All the Single Ladies: Lebanon's Women Marrying Later
Her scattered grey hairs seem to render the trick of hiding them beneath colored hair useless. Her eyes have lost their former glow. Her facial lines are “under control” thanks to cosmetics whose container “annoys” her, as it suggests her age. Her stomach is slightly rounded. The fat refuses to burn. She gestures to the bed she has slept in for years to justify her habitually bad mood. Her “disengagement” with her body is evident in her purchase of things that she does not need, her growing intrusiveness, and her interest in details. She is also a chronic workaholic.
The rapid passage of time makes the accomplishments of her 30-plus years seem unwelcome. Neither a postgraduate degree, promotion in her career, nor financial independence diminish her haunting sense that something is “missing.”
Even when she knows that is illogical, her society, which boasts about how it defends its values, does not. It still refuses to accept the consequences of its new reality.
The fact is that the average age of marriage in Lebanon is 30 for females and 35 for males, according to surveys conducted by the organization Information International in the last three years.
Much has been written about the reasons behind late marriage. These include low wages, costly housing, the effects of emigration on both sexes, the marriage of males to foreign spouses, and lifestyle expectations caused by consumerism. Women’s educational attainment, freedom from male economic control, and career ambitions are also contributing factors.
There were about 4,850,000 officially registered Lebanese citizens by the end of 2011, of whom 49.9 percent were males and 50.1 percent females. Information International’s Muhammad Shamseddin explains that emigration – which continues to drain the population at a rate of 30,000-35,000 per annum – distorts the gender balance because about 70 percent of emigrants are male. The end result is a male-female ratio of 44-56 among the roughly 3,750,000 registered citizens who live in Lebanon.
Conforming to Stereotype
But the above factors and figures relate only to the institution of marriage. There are no statistics on cohabitation, which remains largely frowned upon by society and illegal in the personal status law.
“The constant struggle between the stereotype and the transformed reality creates a prevalent logic of deception in society,” remarks anthropologist Maha Kayyal. She describes the result as a society that is “shackled by cultural inheritance.”
One feature of this “deception” is that women must satisfy their sexual needs in a deceptive manner that enables them to conform to the stereotype when later entering the institution of marriage, even when their own convictions are at odds with it.
Kayyal says this categorizes Lebanon as what anthropologists describe as a “cold” society, one that retains a mythic code of thinking, and which is slow to adapt culturally to social change.
Lure of Motherhood
When “Eve” discusses her life, she hides behind a pseudonym in order to be able to disclose her inner thoughts, though it is her society that is laid bare by the distress in her words.
She knows that living alone imposes restrictions on social interaction which, because of the stereotype, do not encumber the married. It also increases the nagging of mothers and aunts.
Yasmine, a 32-year-old college professor, is not ready to venture into a “compromise” marriage with “whoever” in order to fulfill her dream of having children. But that does not mean she has no “deadline,” after which she might be.
“At 28, I believed I needed to get married so I could coordinate my future baby’s age with mine. But I didn’t find the right person to start a life with, after wasting several years in a relationship that ended in failure. However, my understanding of this ‘sacrament’ has changed since then,” says Yasmine.
Previously, she explains, she wanted to marry for love, “but today, I look for things in common with the other person that could make for a shared life.”
Yasmine has a post-graduate education, a good income and career, and has lived with a “fair” measure of freedom. She has avoided full sexual relations, because they “place family, upbringing, and honor on the line.” As she sees it, “if a young Lebanese man ‘concedes’ and accepts to marry a woman who is not a virgin, he will hold that ‘humiliation’ against her. This forces women to satisfy ‘forbidden’ needs in deceptive ways.”
Yasmine divides the men that she meets into three categories:
“The first is of a suitable age and has a low salary. He is not domineering, because income is important, which is essential for your relationship, without him being dependent of course,” she muses.
“The second is like you. He was late to marry, traveled abroad, and experienced life. He finds your type tempting because society would applaud his choice. But he cannot abide your views, and represents the precise opposite,” she says, adding, “As for the third category, he does not have a future plan. He lives for each day, without promising you marriage.”
She points out that even subconsciously, women will tend to “classify” men in accordance with the standards of the society in which they live, even if they disagree with them. Sadly, men who both she and her society would consider suitable “are not readily available.”
What about the “deadline” after which a compromise marriage might have to do? “If the situation remains the same at 35, I may lower my expectations, which I still see as logical, in order to see my tummy big.”
For 35-year-old college professor Suad, the big tummy “lure” is not worth the compromises. She speaks contentedly of the goals she has set for her life, which revolve around her career and make no provision for motherhood. “I don’t object to it, but as it doesn’t depend on me alone, it will have to involve a change of plans.”
She does not consider herself to have left marriage too late. “With an upbringing that links the age of marriage with the date of university graduation, and places love in the forbidden category, I had a late experience of a real relationship, and it only happened through friendship. That too is in defiance of traditions,” she says.
“But when I am in my work environment, I do not notice it. My social status annoys me only when I visit the village, and see the men who had asked for my hand in marriage – that I refused for various reasons – with their children, or when I find out that my mother has arranged a meeting in order to have me with someone [new].”
She continues: “I do not conceal that I fear this institution. But, in return, I cannot satisfy my physical needs through a relationship outside it, because if I do, society will not do me justice. So constant work is a definite compensation.”
The abundance of unsuitable marriage offers Suad has received lately does not help reduce the fear that shackles her, and extends to the idea of loneliness in old age, which also haunts her.
Breaking the taboo with liberal forms of relationships carries high costs.
Thus, cohabitation, according to 42-year-old broadcaster Ward, is not an alternative to marriage, but a “rehearsal” for it. Even though it satisfies her physical, and some of her psychological, needs, it does not give her stability.
But marriage might not achieve stability either and is more damaging to break than the former relationship – though separation is hard in both cases, she says.
In Lebanon, “the confidential nature of cohabitation drives a woman to feel that she is living with a man who might leave her at any moment, whereas marriage fulfills a social status. Whatever the intellectual, social or professional level of a married couple may be, when they hold hands and enter a society, they are regarded with greater respect than a single man or woman who may have achieved a lot.”
Reaching married status remains an acclaimed accomplishment in a society that has not allowed the economic emancipation achieved by women to spread to other forms of relationships, she says.
However she concedes that “I hide my age in light of the popular idea that links aging to decreased fertility, without losing sight that an unmarried older woman is jealous of younger women who are generally more attractive to men.”
Yet as someone who is aware of her imperfections, she speaks of “the obstacles to having a ‘legitimate’ relationship, the phobia of being cheated on, the details one thinks of, the subconscious image of the authoritarian father and the voluntarily submissive mother…I am not wise enough to overlook the errors and mistakes of my partner, but I am not so stupid as not to notice them. This makes it harder to make the baby that I dream of. I don’t want it to be a gateway to self-deceit.”
For her part, Salma, a 49-year-old artist, is unsure whether the unfamiliar flashes of rage and distress she has experienced since reaching menopause are due to her never having had children or are the residues of a failed romance. “I regret not getting married because I have always wanted children. What compensates for that even though I did not get married, is that I have experienced passion at its finest, when one may spend a lifetime without achieving that.”
She charts her life as follows: “At 30, I experienced an ‘age crisis.’ I had not obtained my higher diploma or started a family or achieved anything noteworthy. I always blamed myself for not being unable to complete anything. I went through a tough period, which was only eased through a relationship that did not develop into marriage, even after all the compromises that I made. As a result, I decided to make up for lost time, such as by buying a house and succeeding academically and professionally. After that my satisfaction at accomplishing my goals got rid of the insomnia that I had suffered from as a result of not being married.”
She continues: “I believe that with declining sexual energy and with the possibility of having children having since passed, I live peacefully today. I do what I please, keeping up with art and exhibitions, which I could not do earlier due to the pressures of life, such as my father’s death and then my mother’s sickness and death. It’s like a period of early retirement.”
Salma admits that it took her a long time to understand that the perfect person cannot create the perfect relationship. The latter is just an illusion associated with stereotypes created by the media and consumer advertising. What she had sought in marriage turned out to be a “fantasy.”
She concludes by saying: “The aura around the ‘love game’ disappears when you take a step back to look at it. Then, you realize that what you like about the other person, even if the chance of finding it falls to 1 percent, is not related to his accomplishments but to the way he sees things. If it turns out to be clear, the details can be worked out in a tranquil setting.”
By Nisrine Hammoud
Now here is a true controversial topic in the Middle East. Is there a lot more pressure placed on single, especially 'mature', Arab women now? Is Middle Eastern society forcing women to 'choose' categories? Please tell us what you think about this topic. We're dying to know!