Tag Archives: family

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.

Saudi women – between yesterday and today

I reflected a couple of posts ago about my induction into camelmum’s circle of trust. While that was a significant step forward for my social standing among the family, I was actually more struck by the amazing generational divide represented by the women in the hareem that evening.

Imagine a large living room with sofas lining the perimeter. Large coffee tables are situated in the middle of the room and smaller side tables positioned between every 2 to 3 seats. Arabic coffee and dates are abundant, and large platters full of chocolates in fancy wrapping are served. When the guests enter the hareem, they first circulate among all the women who are already there, greeting them with handshakes and kisses on the cheek. The closer you are to the person, the more kisses you get. The older women, the matriarchs of their families, are the first to be greeted, followed by the person sitting next to them and so on until the round is complete. Then they choose a seat, generally according to their age group. Naturally, once everyone has arrived, a generational grouping is evident across the room. At the far end of the room, furthest from the door, sit the matriarchs. These are the women of camelmum’s generation – her sisters, sisters-in-law, and cousins, and maybe an aunt or two. Next are the women in their forties and fifties, mixed in with us thirty-somethings (camelmum’s daughters, daughters-in-law, and nieces), followed by  camelmum’s older grandchildren (the teens and twenty-somethings). The little kids (both boy and girls attend) are typically running around the house.

The generational divide between the groups is evident even by their appearance. Most of the matriarchs have a thin black scarf wrapped around their hair, even though there are no men around. I think this signifies their respect to each other and status within the family. They might have some henna adorning their fingernails and hands and their style of dress is typically more conservative and traditional (long, floor-length cotton dresses). Next the 30-50-somethings have got a bit more modern-style clothing – silk blouses and long skirts, or something along those lines. The younger generation sport more modern clothes, from shops like The Gap; jeans, t-shirts, and shorter dresses (although generally still below the knee).

When I look across this hareem, I am amazed by the societal change across the last 60-70 years represented by these women. Camelmum, and the women of her generation, would have gotten married when they were very young – around 14-16 years of age – invariably an arranged marriage, perhaps to a first cousin or more distant relative. Perhaps they had their first couple of children when they in their teens. They probably didn’t have much schooling and may still be functionally illiterate. But they worked hard for their family and raised hard-working, studious kids. Infant mortality rate was high too (even in 1976, after camelman was born, it was high at 90 per 1000 births); camelmum herself lost 5 out of the 11 babies she gave birth to. They would have witnessed the immense change brought on by the rise of the oil economy in Saudi Arabia. Camelmum grew up in a small village called Al Ghat, about 260 km from Riyadh. Her sister, who still lives in Al Ghat, can remember when the Canadian engineers (from Bell Canada) came to install the telephone lines there and when electricity was hooked up to her house.

By the time her kids were growing up, all of camelmum’s sons and daughters had the opportunity to attend university and even study abroad (for the boys), thanks to the growing wealth of the country. All of my sisters-in-law completed university, although they were generally relegated to becoming teachers, social workers, or administrators. Marriage trends were changing too, with  the age at marriage slightly increasing (all of camelman’s sisters and sisters-in-law got married when they were between 18 and 25 years old). Once they became full-time mothers, though, it was generally accepted that they stop working to stay at home and raise the kids, an attitude, I should point out, that is still not unheard of, even in some present-day western societies.

The really interesting jump is evident with camelman’s older nieces, the ones who are just starting university now. I watch them interacting with each other much as  young women in the West do – with their iPhones, sharing photos and the latest jokes from the internet and videos from Youtube, talking about Facebook, recent blockbuster movies they watched in Dubai, and the latest fashions and wonders of MoroccanOil. These bright young women are all in university, studying science, dentistry, pharmacy, and related fields. One of them is attending Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University – a huge new university (complete with its own monorail system) aiming to be the largest female-only university in the world. They have ambitions to go on to graduate degrees and even go abroad to for post-graduate studies – and most tellingly, all this with the support of their parents. Ask them about marriage and they brush the topic aside. No time to think about it – education and career comes first!

As for the little girls running around the house, singing and chattering on about SpongeBob SquarePants – well, I can’t even imagine what their futures will look like, but am sure it will be open to even more amazing opportunities.

the circle of trust

The system for social invitations in Saudi is more complicated than I thought. This topic became of interest to me because of the realization that a recent party hosted by my mother-in-law symbolized my induction into the broader invitation-inclusion circle among camelman’s extended family members (the “circle of trust”, if you like). Of course, the significance of this party completely went over my head. I didn’t even know I wasn’t formally in the wider circle of trust yet. Good thing I’ve got a cultural interpreter (camelman) to guide me through these things.

Camelmum hosted a party in my honor several weeks ago. It was a bigger event than other parties she’s had in the past. She invited all the extended members of the family – so not only her daughters, daughters-in-law, cousins, aunts, and nieces – but to the far reaches of the extended family –  the matriarchs of the broader group of distant cousins. She went all-out for the food too. She had a 3-meter buffet set up in the courtyard, featuring ‘dhabiha’ (a whole roasted lamb), which is a must-have for any proper party, and an extensive assortment of salads, main dishes, and desserts. I thought she just wanted to have a bash with all of her friends. But it was, in fact, an event to signify my joining the family as her daughter-in-law. This event was 3 years after the fact, not because it’s taken her this long to accept me into the family, but because of our unique situation of living in North America. We weren’t considered ‘settled down’ yet, with all our back and forth trips between Vancouver and Riyadh. She’d hoped that we’d actually settle down in Saudi Arabia, but I guess after 3 years, she realized that wasn’t happening anytime soon and time was passing by. Also, we didn’t have our wedding in Saudi, and normally such a party would occur after the wedding and the new couple established in their own home.

So now that I have been formally introduced to all the extended family members through this party, it appears that my social status has changed somewhat. I have now been officially inducted into the extended family invitations list. To the extended family, this means that along with camelman’s other sisters-in-law, they need to remember to invite me to major family functions, such as weddings, holiday parties, ‘estraha’ parties. Looks like my social calendar for future visits to Riyadh will be much busier. At the same time, I am also now in a position to host parties of my own when the occasions arise. Given that I have yet to host a proper Wednesday night girls-night-in bash, I sure hope that camelmum will teach me how to roast a whole lamb. Or at least give me the phone number for the best dhabiha take-away in town.

I am in.