matchmaking, Saudi style

The other day, as I was chatting with a new acquaintance of mine, I found myself wondering, what’s her last name? does she come from a nice family? should I introduce her to so-and-so? This brings me to another sign that I have been Saudi-ized – wondering whether the young Saudi women in my circle could be a potential match for some eligible young Saudi bachelors that I know.

There’s a lot of sensational anecdotes about marriages in Saudi, such as stories about elderly men getting married to young teenage girls. While unfortunately such situations do occur, they certainly shouldn’t be considered the norm. Why such situations are allowed to happen in the first place is another issue entirely.

But here, I want to describe what, from my knowledge, happens when a young, twenty-something man or woman from an urban, middle-class family wants to get married. As you know, there is little or no opportunity for young men and women to mix (officially) as they are growing up,  and dating openly is absolutely out of the question. (There is dating, but it’s not like you can bring your girl/boyfriend home to meet the parents.) I know of a couple of eligible Saudi bachelors who have let their parents know that they would like to find a wife. Now the wheels start turning. The bachelors’ mother and sisters, and possibly aunts and cousins, will start inquiring (discreetly) about potential mates. They may have already had someone in mind (e.g. she may be a classmate of the bachelor’s sister), but need to find out more information about the woman’s family – what are her parents like? Are they open-minded? Are they nice people? What sort of work do they do? What are her brothers and sisters like? What type of family are they? (It goes without saying that the family must be tribal; not necessarily the same tribe, but belonging to some tribe. Again, that is another issue altogether that deserves a separate post.)

Of course, a young woman may even have no idea that she is under consideration by a friend or a friend-of-a-friend of hers as a potential match for one their bachelor relatives. It’s a very delicate situation for the bachelor’s side too. Saving the feelings of any “candidates” (sorry, I can’t think of a better term to use) is of utmost importance, and the topic is not even broached to her until they are very confident that the bachelor will like her. So there’s a lot of surreptitious observation of the candidates, e.g. if the bachelor’s sister attends classes or a wedding celebration with the candidate, and observing her behaviour, demeanour, and attitude in different settings.

[That being said, imagine yourself as a 20-something young Saudi woman. You may always have to assume that you are being evaluated by your friend/classmate/co-worker/acquaintance as a potential wife for their brother/son/nephew. That’s a lot of pressure – that is, if you care about getting married. Rather than go through this potentially nightmare-ish scenario, some Saudi women have chosen to focus on their careers and not get into this process at all.]

So if you’re on the bachelor’s side, once you have identified and agreed upon someone, the bachelor’s father may phone the woman’s father, and introduce the idea. In the case of one of camelman’s nieces, that first phone call then initiated months of “investigation” by her father and brothers. They knew the family was reputable, so they pursued it. They talked to the guy’s classmates, co-workers, boss – basically used all their connections and did everything they could to find out as much about him as possible. This was done as surreptitiously as possible too. (I don’t know if that’s typical, but how else can the woman’s family find out about someone in this kind of society?)  Once they were satisfied, Camelman’s niece could meet the guy in person (chaperoned, of course). They liked each other, and so continued on into an “engagement”, getting to know each other more by phone/text and other supervised visits. (Eventually they got married and so far, this process has seemed to work out successfully for them.)

This is just one example of how marriages take place in Saudi, and from what I understand from Camelman’s family, is a typical scenario among the city-dwelling middle-class. As a female, it’s basically like you’re waiting for men to inquire for you. However, I should emphasize that, at least for Camelman’s family, the women could always say yes or no about whether she wanted to even meet the guy, let alone marry him.

Unless you come from a very open family, it would be very difficult to introduce someone you met yourself to your family and be open about how you actually met them (e.g. if you met someone on Facebook or other online social network). You could potentially come up with a scheme to get around that, but if that weren’t possible, you’d be in a difficult position. Every family and every situation is different, of course, but I think that people have to start questioning whether they are harming or helping their society more by insisting on this unnatural separation of males and females, especially during their formative years. The statistics about divorce rates in Saudi, despite the very strong social and religious stigma about divorce, may say it all.

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