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More than a bride

March 27, 2024 at 9:18 am

Bride holding bouquet [Getty]

Fatema Khaled tried to run away whenever she saw a swarm of aunties coming towards her. As they approached, she dreaded the question that she knew they would ask. Her heart would thud. Breathing in, breathing out, she would calm herself, and put on a fake smile. And then it arrived: “Fatema, when are you getting married?”

This is a question that no 12-year-old should ever answer. She looked for her mother to come to the rescue, pretending that she never heard them, and smiled.

Flash forward nine years, and 21-year-old Fatema Khaled fields the same question and receives compliments that she looks like a bride. It happens at every family gathering. Now she feels the whole weight of her family asking her the question or telling her that she looks like a bride. The clock ticks faster the more she hears the incessant nagging of her family members reminding her about marriage.

“The older I get, being compared to a bride isn’t a compliment any longer,” she explained. “It escalates into different territory, where it makes me anxious, like there’s a ticking time bomb whenever I attend family gatherings or weddings.”

Marriage in the Middle East holds immense cultural significance, woven intricately into family and community values.

In Arab societies the institution is often perceived as a celebration of the emergence of a new family and the bringing together of old families, strengthening the community. This means that marriage isn’t simply a personal matter, it’s a community issue that exposes the importance of family and its deep-roots in Middle Eastern societies. Family means everything, and marriage is a crucial part of family. As a result, Arab families will always remind little girls, especially, of their good fortune by comparing them to a bride.

For most Arab girls, this is the norm once puberty hits. Go to a wedding and they are told, “I hope you also get married.” Little do our relatives know that these relentless reminders about brides and marriage have an impact on our sense of identity, and it isn’t always positive. The pressure becomes overwhelming for many women faced with the burden of societal expectations and the fear of not being able to handle the weight of marriage. If they don’t get married, they feel like failures.

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In many Arab societies, where traditional gender roles still dominate, the surge in divorce rates plays a crucial role in the pressure that many girls feel that marriage must last forever. Many young women are having a serious rethink about marriage in general.

“In the Middle East, many girls are consumed by their fear of failing their family members if they don’t get married as the divorce rates increase,” said Dina Afifi, a family therapist based in Egypt. Divorce may be lawful, but it is frowned upon intensely, and carries a stigma, especially for women. The more the divorce rates increase, the more women will face the dilemma of conforming to the ideal as a bride or resisting this moulded identity. To disappoint their parents or to not? That is the question.

Fatema Khaled is struggling with this dilemma as she navigates her way through life in her early twenties. “Knowing that I’m at the same age as my mother when she got married and that my twenties are the prime time for marriage just causes me a great deal of angst that I’m not well equipped to handle right now,” she explained.

This burden is something that many Arab women face on a regular basis as Afifi confirms. “Many of our relatives believe that telling young girls that they have the attributes of a bride equates to them being called beautiful, but it can actually be the complete opposite. All this intended compliment does is cause unwarranted anxiety and stress, especially for women who are still not married.”

Khaled believes that the constant comparison to being a bride and the pressure of marriage should not be applied in this day and age. “As young girls, we have familiarised ourselves with the compliment and, as we grow older, this familiarity turns into unnecessary anxiety because we are so much more than being a bride. We have dreams and aspirations that go beyond wanting to be a bride,” she pointed out.

According to Afifi, confining the future of Arab girls to being a bride one day limits their personal and professional growth. “If all their lives they’ve heard from people whom they love and respect that they look like a bride or that they hope they get married, they will do whatever it takes to chase marriage, instead of developing an identity that isn’t necessarily tied to being someone’s wife,” she said.

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However, Afifi acknowledges that it isn’t the notion of marriage itself that instils this “fear” within Arab girls, it’s the pressure that surrounds it that makes it unbearable for some. Fatema Khaled is one of them. “Why not just tell young girls that they’re beautiful instead comparing them to a bride?” she suggested.

While that may be easy for many people, there are also some who oppose what she stands for. Shaikha Al Thani is 34 and from Qatar. She believes that comparing a girl to a bride is a beautiful accolade. “Being called a bride is a normal, harmless and positive compliment,” she insists. Afifi admitted that being called a bride can indeed have positive connotations that can help to boost self-esteem and confidence.

Al Thani, who is married, was told many times when growing up that she looked like a bride on special occasions like Eid, yet took it in a very different way compared with Khaled’s approach. “When they used to tell me that I looked like a bride,” said Al Thani, “I was elated.” She also felt attractive. “Such a compliment is a symbol of beauty in our culture.”

Now Al Thani hopes to pass on this compliment to her 11-month-old daughter when the time comes, and that she will pass it on to her daughter, and so on. “I would love see her as a bride one day with a life of her own and then being a positive role model for her own children,” she said.

For Fatema Khaled, though, that hope is anathema. “I just hope there will be a time where young girls don’t face the same pressure and anxiety of ‘You look like a bride’ and marriage that I’m facing,” she concluded. “No one should have to go through that.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.