The “Problem” of Spinsterhood in the Gulf

Last month, one of my close friends in Dubai got engaged. She is 35, an accountant, and her fiancé is a doctor. I still remember how her mother used to worry about her not getting married, to the extent that she kept wondering what was going to happen to her daughter after she (the mother) dies! In Arab-Muslim society, being a ‘spinster’ is a real ‘problem,’ and often a crippling stigma.

A woman that reaches 30 years of age without getting married is considered a ‘spinster’, who contributes to a ‘demographic problem’. MMW writer Ethar wrote about this phenomenon in Egypt some years ago, while Tasnim wrote about 3ayza atgawez, a “spinster crisis comedy” also set in Egypt.

In the Gulf however, this phenomenon is linked to what is described as a demographic problem, especially in a country like the United Arab Emirates, which is home to about eight million people, only 950,000 of them are Emirati citizens.

Some recent studies show that about 60% of women in the GCC region are in their 30s and unmarried. Across the region, this issue has raised concerns and sparked debate.


Traditionally, women would get married in their early twenties. With the rise of the average age of marriage, the argument is made that women’s chances of having children get slimmer, which contributes to the demographic problem.

Today, things have changed. The highest percentage of women does not comprise of stay-at-home mothers and housewives anymore. In a changing Arab society, women are becoming an important part of the workforce and in most Arab countries they are encouraged to work and contribute to raising the family income. To cope with this socio-economic trend, many women have opted to postpone their plans of marriage to an older age in order to give more time to their careers.

But there is a dark side to this issue which is not about women getting married at a certain age, but rather about making an unmarried woman in her 30s appear to be a social problem! This issue is being placed under the spotlight not only in traditional social circles, but also in emerging social networks and media channels.

In an AFP article published on the 2nd of July, 2012, the writer uses the word ‘crisis’ to describe the situation. In another article by Latifah Al Haj, she describes spinsterhood as a problem, though she also gives some logical reasons that cause it.

On the page of Saudi-owned network, MBC, the issue of unmarried women is thought to be a source of concern for society, causing young women to accept the idea of polygamy. In one of the Emirati forums, the writer describes ‘spinsterhood’ as a ‘ghost’ chasing young Emirati women.

The use of words such as ‘problem’, ‘crisis’, ‘ghost’, and ‘worry’ rings ominous  bells regarding  how media in general should be speaking to the public in regards to sensitive social issues such as those related to women and the age of marriage. Many women do think about getting married and having children, but sometimes they might choose to wait, and it might happen at a later age.

Many women to whom the label “spinster” or in Arabic ’anis is applied might already be feeling bad due to their immediate social and cultural settings and the pressures of expectations. Simplistic negative media discourse on this issue only worsens the situation.

Except when it comes to underage marriage, I think getting married should not be linked directly to a certain age or to a certain time. No one should be framing the age at which women marry as a ‘problem’ that needs a ‘solution’. Online and conventional media should serve as voices of constructive discourse and education on an issue of such high sensitivity, and unmarried women who often already have to deal with social attitudes and pressures should find better understanding in the media sphere when it comes to their community-perceived dilemma.

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  • Tabassum

    Thanks for this article- you made a very important point that it should not be portrayed as a problem or crisis.

    It is no doubt multifactorial that many women above 30 are not married in the UAE- the expats, education, career but one important point should be highlighted: lack of suitable choices. The numbers certainly play a role if the majority of eligible men are expats (and perhaps Emarati women want to marry Emarati men). The fact that she is older, more education and financially independent can actually work against her. We certainly face it here in North America.

  • Anwer

    I think that the most unfortunate result of this social pressure and stigmatization of unmarried women is that it leads many to marry for the wrong reasons and to the wrong person. Marriage should be a means to meet legitimate human needs, and not simply a way to enhance social status. Less pressure and less status anxiety should lead to better decisions about marriage. Let’s not forget that there were men of note in Islamic history who chose not to marry, and were not faulted for that. It should be likewise for women.

  • Asifa

    Thank you, this article raises an important topic and highlights the damaging social responses to an in fact worldwide trend. Instead of focusing on the positive aspects to these ‘changing demographics’ – such as that more women are getting an education and entering traditionally male-dominated sectors in the labour market (from which they may have been barred previously), and that many women may be exercising greater autonomy over their lives (except in those cases where they are forced by circumstances and/or family to enter the outside the home workforce). It’s important to uncover and analyze the sources of all the doom and gloom forecasts. Is 30 really that old to have children!? This is absurd, especially in this day and technologically and medically-advanced age. Where in all the negative discourse (at least as far as examples for those in the Muslim context) is any analysis of social history?? Was not the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah (r.a.) 40 when she married him? And how many children did they have? And did it matter to her that he was 15 years younger than her? (Similarly, why should it matter whether the ‘eligible’ men for educated Emirati women are are Emirati or not?).

  • Muhammad Amreki

    The media and governments may consider spinsterhood a crisis, but I don’t think that most unmarried women of a certain age believe it. A great many Gulf women do indeed put marriage on hold for their careers, but they also are much more selective. Not only does the new generation of 30-somethings resist arranged marriages, but many women, especially in Saudi Arabia, look at the potential husband pool and find it wanting. I can’t begin to tell you how many women said they have no interest in marrying Saudis. That is perhaps an unfair generalization, but after receiving an education, traveling and seeing what the world has to offer the idea of tradition-bound marriage where the husband is the boss and there is no partnership is unappealing. Women are finding that hidebound tribal customs and marriages for the sake of dowries, a proper name and tribe, and simply for the sake of producing a lot of children to keep mom and dad happy is difficult to accept. A partnership that means equal decision-making is paramount, so if a woman decides she will wait for the right husband, and if that means until she is in her 30s, then so be it.

  • RenKiss

    Well this isn’t surprising, after all women in many parts of the world are defined by their marital status not their accomplishments, values, personality etc. It’s interesting they offer polygamy as a solution instead of finding new ways to adapt to these new social changes. I kind of get the biological concerns, but at the same time there are solutions to that and alternatives. Besides, it’s typical that when women earn more education and focus on their careers they will of course delay marriage and childbirth. That being the case, why not find ways to work with this? Instead of calling these women “spinters” and telling them to enter polygamous marriages?