Suspicion, slurs and stings -- these are the comments a stigmatized single woman in her thirties is most likely to be subjected to in the Arab world.
As the Middle Eastern wedding season draws to a close, during which it seems that everyone you have ever met (and their cousin/dog/camel) is getting hitched, the plight of the single 30-something female in the Arab world is at the forefront of familial discussions and headshaking.
A Middle Eastern singleton is no Carrie Bradshaw, celebrated for remaining a strong and independent woman bucking traditional trends and expectations and navigating her love life in a hostile environment (whether it be New York or Amman). No, a single unmarried Arab woman in her thirties has it bad. The social stigma she carries is not unlike those old maids of the bygone Victorian era - immediately branded a spinster after she passes her 30th birthday as a single lady, and, for all their hospitality, Arabs take their gloves off when it comes to snide comments on marital status (or lack there-of).
In more traditional times, it was customary for girls to get married at a young age - anywhere between 16 and 25 would see you wedded off to a nice man who could pay your father a handsome dowry.
There’s been a low-level revolt by women in the Western world casting aside the shackles of marital expectation - with the desire to climb the career ladder and achieve life ambitions aside from those of the reproductive cycle, the age of marriage is getting later and later in the Western world. Middle Eastern women are following the same trend - a greater number of Arab women are marrying at a later age or not marrying at all. According to a study by the Population Reference Bureau, as many as 15%-21% of women aged 35-39 in countries like Tunisia, Algeria and Lebanon are unmarried. With better education, a growing number of career opportunities and greater financial independence, this trend is projected to accelerate and expected to cause chagrin amongst parents chomping at the bit for grandchildren across the Middle East.
Despite these very real societal trends, many in the Arab world have their head in the past and have an unfortunate habit of treating those single and over the age of 30 as pariahs, desperate or just plain weird.
A slew of questions spew forth at every family gathering that all hint at the same thing - to paraphrase Beyonce - why has no one liked that and why has no one put a ring on it?
A word of caution to the ladies: Now that you’ve crossed the 30 barrier, understand that you’re in the market for the social misfits and you'll be lucky to land a divorcee or widower! Even if you'd not ruled out the more experienced man, the blatant presumption that you're past your prime in what you can command may be mildly insulting. Your love life is now everybody's business - beware of the infamous family get-togethers - there is no way your third aunt twice-removed won’t have some nice young lad (ibn halal) in mind.
Several charming Arabic words and phrases have been specially formulated by distant relatives in a bid to question the motives of the singleton - our favorite being “Allah yostor aleaki” - what amounts to the charming suggestion that you should keep your eye out for a desperate widower. You might even be pressured to veil or unveil (depending on your current situation) to suit the men available on the market. Nothing rankles more with the thirty-something than the insinuation that she has had her days and should stop waiting for her Brad Pitt or Arabian Prince Charming or even ‘love’. And then there's the absurd notion or Arabic old wives' tale that marriage will cure that stubborn late onset acne.
From the tasteful “Habibti, you’ve been on the market for too long - you’re old goods or used baggage” (what am I, on an airport conveyor belt?) to the moribund expression adopted when talking to the aforementioned single lady, we’ve been on a quest to find the most insulting and ridiculous things you’ll be asked or told if you are unattached in the region in your 30s. Insinuations, digs and straight up jibes, laced in downright disapproval dressed in pity, feel the burn with our 30-something daughters, sisters and friends and laugh off the predicament of the ‘old maids’ on the singles circuit-- always keeping in mind that 30s are the new 20s and subverting the notion that a single woman in possession of a ‘3’ prefixing her age, must be in want of a husband.