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.
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.