple to have a child within the first year of marriage. Time to get to know one another and bond as life partners is limited. Any mother or father can attest that once a child is born life changes further. In the case of Saudi Arabia, a child gives a mother an opportunity to forge a bond and closeness she may not have achieved with her husband. The more children a woman has the less time and attention is given to the father.
Now, to address the topic of divorce. Some divorces may occur shortly after the wedding. A couple may quickly realize at the onset they are not suited to one another and likely never will be. Newly married Saudi couples will generally take a honeymoon for at least two weeks and in many cases for one month. It is not uncommon for the couple to return only for the woman to be collected at the airport by her father and the groom goes his own way. She may have learned during the honeymoon that he has habits and traits to which she had never been exposed and will not tolerate. They both may find that they do not “click” and rather than try to give the marriage a chance are adamant that they have no future. Relations between the families may or may not be severely strained as a result.
Sadly in the Saudi society there remains a stigma that a divorce must mean the woman is at fault and to blame. Some women may have tried to stay in a marriage which has discord because of the stigma and/or there are children involved. If the Saudi man wants to retain custody of children in the majority of cases his wish will be granted. Many view it as his right to have control and custody of children. Some purposely keep the mother from seeing her own children.
The Saudi divorcees I know are not “bad” or wicked women. They are gentle and caring women. Most of them have excellent professional qualifications. Yet finding jobs, not easy at any point, may be even more difficult for a divorced woman. Some Saudi women have elected to become a second or third wife or enter into a misyar marriage to get rid of the stigma of being a divorcee whom society looks upon with suspicion.
Then there is the rise of Saudi women over the age of 26 electing to remain single. Why have they chosen not to marry? The reasons can vary from asking too high of dowry prices or wishing to remain devoted to a career rather than a family. Or a Saudi woman could have a successful career which may make some Saudi men intimidated. For example, Saudi women who choose to practice medicine have to undergo years of study and training which in turn have them committed more to their career than the desire of a marriage and its associated responsibilities.
Yet the rise of divorcees and single women has placed its own strains among Saudi society and culture. It remains a law that the woman is to have a male mahrem who takes care of her and sees that her needs of shelter, food, health care and clothes are met. She may be able to support herself but the society is not prepared yet for the fully independent Saudi woman.
So how does one address the rising divorcees and rising number of single women in Saudi Arabia? In my personal view changes should be made towards allowing a young man and woman to get to know one another better prior to marriage. Classes should be instituted at either schools or Islamic Centres preparing both young men and women for marriage. It would likely be beneficial for a betrothed couple to have either classes or a seminar they attend prior to marriage towards learning about compatibility, compromise, relationships and partnerships. These suggestions on my part are against the present traditions and culture, however.
If a woman wishes to remain single I don’t feel like there should be continued pressure for her to marry. Instead an infrastructure should be in place which helps support the single (and divorced) woman rather than shun them or view them with suspicion.
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