Feminism | Posted by Helen H on 08/11/2009

‘Til Death?

'Till Death?

Marriage over here (in Jordan)—it’s been bothering me ever since I first started to understand it. This doesn’t happen with everyone, but it’s the way most religious or conservative families go about it.

So, you’re a girl, yes? And you’re at the “appropriate” age for marriage, meaning you’ve finished high school, or in most cases, are almost done with university. So, everyone you know—extended family, neighbors, friends—wants to relieve your parents of the burden you impose on them. Thoughtful, no? They go ahead and take the liberty to tell parents of prospective husbands that you’re available, with details like your age, your field of work, and whether or not you wear a headscarf. You, of course, are not aware of this, until the parents of said prospective husband decide that your attributes are suitable for their son. If they do, they will phone your parents, and arrange for the two families to meet.

A break-down of this meeting. The girl and her mother are present, often with another female family member. The guy’s mother is present as well, again with another family member, often a sister. Now it depends on what the two families prefer whether the guy himself is present or not. I’ve seen cases where his mother goes “bride-hunting” for him without him knowing a thing about it. Anyway, the families talk about several things, and they usually find out that they’re distantly related. Depending on the families’ decision–based on the other family’s reputation, how wealthy they are, whether the girl or guy seems suitable–will decide whether or not to move on.

Usually, the two get to know each other a bit more. But here’s the catch. Most families won’t allow them to be alone together, even in public places, until they are legally in wedlock. This is a pretty fundamentalist interpretation of Islam forbidding “kholwa”, or a male and female who are not related being alone by themselves. Now I don’t have much experience with this, but I’m guessing it’s pretty difficult to get to know your future husband/wife if you have to do it with other people (usually siblings) around.

Right. So let’s assume the guy thinks the girl is respectable, beautiful and “housewife-material”, and the girl sees the guy as respectable, wealthy, and capable of supporting a family enough to get married. The next step is a tradition called the “Tolbeh”. Both families are present, with a sort of representative from each. He’s (yes, they’re always males) usually the most well-known family member or friend, like a former minister or a writer or whatnot, and he does all the talking. Anyway, the groom’s family is offered coffee (a big deal here) but refuse, saying that they will only drink it if they are “given” the bride. Maybe it’s just me, but selling a girl over coffee isn’t doing much for her value, is it? When that show’s over, the couple moves on to engagement—bear in mind that most families will still not allow them to be alone together.

Later on comes what I like to call the legal stuff. After that’s over, the couple is, according to the law, married. They can now be alone together, and if the girl wears a headscarf, she’s now permitted to let her husband see her without it. And finally, comes the wedding.

It really depends on the family how long all of these steps take. I’ve seen them range from a month to a couple of years.

But all I’m saying is maybe, just maybe, this method of courtship isn’t working that well anymore. I appreciate the tradition in what happens after the couple wants to get married, but I don’t think this going “bride-hunting” is all too perfect. I understand that it’s a huge part of culture, and that it might have worked really well in the old days, but it’s different now. Girls go out, they study, and they live their lives. Potential husbands (if any) can be found in other ways than your acquaintances playing tag with each other. And frankly, there’s just something about this method that’s horribly demeaning to both the females and the males involved. A girl I know became horribly moody whenever she had “visitors” and told me she felt like she was in this huge catalogue, like every time the people left she just got this huge cross next to her name. A guy I know got engaged twice just to please his mother, and in the end split up with both girls.

So what do all of you think?

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  • Zoe @ at 2:37 pm, August 11th, 2009

    I can only give the perspective of a white American girl from a liberal, agnostic family.

    And from that perspective, this all seems a little crazy. I try to keep in mind that this IS part of a culture that has existed for hundreds of years. But I really want to know if people today still believe that this is necessary or if it’s simply just been so ingrained into their society that they don’t even question it. While I don’t see any of these traditions as harmful, we still have wedding traditions (white dress, groom can’t see the bride in the wedding dress, the bouquet toss). Not many people stop to make a conscious decision to differ from these traditions.

    I don’t know. I don’t like arranged marriages but I have a hard time bringing myself to seriously argue against other cultures and traditions when I’m just a plain white American girl.

  • Alex Catgirl @ at 5:55 pm, August 11th, 2009

    It’s disgusting , you girls should tell your elder that if they ever hope to see you again they shouldn’t even think about adhering to the old ways.

    It use to be a common practice in the western world as well until the 1800s hundred, latter in some places, only it was the fathers arranging/approving of the would-be suitor.

    That was one of the post-first, pre-second wave (1920s-early 1960s) feminist’s major victories – ending the family sanctioning of marriages, and liberalizing the divorce laws so that women who were pushed into marriages they really didn’t want to be in could get out.

    Cultural revolutions are never pretty, and often violent, but the rewards are well worth it … for modern girls anyways, I’m sure the old men, mothers and clerics will whine about how (their) civilization is collapsing, just like they do here.

  • Helen H. @ at 7:50 pm, August 11th, 2009

    Thanks, both of you, for your feedback.

    Zoe, having grown up in the States, I believed all that nonsense about me being “Westernized” and hence biased in my views of things like arranged marriage. I was as apprehensive as you are when judging traditions like that. But I’ve spoken to a lot of girls here, and a lot of them share my opinion–especially those who are well-read and educated. So, I’ve come to realize that it has nothing to do with Westernization. I think it’s more of common sense.

    Alex, I could not agree more. But I guess it’s interesting here because cultural revolutions in other places around the world have caused a huge generation gap. So, I don’t think a cultural revolution here will have to be as violent, but it all comes down to the girls realizing what is going on–really confronting what their heads are being stuffed with–and realizing that what’s traditional isn’t inherently right.

  • Brooke @ at 11:57 am, August 12th, 2009

    I see a few benefits to this system. It makes finding a partner easier, as opposed to finding a guy at a bar or in class, hoping he is single (and then finding out he is not) or something like that. Also it seems like the two families involved would get along better. Obviously it is a extremely sexist system, but perhaps there are ways in which it can be modernized and improved. Coming from the complete opposite of this every guy I have ever been with has not been good enough for my family, nor have I been good enough for his. Our families have always been in conflict and now I have a child with someone I have been with for 4 years. It is a horrible prospect to think I am tied to people who deep down hate everything about me and think they are better then me (which in my opinion is laughable, but that is another story) without even being legally married.

  • Helen H. @ at 5:54 pm, August 14th, 2009

    Hm… That’s quite a good point, Brooke. It’s true, I guess, that the families over here get to know each other better before committing. But they overdo it sometimes–it’s like the two families are marrying each other based on wealth, reputation, etc., and the husband and wife (especially) are getting little to no say in it.

    And it’s interesting because, you know those stereotypes, those sort of “mother-in-law hates her son’s wife and would do anything to pick at her flaws”? They’re pretty intensified here. Though it doesn’t make much sense. Well, nothing makes too much sense here, anyway.

  • valentine @ at 12:40 pm, August 15th, 2009

    I’m a italian girl and I really appreciate your way of explaining clearly the situation of your country. Like Zoe I think this seems crazy, but I can hear every day stories like this on newspapers, books and tv news. All I can say is that you girls of the young generation have the situation in front of your face and have the possibility to change it. I think if the generation of nowadays and the future one will be albe to speak out these nonsense situations and refuse them using the culture and knowledge the present can really change in better. I guess girls and women must be the first to start a revolution for their rights. We cannot wait for men.

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