First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage?

“We don’t have the freedom to choose our husband, you know,” eighteen year-old Sherifa said matter-of-factly. “When he comes, he knocks on the door, he comes to my dad, asks for my hand, and proposes.  My dad comes to consult me and then I get to see him like with the hijab on, and we sit together with his family and mine, and speak so I can understand him and he can understand me.  And if he’s the match, we get married and then that’s the end of the story.” She paused before punctuating her final pronouncement on the matter, “And then our children get married.”

Qataris and women from other Gulf Arab nations do not have the luxury of trolling for mates on popular dating sites such as Match.com. In a region where signs of progressive, western influence are everywhere, the dating game remains steeped in centuries of tradition.  My husband and I relocated to Saudi Arabia from Washington, DC in 2000, and later to Qatar in 2004 to pursue a new life and career opportunities.  As a writer, I have made a concerted effort to become familiar with the region’s customs, trends, and most significantly, its people. In my venture to learn more about the young women of Qatar, in particular, and how they negotiate the creep of westernization with age-old Arab traditions, I interviewed a group of young female Qatari students.  Among the variety of topics we discussed, dating and marriage drew strong reactions.

Mixed-Gender Arab Wedding

On any given night in most American cities, nervous and excited single men and women gather in boisterous sports bars and crowded restaurants.  Amidst the white noise of unyielding chatter or televised basketball games,people pass between one another, doing their best to crack jokes and make a great first impression in the hopes it may lead to that coveted first date. Little do they know that halfway around the world their Arab peers are experiencing their own, much different version of dating.

For most Arabs, courtship unfolds in a pragmatic, systematic manner. However, specific customs vary broadly by region.  For example, conservative Gulf region countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman follow conventional dictates of arranged marriage rituals in the Arab culture.  These six nations with ties going back to the ancient Najd Arab tribes of Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, ascribe to “khaleeji” culture: each country shares the same dialect, clothes, food, music, and the more traditional courting customs.

Even sophisticated young Qatari women like Sherifa, currently studying business and law at Swansea University in Wales, have strong beliefs regarding courtship and marital practices.  While moderating a school debate on courtship and arranged marriage, sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, Sherifa voiced her resolute views.  One of the panelists, a young, Qatari male who argued in favor of Qataris dating in the same way that Westerners date, drew her ire. “He’s a Qatari, and he wants to date!” Sherifa recalled, her eyes flashing.  “I don’t know what he was thinking.  He really gave me a headache that day.”  I asked Sherifa to elaborate. Repositioning her headscarf, Sherifa continued, “It’s against our culture, and not everyone absorbs the idea that now we have the freedom to do everything. Like if I want to see Jassim, let’s say, like know him better, more than a friend but as a boyfriend, it’s like ‘A’ib’ (shame) on you to do that.”

Entertainment at Mixed-Gender Arab Wedding

Gender segregation plays a role in this mindset.  Sherifa, like many young, unmarried Qataris, spent most of her formative, adolescent years with other girls before entering college and the world of co-ed campuses.  I asked the other women for their responses to Sherifa’s opinions, wondering if they shared her traditionalist notions.  Fatma, a twenty-two year-old, well-spoken Qatari woman studying journalism at Qatar Foundation’s Northwestern University offered, “Well, I wouldn’t go for an arranged marriage blindly.  I’d rather know the guy from school, or work, or actually have had a conversation with him, you know, not real dating, just you know publicly and then having him go to my parents.”  Mouza, also attending Northwestern University in Qatar, chimed in, “It’s like big proof that they love you, if they go to your parents when they propose.” The other girls nodded in assent.

The closest thing to dating in Gulf countries takes the form of a pre-marital meeting between the bride and groom that takes place in the bride’s home within direct view of family members.  In contrast, Arab countries outside of the Gulf region, particularly countries like Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan exercise greater leniency regarding the tradition of arranged marriage.  In some cases, young men and women have a say in the selection of a marital partner.  Despite this courtship liberalism, dating normally becomes restricted to public places with a chaperon in tow, usually from the bride’s family.

Whether inside or outside the Gulf region, courtship and matrimony are deeply intertwined with the concept of family; kinfolk take intimate roles in nearly every step of the courtship process.  The business of seeking out a potential female mate for nephews, sons, or grandsons typically falls to aunts, grandmothers, and mothers.  This community of women may also make the initial contact with the prospective young woman’s family, usually her mother.  Fathers, however, sign the final marriage agreement, along with the bride and groom and witnesses.  To westerners, this practice may seem oppressive or even overly intrusive. However, for couples in the Gulf region, this hands-on involvement often strengthens family ties and brings the benefit of parents’ experience to the new couple.

According to the young Qatari women I interviewed, weddings, parties, and other gatherings are all common venues for this important search.  “Women only” weddings provide a particularly good opportunity for these family members to “scout out” potential marriage material.  These weddings find scores of unmarried young women glamorously attired in formfitting, low-cut, luxurious gowns, gyrating the night away on raised platforms in the center of overflowing ballrooms to popular Arab music.  If a young lady is lucky, her mother may just receive a call the following day from a wedding participant.  If there is a good vibe between the women this normally leads to the next step in the process: protracted family meetings.

In Qatar and the Gulf nations it is compulsory that families of the bride and groom communicate or meet first, before the prospective bride and groom are introduced, in order to determine the suitability of the union.  These meetings precede the Khutuba, or engagement ritual; the Melcha (Aqed Zawaaj), the marriage agreement/contract; and ultimately the wedding celebration.  The visits between the families provide the time to probe the laundry list of desirable characteristics from the appearance and personalities of the prospective mate’s family, to the career of the father and rest of the family members, to the family’s wealth: The groom’s father is an engineer, for example; this bodes well in the bride’s mother’s eyes.  The bride has a brother working at a prestigious law firm in London; this gives the groom’s father a confident feeling about the match.

Eighteen year-old Sara recounted that her sister’s match followed in this traditional vein.  Sara is a soft-spoken girl with delicate facial features, currently studying graphics and fashion design at Virginia Commonwealth at Education City in Qatar.  “His mother saw my sister at a wedding,” Sara said. “She thought my sister was really beautiful and a good girl, and that they should propose to her for their son.  So, they came to my house, and they told my family, we would like to propose to your sister, to your daughter.  This is how we get to know them and we found out he was a good guy, my brother in-law.” Sara paused briefly, smiling, “He is really a nice guy, and they got married.”

For Sara, having her family in general and her father, in particular, closely involved in the courtship process is crucial. “My Dad really knows me,” Sara stated.  “Like my brother-in- law, when he proposed to my sister, my father made sure he was going to allow my sister to drive and continue her education. That’s why I think my Dad’s opinion is very important.”

Despite the cultural constraints upon her, and her strong views on formal dating, Sherifa believes she will meet her future husband at work.  I asked her if she felt she would need the permission of her father before she married that “special person.”  Taking a sip of bottled water, Sherifa replied, “Maybe if I ask my Dad’s permission it would be easier for me, because even if I’m married to this guy who I love I would still be thinking about my family, because family is like the most important thing in our society, our beliefs and our culture and everything.”  Sherifa continued undeterred, “Because I’m carrying his name.  For us here in this society, we have to respect that I’m carrying my father’s name.”

The process of creating marriage is different for East and West cultures, yet it seems a universal mindset persists for women of this generation who are impacted by global and cultural changes.  Marriage, arranged or otherwise, might just take a backseat to career pursuits and individual growth for an expanding segment of the female Qatari population.  Sara, pursuing a career in graphic arts and fashion design conceded, “Maybe after 10 or 20 years I’ll see myself married and having babies.”  Similarly,eighteen year-old, Mouza, who hopes to own Al-Jazeera (TV News Broadcasting Company) someday, told me she never really thought about finding a future husband. “My biggest concern now is to finish school and get my degree, and then I’ll start thinking about that stuff,” she said.  “I have more important things to think about.”

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8 comments on “First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage?

  1. In the end, its best if you have the freedom to choose the method by which you find a spouse. My marriage was not arranged, but i can see the benefit of such a practice. In America, most families are not as closely involved with the lives of their children as they are in Arab cultures, so its hard to imagine how arranged marriages might work. However I have a lot of single American girlfriends who are frustrated with the dating process. They have the freedom and responsibility of choosing a mate on their own, but so many choices can be dizzying.

    • I completely agree with you regarding the benefits of freely choosing the method that suits you in finding a partner, but feel that ultimately cultural (and sometimes religious) traditions play a major role. Like you, my marriage was a “love marriage,” but studies have shown that arranged marriages can be as successful as “love marriages,” and I think this is due, in part, to the advantages of drawing upon the matrimonial experience of parents and other family members. And, yes, the close family ties would certainly seem to make arranged marriages easier to effect and ultimately more practical and successful in the Arab world. Thank you for visiting my blog and for your insightful feedback!

  2. I really like your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you create this website yourself or did you
    hire someone to do it for you? Plz respond as I’m looking to construct my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from. cheers

    • Thank you for the kind words! I created my blog through wordpress.com, a very “user friendly” blogging medium. With wordpress.com you don’t need to do any website construction of your own; you simply choose a blog title, and a themed background for your blog and you’re set to go. My themed background is: “itheme2.” The photo depicted in the background is a personal one from Petra in Jordan that I downloaded to my blog site. I appreciate you visiting my blog!

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