Saturday, December 18, 2010

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

One of the things that jumps to people's minds about marriages in Saudi Arabia is the fact that they are arranged. And since their society segregates the genders from even the most innocuous mixing, getting married is a huge step into a very different world for both the bride and groom. My students, like all Saudi women, socialize only with other women, attend school with only women, and even party with only women. Likewise, the men socialize only with other men. As this is a considerable contrast to relationships and marriages in America, I have always been curious to get my students' thoughts about their customs.

Discussing weddings is perfectly fine in class, but when it comes to religious issues, we foreign teachers must be quite delicate. So, my discussion topic was simply Saudi weddings, and I asked them various questions in small groups and learned all I could. Since I have gotten to know them now for several weeks, I feel I can ask them for their honest opinions. They are always eager to share their traditions.

A lot of them love dressing up and buying expensive dresses ($1000 or more for a fancy wedding) – and of course, they say you can't re-wear a dress to another wedding unless there is an entirely new set of guests! Since they come from large families (they generally have between 3 and 10 siblings, sometimes more), going to a wedding is a very common event here. Weddings are, naturally, segregated. Basically, for these girls, a wedding is a chance to dress up, eat, talk, and dance ... with other dressed-up women. At some point in the long, late evening, they may have a chance to glimpse the bride and groom together, but only if they cover their stunning dresses and hairdos with their abayas and scarves. On the men's side, the guests sit, talk, and have a meal. They never see the bride unless they are directly related to her. After the wedding, the couple takes off on a honeymoon – which often lasts a whole month as the name implies, and almost always involves destinations outside the country, such as Malaysia or Europe.

Most university-aged women today are not yet married. In fact, most of them have no desire to bear the burden of a husband and family any time soon. They are content to enjoy their freedom and friends and to pursue their studies. Most want to graduate and have a job before they even think about getting married. Some of them have had marriage offers but have refused. Of course, it was different in the past. The majority of my students' mothers were married at around age 18, and most of their grandmothers were married between 10 and 15. Can you imagine being married at 15? I asked. They shook their heads, eyes filled with relief that they did not share their grandmothers' fate. These girls - with their education, Blackberries, designer clothes, and private pools - can no more imagine being a wife at 15 than I can.

Since marriages are arranged in Saudi, there is virtually no chance of choosing one's spouse. However, marriages to cousins are quite common. Some girls find this a positive factor, because they have a better chance of knowing the boy if they have played with him as a child or grown up with him around. Some girls, however, dislike this tradition, especially if a girl is matched up from childhood with a fellow cousin and given no choice in the matter. When I asked if parental pressure is a large issue with marriages, I got mixed answers. Some told me that there was absolutely no pressure and that the final decision to marry someone rested with the woman. Others told me that within some families there is intense pressure, leaving the girl, and often the boy as well, with virtually no say.

It is the man, with the help of his mother and sisters, who actively seeks a bride. If his mother recommends someone, the man will approach the woman's father to arrange to meet her. This "first glimpse," which can last anywhere from five minutes to perhaps a half an hour, is the first time a woman is uncovered around an unrelated man. Naturally this produces plenty of anxiety for her! The woman's father is also present, but he may leave to allow the couple to speak privately for a short time. I asked the girls what they would say to a suitor. They either giggled or looked horrified and said they wouldn't say anything unless asked.

After this first glimpse, if both of them wish to continue seeing each other, they must sign a 'promise' of sorts that makes them a legal couple. They are then able to see each other in public, call each other, etc. during their engagement period. At an engagement party, the man presents expensive jewelry to her and pays a hefty dowry. As in our culture, the engagement can last a few months up to a year or more. If a girl gets engaged while in university, she will often wait until she finishes to have the wedding. Unlike in our culture, however, the engagement is an actual marriage contract, and breaking it technically means that the couple has divorced. I asked if the woman can change her mind during this engagement period, and they assured me that yes, of course she could. The wedding can be canceled, but she would still be considered divorced, despite never having enjoyed any of the significant perks of being married. (The couple can not live together until after the wedding, though the actual wedding party involves no ceremony. It is strictly a time to celebrate.). I then asked if breaking the engagement was embarrassing. Some told me no; it was up to the woman and she could break the contract with no serious problems. One girl's sister had done just this. Others, though, told me that yes, it was embarrassing – especially to be stuck with the "divorced" label.

The whims of men seeking brides have produced some amusing stories. One girl said her sister was in a candy shop and a man was so taken with her (despite her being covered) that he approached her parents and asked to arrange a meeting with her. Her parents refused, saying that their daughter was not a piece of candy. That was the end of that. Another girl told me a story about a man who saw a photograph of a woman on a birthday cake and immediately asked the store employee for her parents' contact information so he could marry her. It's hard to imagine things like this happening in any society other than one that keeps women so far out of the reach of men.

Eventually I wound my way around to asking the girls what they thought of their marriage system. Did arranged marriages work well? Did they wish they had more choice in who they married? I was actually a bit surprised at the responses. As I had expected, many of them said arranged marriages are an Islamic tradition and that their parents know best whom they should marry. Close to half of them, however, said they wished that they had opportunities to choose for themselves. Why? "Because how can I know if he is a good person?" they said. Five minutes is an awfully short time to judge that.

Only one of my students is married, and one is engaged. The one who is engaged said she saw her fiance for only five minutes at their first meeting. After deciding to continue the relationship, she received a special necklace from him and they are now able to get to know each other during their engagement. They can call each other and meet occasionally. Luckily, she seems very happy.

With just a few of my small groups, I broached the subject of multiple wives. I started by saying, "In Islam, a man can have four wives, right?" They said, yes, that's right, but the Qur'an stipulates that this is allowed only if he has the means to provide for them and only if he treats them all equally. Unfortunately, this rarely happens in real life, where wives often simply reflect on the man's social status. Somewhat awkwardly I asked, "So ... if your husband wanted another wife, would you be ok with that?" The answer was immediate: "No, Teacher!" they gasped. "Would you want that?? I would tell him to divorce me first! No woman would want that."

I know that many of Josh's students have fathers with multiple wives. I didn't outright ask my students if their fathers had more than one wife, and no one volunteered that information if they did. However, I asked about their grandfathers, and several of their grandfathers had two wives. Naturally, wives of the same husband can have rocky relationships. One girl has two sisters, both second wives of their respective husbands. One sister fights constantly with her husband's other wife, while the second sister actually gets along great with the first wife. Sometimes, they told me, a man will take a second wife to get revenge on his first wife if she doesn't treat him the way he demands. But sometimes, the husband and wives work together more productively. One of my students has an aunt who couldn't get pregnant, so she herself chose a second wife for her husband. Ironically, both women then got pregnant and they raised their children together!

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