Reasons for spinsterhood: Education, poverty, expensive dowries [Archives:2006/1000/Reportage]

November 20 2006

Fatima Al-Ajel
[email protected]
& Nawal Zaid

Tribal societies like Yemen consider marriage a basic life value and women who don't marry by a particular age face rumors and questions about why they don't marry.

The phenomenon of spinsterhood isn't limited to a particular community; rather, it's widespread across several communities in both educated and illiterate societies. Various factors affect spinsterhood: men who are unable to pay expensive dowries to a girl's family, poverty and educating girls, which takes several years.

Such marriage issues and many others negatively impact women's psychology, particularly in Yemeni society, which blames the woman. In some areas, when a woman reaches age 30 without getting married, people label her a spinster and she then has a slim chance to wed.

Unfortunately, some fathers don't care as much about their daughters' happiness as they do about money. “I'm 30 years old and I haven't married yet because my father refused my coworker, who still must improve his financial position,” Salwa Mohasin explains, “This is why I'm still unmarried.” Women in Yemeni society aren't allowed to give their opinion on the dowry or other marriage costs.

Some parents list many requirements for the groom to provide, the most important of which are the expensive dowry, furniture and other items. In this instance, the groom starts believing that marriage is a dream that's impossible to achieve.

Houda Al-Saleh, 35, hasn't married due to such expensive requests. “Many men proposed to marry me. When my father refused them all, rumor spread in the neighborhood that my father doesn't want me to marry, so for two years, no one has come to ask for my hand.”

Many daughters become victims of their father's selfishness often because they work and are responsible for the household's income. Thus, fathers create reasons for a man who proposes for his daughter.

“Saba” and her five sisters were forced to remain unmarried and live with their father, who depended upon their salaries. After he died, only two sisters married because they still were young, whereas the other three haven't. “My two sisters and I are past age 40, so it's impossible to find men who are at the same age to marry,” she adds.

Many youths prefer to marry girls from rural areas, thus increasing spinsterhood in the urban areas. Men think uneducated rural girls are more innocent and easy to control, says Jamal Hassan, a 28-year-old educated man. He married an illiterate rural girl after hearing negative comments about educated women who like to control life themselves, adding, “My parents and friends advised me to marry a young rural girl.”

Unfortunately, many youths think educated urban women claim equal rights with men, thus making it difficult for the husband to control his wife, 25-year-old university student Najla Al-Qasimi remarks. “University women are engaged in studies and seeking knowledge, which is why men favor marrying those with modest education or those who aren't educated. However, some youths do prefer marrying educated women.”

Educated women seek more from marriage, including love, respect and social status. “Frankly speaking, I prefer to marry an educated guy who's sufficiently aware about marriage affairs and establishing harmony between both spouses,” Al-Qasimi states.

Women themselves sometimes are the reason for their own spinsterhood, rejecting several suitors while awaiting a better opportunity. “I'm unwilling to suffer anymore in my life. I spent hard years studying, especially given the lack of facilities for study, so I'll never marry a man who isn't ready for marriage,” declares 30-year-old Hanan Al-Kawkabani.

Samah Al-Alwi, 32, points out that spinsterhood is better than divorce. “I haven't married because I haven't found a good man to be my husband. I prefer to be spinster rather than a divorced woman carrying the responsibility of children,” she notes.

“I never consider myself a spinster because I'm interested in my studies. I ignore society's viewpoint,” explains 35-year-old Arabic teacher Nada Ibrahim. “Spinsterhood was a problem in the past, when women were responsible to their fathers, but many women now are educated and have their own businesses, with some helping their families increase their income,” she adds.

However, when unmarried women reach age 45, they often become frustrated, perceiving that they lack numerous privileges, the most important of which is a marriage partner who loves and understands them. Asma Abdullah blames herself for being a spinster, having refused many men who proposed because she was waiting for a better one. Now, at age 44, most of her friends are married and have children.

Dr. Nabil Mubarak Bin Fahashen of Al-Horabi Hospital states, “Some women age 30 and above suffer numerous organic diseases, particularly in the nervous system. Symptoms are manifested by lack of appetite, being underweight and losing fat in the chest and abdomen, while others suffer diarrhea. In conducting checkups, spinsters don't seem normal. They suffer frustration and other psychological disorders, as well as diabetes and hypertension.”

Decreasing dowries

Some parents who aren't gluttonous for money decrease the dowry when a man applies for any of their daughters, 58-year-old Hadeya Al-Madani notes. “Frankly speaking, if the man applying for any of my daughters is well-bred and responsible, I don't care about money as much as I care about my daughter's happiness.”

Um Ali Zaid, 32, agrees, “Because I have five daughters, I prefer a man applying for any of my daughters to be well-bred and abide by religious principles. I don't care about money. I want the applicant to respect my daughter and treat her kindly.”

She adds, “We've heard about and seen many daughters who became victims of their parents` greed. It's time to stop this greediness.”

According to 30-year-old government employee Hamoud Abdullah Zaid, women's exaggerated requirements are responsible for their spinsterhood. Most condition that the marriage partner must be educated, in addition to other requirements, which are difficult for the man to meet, thus compelling him to seek a rural girl.

“Spinsterhood has climbed to 70 percent during 2006, particularly in cities,” 29-year-old Mona Ali, a member of the National Woman Committee, notes.

Housewife Fahmia Mohammed Al-Shehab, 41, illustrates, “Of those who applied for me, I preferred one who was educated as a main condition, in addition to having a good job and abiding by religious principles. I also preferred to live with my husband in a private home.”

Al-Shehab adds that due to the increasing numbers of women, men often are found to be married to more than one and they usually prefer marrying girls under age 18.

Tribal traditions also are a reason for spinsterhood, as some parents refuse to marry their daughters to outsiders. Higher-class Yemenis also refuse to marry their daughters to men from lower classes, another factor making marriage impossible.

In rural areas, spinsterhood begins at age 18 and even younger in some villages. In such areas, people consider an 18-year-old girl a woman suitable for marriage, particularly if she isn't enrolled in school. This notion is backed by 35-year-old Islamic Education teacher Mujahed Al-Badawi. However, in cities, spinsterhood begins at age 25, an idea supported by 29-year-old housewife Intisar Sare'e.

Wrong points of view

Some families request high dowries because they mistakenly think it will preserve their daughter's dignity. They also think more money will ensure that her husband won't ever neglect her. But a man intent on abusing his wife will do so no matter what the cost of her dowry or he won't ask for that girl.

The real assurance of a good marriage is a good choice of partner, rather than money, which won't last. However, many parents say they feel social pressure to demand a high price for their daughters' hands. “If I request just a small dowry, people will think there's something wrong with my daughter,” says a father of seven girls.

The elderly consider it best for a girl to marry young “Let the 8-year-old girl get married and I guarantee a successful marriage!” declares 70-year-old Amina Al-Marrani, “When the girl becomes older, she'll be of no help anymore.” Such thinking means she must marry at a younger age in order to be obedient to her spouse.

Are Yemeni men bachelors?

For Yemeni men, bachelorhood isn't a phenomenon because they can decide to marry anytime. Men like Amin Al-Hawathi indicate that they simply don't want to wed because marriage is a great responsibility. But in some cases, men over age 30 are unmarried because they can't afford the marriage costs.

“I can get married anytime because dowries are low in our area,” notes 30-year-old government employee Nabil Al-Khamis.

Adel Al-Haimi, 29, agrees, “I prefer to remain a bachelor but I could wed even at age 40 because any girl would accept me as long as I can provide her with all she wants.”