“Congratulations on your (insert significant milestone)! Here’s to your wedding!” This (or some variation of it) has become a standard salutation, which I, and many other young Arab women have heard upon the accomplishment of a significant milestone in our lives. It is the 21st century, yet social norms in the Arab world still hold tight to the notion that a woman’s goal, nay, destiny must be to get married. Any other ambition or desire must be secondary, and is therefore, less important.
Growing up in a predominantly Arabized culture, dating at a young age was never socially accepted, that is, by families. Couples that were brazen enough to publicize their relationship were often expats, or individuals who came from “liberal” families. Parents instead emphasized the importance of education above all else and instilled within their children the notion that good grades led to a successful future. In turn, this mentality, more often than not, inspired the youth with a sense of purpose, ambition and the desire to achieve greatness, all of which are admirable traits. In my case, and in the case of many other women like me, however, this proved to be a burden more than a blessing.
I always strived to excel academically, so that I may pursue a career in which I can make a difference, accomplish a sense of fulfillment and self-worth, and ultimately live my truth. Upon graduating from university, I’d planned to get a job working for organizations or think tanks, diplomatic missions and so on. I dreamed of working in establishments that aimed to improve lives. I saw for myself a future in which I was a successful workingwoman, proud of my accomplishments. I never expected that, what is objectively seen as an admirable goal could also be a source of shame.
I found that not many within my society found my dreams and ambitions to be as admirable and noble as I did. On the contrary, I found that many criticized my choices. Because my priority wasn’t to “find a husband” (as if husbands were to be picked from an aisle in a grocery story), I was wasting my child bearing years and was going to end up forever alone. My desire to pursue a career, for some reason unbeknownst to me, somehow meant that I was anti-marriage. Many women who seek to fulfill their professional goals are frowned upon and are considered, by society, as too liberal or intimidating, and therefore unapproachable.
In the years since I’ve graduated university, I’ve been faced with comments like, “Why are you still single?” or “When is your wedding?” or “Have you found someone yet?” While these questions in and of themselves may seem harmless, they are really asking a different question altogether: “When are you going to abide by the social norms that have been prescribed to you and stop disgracing your family?” Of course not all families are adamant to have their daughters married off before they are ready, because society deems it necessary. However, in a society where social and familial ties are so strong, it is always harder to defy the status quo and reject social standards that are so deeply embedded in the culture.
The concept of marriage loses its value, its worth, and its sanctity once it becomes an obligation that is forced upon you, and for all the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, I believe that marriage is a beautiful and sacred notion that everyone (who wants it) should be blessed with. It is the start of a new and exciting chapter in life. It can be an exhilarating ride. It should be a source of comfort, love, and safety. Marriage isn’t at odds with wanting to pursue a career, it isn’t at odds with having the desire to travel and explore, it isn’t at odds with wanting to complete your education. You are not forbidden from pursuing your dreams just because you want to get married and you are not forbidden from getting married because you are pursuing your dreams.
So here’s to you, to the ones who want to climb Mount Everest! To the ones who want to get their PhD! To the ones who want to save lives or become the next CEO! And here’s to you, to the ones who want to get married! There is nothing wrong with that.
(Wisam’s story was published as part of Sharing not Shaming campaign by SAFIGI Outreach Foundation Ltd, a not for profit organization based in Zambia with a vision to raise a generation where girls are empowered, equipped and fulfilled in every aspect of their life, for the development of the entire world. To know more about SAFIGI’s goals and activities, visit http://www.safetyfirstforgirls.org)