- 1 See among others Peletz 1995; Godelier 2004 and Butler 2002.
1Demographers have drawn our attention to the increase of celibacy, the reduction of the age difference between the partners and the fluctuations in divorce rates in the contemporary Middle East. Nevertheless, few anthropologists have focused on these changes and on the implications of these changes on social relationships and on marriage in particular. The study of kinship and marriage is a very old subject in anthropology. New approaches have developed away from genealogies and the study of kinship terms and a whole new approach has emerged under the influence of questions raised by new phenomena such as gay marriage, one parent families etc. mainly focusing on the US and Europe.1
- 2 Cf. Eickelman 1998. The work of Suad Joseph is very rich but still mainly bound by this approach. S (...)
- 3 Sharara-Baydoun 2004; Khair Badawi 2002-2003a and b; Samaha et al. 2001 and Lorfing 1989.
- 4 Omar (2001: 13). An idea reiterated in the Cawtar report where under the major recommendations for (...)
- 5 My research is situated in Beirut and is based on thirty in-depth case studies of unmarried women b (...)
2In studies focusing on the Middle East there is still a strong tendency to approach the subject from the perspective of gender relations and patriarchy, often shaped and redefined under the influence of feminist perspectives and women studies. The main focus, however, remains on power relations, on social hierarchy and ranking, on reproduction of gender roles and gender ideology.2 For Lebanon, interest in these subjects has come mainly from sociologists who adopted the feminist perspective. Azza Baydoun focused on the changing perceptions of femininity and masculinity, Marie-Thérèse Khair Badawi on the sexuality of educated Maronite women and Nadia Samaha and Irène Lorfing on the increasing presence of women on the labour market.3 Nevertheless, Omar points out that “while the patterns and processes of marriage has changed at accelerated levels, our social understanding of them has remained slow in its pace and classical in its outlook.”4 This chapter is based on two years of anthropological research in Beirut dealing with the issue of freedom and social control among young unmarried women. Their lived experience of celibacy can offer an interesting perspective on the changes, transformations and conflicts related to marriage and single life.5
- 6 Papfamh 2005.
- 7 Courbage 2005.
3A recent study from the Ministry of Social Affairs6 shows that the average age of the first marriage for Lebanon as a whole has risen to 28.8 for women (32.8 for men), while Courbage mentions 30.1 for women in Beirut in 2001 as against 24.1 in 1970.7 The reasons usually brought forward to explain this impressive rise are the economic crisis and the demographic inbalance between men and women.
“In many cases the economic cost of marriage has become high and has developed into a burden on the men. As a result, marriage is often delayed for men until the ‘30s, and there is an increasing trend to marry outside of the community. In addition, the lack of marriage feasibility – not enough eligible bachelors due to demographics (too young or too old) or male migration to the Gulf or West – also play a role.”8
- 9 Cf. Singerman and Ibrahim 2001, on Cairo. In Lebanon the costs of marriage include the mahr, which (...)
4Due to economic problems young couples marry later. Singerman in her contribution to this volume shows how marriage involves considerable costs; also in Lebanon these costs are high and mostly if not entirely carried by the man. For a young man it is rare to be able to afford the costs of the marriage preparations and celebration as well as the costs of setting up and maintaining a household.9 The Lebanese press blames the economic crisis as a cause for celibacy and migration, using the subject of celibacy to denounce the situation of the country and inscribing it in a political context.
- 10 Fargues mentions migration for the Lebanese case but gives also a different reason for the lack of (...)
5Migration and its effect on the demographic balance is the second reason brought forward to explain the phenomenon. In Lebanon, it is quite common to hear people say that due to war and migration there are many more women than men in the age category 25 to 35. Some say there is one man for every four women, others go as far as claiming that the ratio is one in seven. Since there is no reliable data on migration, it is very difficult to evaluate these numbers.10
6Economic and demographic factors are certainly at the base of celibacy when seen from a macro perspective but if we look at the daily lives of young single women these macro-factors are blurred by the overall presence of the different reasons these women themselves consider to be the origin of their choice.
7What emerged in the course of my fieldwork was that for the women the main reason is not so much that there are no men but that the problem is to meet the right men. The absence of a partner, who fits their choice, was for most women the main argument to explain their celibacy, after which came their desire to study and work before devoting their time to marriage and family life. The discrepancy between a man and woman’s perception of marriage was also frequently brought forward as well as the fact that the way marriage is generally understood by their parents’ generation did not fit their own perceptions of the way they wanted to be in a relationship with their partner and start their family life.
8In this paper I’ll focus on the question, how increasing celibacy articulates with the changing perceptions of marriage and the different visions of the ideal partner. In the evaluation of a potential husband a multitude of normative references are combined. Social reasons and individual preferences motivate the choice and the resulting category of, on the one hand, the demands of the family and personal preferences, on the other, leaves a young woman with very little choice. One of the main problems for these single women is to harmonise their own, their partner’s and their surrounding’s perception of what marriage is. On the micro level of daily interactions, the conflicting ideas about what marriage is appear as a central conflict in the context of increasing female celibacy. This is also reflected in the increasing differentiation of the way marriages are celebrated and formalised notably with the development of civil marriage, mixed or double ceremonies and the increasing popularity of secret marriages (khatîfeh) and temporary marriages (mut‘a).
- 11 Cf. about Tunis: Aboumalek 1994.
- 12 Flanquart 1999.
- 13 The report from the Ministry of Social Affairs mentions that still 15% of the marriage in Lebanon t (...)
9The question of the choice of the partner is often studied through large sociological surveys that aim to give a representative image of the society.11 This is beyond the scope of this research that focuses on the conflicts arising out of the changes in the definition of the ideal partner and of marriage in general. Two concepts are often used to analyse the choice of the partner and that is endogamy, the practice of marrying within the group and homogamy, the prevalence of marriages between partners who resemble each other culturally.12 In the notion of endogamy lingers the idea of the “ethnic group”, “tribe” or “family” and “religious community”. Traditionally endogamy is also associated with the preference for marriage with close relatives.13 It is based on a perception of marriage as a way to reproduce the social group and to continue the patrilineage. The term homogamy is mostly used to refer to the practice of marrying someone who shares the same ideas and who is similar in educational and cultural background. In a homogamous perspective, similarity is seen as the foundation of a harmonious relationship, a peaceful surrounding for the education of the children.
10In the context of contemporary Lebanon the difference between homogamy and endogamy is often small because the different categories of geographic origin, ethnic belonging, confessional belonging and social class are closely tied together.
11One of the main restrictions on the choice of partner is the obligation to marry within the religious community. Lebanon counts seventeen officially recognised confessions, usually grouped together into four main categories of: Christians (subdivided into catholic and orthodox), Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Druze. The requirement to marry within the religious group is the clearest example of endogamy. It is important to note that some transgressions are easier to accept than others. For a Christian girl it is, for example, easier to marry a Christian from a different confession than a Muslim or a Druze. The topic is discussed in more detail in the chapter by Anne Françoise Weber. Here I’ll only cite some of my informants simply to show the kind of conflict that results from it.
- 14 R is 29 and Sunni from an Egyptian mother and a Beiruti father. At the time of the interview she li (...)
(R) My friend is Druze and she used to be like me, going out and not caring about other people’s confessions but now that she is 27 she has changed. Her parents have been talking to her and in the beginning she complained about them but I guess they had some influence after all. Now she considers that she needs to think about later. The one she should marry should be Druze and so she stopped dating other men and even accepted that her parents introduced her to man. She dated a doctor for a few months. The guy was completely different from her and I don’t understand how she accepted in the first place. After a few months she became depressed and finally she went crying to her mother that she couldn’t stand the guy and so they accepted that they broke up.14
- 15 See also M. Awwad, “masâ’ib al-shabâb al-durzî hayna lâ yakûn al-sharîk min tâ’ifa al-muwahidîn (Th (...)
12The problem of having only a limited choice within one’s own group and of meeting a potential partner is particularly acute among the Druze community in Beirut, because there are not many of them and they are quite dispersed over the city.15 One of the questions is how to meet? Religious activities, but also language courses, or universities as in the case of the Armenians, play a role. One Greek Orthodox priest, head of the parish of Mar Mitr in Ashrafiye was very proud to tell me:
(AD) In my parish, during the 14 years I’ve been working here, I haven’t had one mixed marriage. Of course the church plays a role in this. It is an important place because it offers a pure atmosphere where young people can meet. I already knew my wife ten years before we married and we met in church. Other people meet in university or in pubs but the church offers a better environment. On Friday we have gatherings for young people between 16 and 20 and young people meet each other in the summer camps that we organise.
13Islam forbids a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim. One Muslim Sunni woman intended to marry the Maronite Christian man whom she loved. When she went to announce to her parents that she had decided to marry, they radically opposed her choice. When they found out that she was planning to marry in Cyprus (a civil marriage), her father sent her a message with someone from the village to tell her that she shouldn’t try to come back to the village, that he considered her dead and that she would be killed if she would take one step in the village.
- 16 Younes 1999; Johnson 2001. See also the newspaper article in Al-Nahâr, 06/07/2005.
14Honour killings are not very frequent in Lebanon even if from time to time the press publishes stories and reiterates the heavy debates surrounding this subject.16 Lebanese legislation is still quite lenient despite the recent reforms of the penal code. It is most of all the threat of killing that is still quite efficient as a means of social pressure on the girls. Transgressing these rules of marriage within the confession usually leads to some form of social exclusion: from the community (Druze or when Muslim girl with non-Muslim man), from the family (inheritance or even name).
- 17 NK is 27, Shiite from a not very religious family from Beirut.
(NK) When my father heard that I was having a relationship with a foreigner he threatened me. He said he would disinherit me and even said that he would go to the ministry and have my name removed from the family booklet. I am not sure that legally this is possible but it was a shock that he could react so violently. Maybe he could have accepted a Lebanese from a different confession, but a foreigner was unthinkable.17
15In this testimony it becomes clear that the right origin can mean different things to different persons. For some it refers to a geographical origin: the country, the city, the neighborhood. Sometimes this geographical origin weights more than the confessional belonging. Most of the time it is the socio-economical and cultural background that is implied when referring to a similar origin. One young woman from Sunni origin testified:
(R) When I had a boyfriend from Tripoli my father was against it. He would prefer me to marry Greek Orthodox from Beirut rather than Sunni from Tripoli.
16An older woman from a widely known Sunni family in Beirut explained:
- 18 NT is in her late forties, Sunni from Beirut.
(NT) When my daughter wanted to marry a Shiite, I had my doubts. His family is from the South but they all went to university. The Shiites were first workmen and garbage men but then they studied and made their reputation. I have asked about him, where he was working, where he sleeps, who his family is and he turned out to be a good person from a good family. The place where a person lives is very important. If I had found out that he was living in Basta, I wouldn’t have accepted this marriage.18
17This informant was living in Ras al-Nabaa in the centre of Beirut at the time and Basta is the neighbouring quarter. Her comments show clearly how complex the matter is, how many elements play a role and how it is always possible to find a reason to accept or refuse a person on the basis of his “origin” and often, when the “origin” does not exactly conform to the ideal, then other factors such as “a good family” can compensate.
18There is a lot of pressure to marry someone from a “good family”, ‘â’ila menîha, as they say. The understanding of what a good family actually means differs from context to context and is usually a combination of characteristics. A “good family” has power which means influence in politics and in society. Its members can count on a large network of relatives and acquaintances to access jobs, to facilitate bureaucratic administration, to obtain permissions, to have access to clubs and other semi-private and private spaces for the rich. Wealth is the necessary correlate of the powerful family but often a distinction is made between the nouveau riche and the old aristocracy. To be wealthy is not enough and a really good family also has a name, is part of the aristocracy and often has its roots in feudalism. A good family should also have a good reputation; the members should be well educated and take care of appearing as decent and honest persons.
19The real ‘â’ila menîha combines all characteristics. Some consider respect-ability an essential aspect, others social esteem and wealth. Much depends on the situation of one’s own family in judging others and on the context in which the question arises.
- 19 C is 26, Druze. Her parents lived in Beirut and now in Paris but the rest of her family lives outsi (...)
(C) A good family? It is difficult to say what that means to me. People also say “‘â’ila murataba” or “‘â’ila menîha”. It means honest, healthy, respected. Those who haven’t been in prison and are not involved in prostitution. But not everybody understands it this way. A friend lived in France with her parents and she’s cool but a bit snob. She comes from Rabie, a Christian village in the mountains that is very wealthy. She became engaged and explained to me with pride that her fiancé is from a good family. There she meant that his family was rich and educated and famous but it had nothing to do with honesty and decency.19
20Wealth and social recognition play an important role in evaluating potential candidates. It is not evident to find a man who is financially ready to marry. One man told me:
- 20 E is a Maronite man, 31; his family is from Jbeil.
(E) I am thirty-one now but I am not ready yet to marry. I’ll still need two years to be able to afford a flat and all the expenses of the outings before marriage. You know how Lebanese girls are; they expect you to pay for everything. The most modern among them will insist on paying a tea to feel equal, but they are offended when you propose to share the restaurant bill. And then there is the engagement gift, the jewellery and the marriage party itself. I guess I’ll need 40,000 dollar at least.20
21Nevertheless, many women I talked to complain that it is mainly the men who are interested in financial aspects:
- 21 N is 34, Maronite living with her parents in Beirut.
(NA) When I had boyfriends, I understood them too quickly. There were those who made comments from the very first date, asking a lot of questions. There are the typical questions to evaluate how much you’re worth: “What do you do? Where do you live? What does your father do?” Some are very direct: “Do you earn less than 2500 $ per month?” The questions of men here are not questions about the girl but about her background. Which university did you go to? USJ is the best; ESA is good as well. I went to Jamhour which is neither the best nor the most expensive. Once I had a relationship with a multimillionaire. He left me for another girl and married her. Later, when things didn’t go well between them, he came back to me and told me: “ I didn’t leave you because I didn’t love you, but I needed social esteem.” That really hurt me much more than the idea that he fell in love with someone else.21
- 22 See also M. Fayad, “Taghayur fî mafhûm al-zawâj ‘ind al-lubnâniyîn (The changes in the understandin (...)
- 23 Papfamh 2005.
22Another aspect that is considered important is the level of education. Most families insist that their daughters should marry someone who is at least as well educated as them and preferably even more.22 With more and more girls attending university and completing their studies this is not always obvious. Many men travel, after completing their first degree, in order to work abroad so they can establish themselves in Lebanon upon their return, by which time they’ll have saved enough money to start their own business or have enough experience to obtain a better position. Working abroad is for many also the only way to save enough money to afford marriage. The importance of education for women is widely recognised but many people warn that overqualified women will not find a suitable man. Indeed the average age of the first marriage for women is highest in the categories of very low and very high education, while the statistics for men do not follow this pattern.23
- 24 K is 22, Christian from Armenian origin living with her parents just North of Beirut.
(K) I have studied for four years now and normally to become a lawyer I should do a work placement, but this will take me at least three years. I’ll be 25 when I finish. And actually I don’t know whether I even want to be a lawyer. At 25 and with a high level of education, I’ll have less chance of finding a man. I’ll be old and there are not so many men who have a higher degree.24
23Rather than staying home and waiting for a fiancé to appear, many women choose to invest their time in studies that provide them with the opportunities to go out and meet others. Others choose to work and here too working influences the chances of marriage. On the one hand, it means one has the chance to meet others and the income of the woman could increase her desirability as she could contribute to the household. On the other hand, if she earns more, if she has a better position, potential future husbands could be intimidated.
(NA) When I was promoted to become head of the section, I was honoured and happy about it but also a bit worried since I knew that men are already easily intimidated by me and risk being even more so now that I became their superior in the professional field.
24The same logic that applies to different levels of education also applies to age: a man should be a bit older than his wife. Both rules are related to an ideal that the man should be the head of the household and therefore slightly superior, more mature, wiser than his wife. One Druze woman testifies:
- 25 F is 34, Druze, living in Beirut with her parents who still have strong ties with the rest of the f (...)
(F) My family presented me several times to potential grooms. A few weeks ago they introduced me to a man but I couldn’t accept. He was much older than me and I don’t really mind that a man is older, after all it is better that he is older but this candidate was divorced and had children.25
25Another woman has met a man she likes but doesn’t dare to mention her plans to marry him to her family.
- 26 Ra is 31, Greek Orthodox living with her parents in Beirut.
(Ra) For my family it is no problem that he is Armenian. As long as he is Christian, they don’t object. The main problem is that he is younger than I am and he is quite a lot younger. My friends who know him also try to dissuade me from marrying him. They warn me that three years is a lot. That a woman grows older sooner and that he’ll start looking at other girls.26
26Literature depicts the rule of age difference as a patriarchal norm. Some of the interpretations by the women I interviewed confirmed this idea. They stressed the importance of respect for the man and asked “how can you respect a husband when he is younger or the same age?”. Others see different reasons behind an age difference.
(NA) My friend J still hopes that her fiancé will marry her, but he has already made promises for the last three years and he never keeps them. Every time she threatens to leave him, he promises that they will marry in one month’s time and every time he finds excuses not to do so. He is afraid of his family’s reaction or maybe he is not really convinced himself. It is normal, no? He is 31 and she is 36. I think that it is a risk to marry a man who is younger. A woman at 40 has passed her best years while a man continues to be attractive and even becomes more attractive. I wouldn’t want to marry a man who is younger. I would feel too insecure.
27Another woman comments:
- 27 M is 35, Shiite, living with her parents in Beirut, but the family is originally from South Lebanon (...)
(M) I wouldn’t want to marry a man who is younger. I would have the feeling that he’s a baby. It is already enough that I have to take care of my own children. I want a man who takes care of me.27
- 28 Cf. Fayad 2004-2005a, p. 3.
- 29 Cf. Nehmeh 2004-2005, p. 30: “No matter how ‘modern’ external appearances – material, legal, esthet (...)
- 30 Cf. Joseph 1999, who describes how children learn to reproduce gender divisions through the interac (...)
28Many of my informants mentioned the difference between the mentality of men and women, claiming that women are more emancipated and modern, while men opportunistically hold on to traditional values and patriarchy. Many blamed this discrepancy on the differential values transmitted in the education of girls and boys.28 In several families the idea of equality is important and much pressure is put on girls to complete higher education and to work in order to consider themselves as the equals of men. However, inside the household it is still the mother and her daughters who carry out most of the household tasks.29 Therefore, even if parents insist on the equality of men and women, the actual way they treat their children and the example of their own relationship often does not correspond with this perspective.30
- 31 It is quite common in sociological studies to follow the local discourse and distinguish between tw (...)
29Most of the women I talked to saw themselves as “modern and liberated” and complained about the “oriental mind of Lebanese men”. Modern and liberated means to them: to share the household tasks, to share equal rights and equal duties and equal respect and authority.31 Their ideal is far from simple, however, since the ideal man should also be a bit jealous, virile, generous and should “make you feel like a real woman”.
30Conflict between “open-minded women” and “traditional men” finds its clearest expression in conflicts over the woman’s right to work outside the house. A Druze woman of 34 who really hoped to marry, explained:
(F) My cousin asked me to marry him about a year ago. I like him a lot and have known him since we were kids. That’s why it is difficult for me to see him differently. He insisted a lot and my family was very much in favour but what made me turn him down was that he had a house in the mountains and wanted me to live there with him. Imagine? This would mean giving up my job and staying home. What would I do all day long? You know, since I reached thirty, I’ve decided that I should be less demanding but my work, I can’t give that up.
31A young Christian woman said:
(Ra) I have thought about this question. What if I meet someone whom I really like and he asked me to give up my job? I think I would have been prepared to do so especially when I have children. Only, now I met this person who is so modern that he really insists that I continue working, that it is important to contribute equally to the household. Sometimes I have doubts, thinking that maybe he is greedy.
- 32 Cf. Joseph and Slyomovics 2001: “The family is a resource of economic security in the Middle East a (...)
32Marriage is considered central in a woman’s life, even in the urban society of Beirut many women give great importance to their parents’ consent even if for the rest they have a discourse on freedom, individual choice and emancipation. What scares them, they say, is the risk of a rupture with the family and of exclusion from family, social group or confessional group. They rationalise this fear by referring to the general social situation in Lebanon where family ties are at the basis of economic, political and social power, where an individual is nothing without wasta (connections) and where there is no social security.32
- 33 This idea is also expressed in articles published in women’s magazines. See for example Nada Merhi (...)
33Macro studies underline deterministic factors such as the economic or demographic situation as the main causes for the rise in celibacy. On the micro level a different image appears where people have a less fatalistic view of the situation. Celibacy is a choice, even if it is a constraining one.33 There is always a possibility of marriage but no one would marry just anybody. Many women choose not to compromise and wait for the one who is suitable. Some admit, however, that they become less demanding as time passes. It is true that only a few choose not to marry and opt for a career, emancipation and freedom as a long-term choice; if they do this then it is up to a certain age and all of my informants considered they would marry, but only later.
- 34 Ng is 35, Shiite living with her parents just next to Beirut.
(Ng) Often I wonder what I should do. I find it quite scary to think of the image of a woman over forty who is not married. She inspires pity; it seems as though she has failed and it must be lonely. This is why I think that I’ll travel if I continue to be single. In France it is easier to meet someone after certain age. It is less stigmatising to live alone and there you have the chance to live temporarily with a partner without marrying.34
34Another young woman said that she is prepared to marry for the sake of having children, even if the husband is not really who she dreamed of:
(Na) I don’t think that the perfect husband exists. I guess I’ll have to make do with the one who comes my way. The person I met will probably betray me very soon, if he hasn’t done so but should I therefore leave him? He says he wants to marry me and have kids with me. Don’t you think I should accept? Better to have tried and to fail than never to try. Anyway a friend told me that love does not last for more than four years. I prefer to be divorced at 40 than to be a spinster.
35For more and more women marriage is no more a life-long family project. It is a try-out or something for the sake of society. Of the 30 women I interviewed, three presented their choice to marry as a try-out.
- 35 Na is 31, Maronite. She has decided to live alone at the age of 19 after completing her study abroa (...)
(Na) I know that M is not really the right person for me forever. He is the right person for me now and he is a good man to be the father of my children but I am actually convinced that this marriage will not last for more than five years. Then I want to get on with my life.35
36Different perceptions of marriage are at the basis of these different requirements for the “suitable husband”. Differences are often in a simple (or simplistic) way attributed to the difference between generations and the sexes. In this stereotyped image, parents are more conservative, confessional, class-bound, while the younger generation is more modern, open and free; men are opportunistic and therefore more conservative, women are more progressive. My fieldwork did not confirm these ideas and a more complex image emerged.
- 36 Collective celebrations are organized in order to help couples who cannot afford the costs of a wed (...)
37Besides the motivation for choosing a partner, it can be quite revealing to look at the different forms marriage takes nowadays in Lebanon to illustrate the changing perceptions of the institution. There are several new ways of marrying or of formalising a relationship between the sexes that range from civil marriage abroad, to temporary marriages, from hybrid to double ceremonies, collective celebrations36 and segregated parties, secret marriages and cohabitation.
- 37 In 1998 the President of the Republic presented the cabinet with a detailed draft of a facultative (...)
- 38 The irony wants that the two nationalities that make use of this option are Israeli and Lebanese an (...)
38There is no civil marriage in Lebanon37 and in cases of mixed marriages, the partners have to choose one religious authority and the personal status laws of the confession of either one of them. A different option is, however, to travel abroad to conduct a civil marriage in a foreign country and register it afterwards in Lebanon. In that case it is the legislation of the country where the marriage was conducted that regulates the relationship. Some couples travel therefore to Cyprus or Turkey. Especially Cyprus is well known and easy to obtain information about38 as there are NGOs that provide all the data about which documents are needed. At Larnaca airport, local entrepreneurs wait for couples and offer their services to facilitate all paperwork within the day. Marriage in Cyprus brings with it considerable costs. Beside the visa and travelling expenses one needs to pay 800 dollars to the Cypriot municipality making it not an option open to many. It is mostly used by mixed couples but also young middle class intellectuals who refuse to comply with religious laws that are constraining with regard to divorce or have unequal rights regarding men and women. More and more couples also travel to Istanbul since Turkish laws also provide a favourable framework for an egalitarian relationship.
(Na) I had decided to marry in Cyprus, since marriage for me was a try-out but when I knew that I was pregnant things changed and I felt I was ready to engage myself more fully in this relationship and therefore accepted that I would remarry my husband a second time in church.
39For Na the civil marriage had nothing to do with religious differences since she and her husband both belonged to the same confession. It had been a way to escape convention, to avoid the big party. Others, such as Rs (Greek Orthodox) and H (Shiite) combine the legal advantages of civil marriage with a more conventional celebration.
- 39 Rs is 29, from a Greek Orthodox family from North Lebanon. She lived with her brother while working (...)
(Rs) My brother who is a lawyer looked it all up for me and we compared the advantages of marrying in Cyprus and marrying in Istanbul. Finally Istanbul came out better and we thought it was a good opportunity to visit the place too. In the end the paperwork was much more complicated than we thought and we almost came back without marrying. We celebrated the wedding here with the families and friends as well. We wanted something simple but our parents insisted to do it in a more conventional way with a white dress and a dinner and party.39
40Several mixed couples opted to celebrate their wedding twice rather than choosing one or the other celebration. A mixed couple of a Shiite man and Maronite woman had both the ceremony of the katb al-kitâb with a shaykh and a ceremony in church.
- 40 Af was 31, Sunni, living alone in Beirut. Her family is from the Bekaa.
41These double celebrations are quite the opposite of the practice of elopement that khatîfeh marriages originally refer to. When a couple is in love and wants to marry despite the refusal of parents or society, elopement provides an escape. The man “kidnaps” the women from her parents’ house and they disappear together. Either they marry secretly in the following days or they reappear after a few days, setting before their families their relationship as an established fact. Now that the woman’s honour is lost – in this case meaning her virginity – the family has no choice but consent to marriage in order to minimise the shame. Among the grandparents generation of my informants, there were quite a number of khatîfeh marriages between partners of different sects, of different social backgrounds or from families who were not on speaking terms. Nowadays, this form of khatîfeh marriage is less frequent. The increased freedom of movement of young people means that they don’t actually have to disappear to marry. The marriage of Af can be considered khatîfeh since she and her husband decided to marry in Cyprus without informing her parents in advance. The reaction of her family, however, with their threats of physical violence and refusing any contact with her, is still close to the old khatîfeh logic.40 The choice of Na, who married first in Cyprus and then in church had nothing to do with these traditional constraints though. She explained her choice as follows:
(Na) If I marry, I’ll marry khatîfeh, just a very small thing without celebration and dress and cake and party. Only a few very close friends. Here in Lebanon you have no choice, either you marry in secret or you have to pay a fortune to please society. I don’t want to please society.
- 41 An idea also expressed in the article of Haddad V., “al-khatîfeh uslûb zawâj iqtisâdî li-tawfîr al- (...)
42Khatîfeh marriage here becomes something between an economically motivated choice41 and a statement against the establishment. This is also the case for the following woman:
- 42 B is 34, Druze and lived alone in Beirut.
(B) If I ever marry, I’ll marry khatîfeh and I’ll marry someone from another sect. For us [Druze] this is still forbidden but I find this rule utterly stupid and it is at the roots of all these logics that created the war. Through my marriage I want to show people that it is possible to think and live differently.42
- 43 El-Sâha is an interesting place also because it pretends to offer an islamic public leisure place, (...)
43The issue of temporary marriage was presented in more details in the chapter by Sabrina Mervin, here I simply want to show how this form of marriage also fits into a different perception of marriage as an institution and in the changing relationships between men and women. As pointed out by Mervin, it is difficult to estimate the frequency of mut‘a marriages but it is definitely something that is increasingly popular among the religious Shiite youth. Places like the restaurant-café-celebration hall el-Sâha43 are a good place to observe how young people meet and how through hints and codes the issue of temporary marriage is negotiated. A first contact is made, phone numbers exchanged and further encounters and eventually a “relationship” are negotiated by phone.
- 44 Z is 34 Shiite, living with her parents in the Southern suburbs of Beirut.
(Z) It is part of the game of seduction to find out the intent of the man, to let him try to find out whether or not you are open for such a try-out. I usually meet several times before accepting. In the end you have to be able to trust the person that he will not talk about it. Secrecy is essential, because I don’t want to think about what would happen if my family finds out. Even if I am doing nothing against religion but religious rules are more open than society is.44
44Usually relationships are very limited in time.
- 45 F is a young Shiite woman I met in el-Sâha (no other information available).
(F) Since a husband has the right to ask for his wife at any time, it is often better to restrict the marriage to a few hours, to avoid him calling you in the evening and demanding that you come when you are already home. Most men I had relationships with I could trust and therefore we stayed together for a few weeks or a month but not longer. Even when it was a few weeks, I felt bound, as if it suffocated me.45
45The woman has the right to ask for a dowry (mahr). For some women this is a way of affording a little luxury. None of my informants conducted mut‘a for the sake of money and gifts but they were a pleasurable part of it, permitting them to buy some nice clothes, a recharge card for their phone. One of the women working in a beauty centre whose clientele consists mainly of veiled Shiite women, commented:
- 46 S is a young Shiite woman, married.
(S) Half of the unmarried girls coming here are paying with money that comes from their “relationships”. It’s a nice way to pay back since the partner also profits from it.46
46An important point to raise here is that these mut‘a relationships do not necessarily lead to a sexual relationship or intercourse. They provide a framework within which men and women can enjoy each other’s company more freely and with virginity still being a very important social value in religious Shiite circles, the sexual relationship can in some cases be very free even if penetration is avoided. The partner can be a young single man, who is not yet ready to marry, often it is a married man and sometimes it is a potential husband. Even if many women confirmed that the great advantage of mut‘a is to be able to get to know someone better before you really settle down to marriage, in practice, there is a separation between those relationships that are not serious and therefore temporary and the formal institution of “real” marriage.
(Z) I still doubt about accepting a marriage proposal. It would be good if we could be together more intimately but I don’t want him to think that I do these things. Even if I feel that from his side he wants it too. We are both afraid to bring up the subject for fear of what the other might think.
- 47 There is a Lebanese expression that young women often refer to “mâ bas thummâ illâ immâ (no one kis (...)
47Even if mut‘a might be increasingly popular among the religious Shiite youth, it is still an option considered by only a limited part of the Shiite which is only a fraction of the Lebanese youth. So what do other young women do? How do they live their sexuality before they marry? Another fraction of the youth in Beirut, live their relationships quite openly, dating and even regularly changing partners and in some cases openly admitting that they have sex before marriage but that last point is still, no matter what appearances might suggest, a big taboo. As soon as a young woman goes outside of her circle of friends with a similar lifestyle, she is confronted with gossip, disapproval, comments and rejection. Neighborhoods such as Monot, Gemayzeh and Hamra, are like islands in the city where young people openly live a lifestyle where sexuality seems to be on display. However the display of belly buttons, thighs and breasts is not always a sign of a free sexual life, of multiple partners or of sexual intercourse. Here too virginity still plays a role and is an issue discussed among friends.47 One friend commenting about another woman of 32 who had been dancing with us one night:
(NK) She has these terrible headaches and always complains. I had a talk with her the other day and told her openly, “habîbtî, you’re just another woman suffering from the disease of virginity. If you want to get better, you’ll have to break this boundary.
48The question is often not only to accept loosing your virginity, to risk facing the judgements of your family, of your future husband, but also to find a man who’ll make love to you and respect you too.
(R) When you see the people hanging around here [a bar in Gemayzeh], you might think that it is all very easy and that they all sleep around but it is deceiving, most of them don’t and you can blame the girls for their hypocrisy in showing so much of their body and acting so seductive and then refusing, but it is actually difficult to find a man who will respect you. He will do everything to convince you to go to bed with him, but the moment you accept, he’ll loose interest an treat you like a cheap person.
49And finally the question is also where to go to have sex. Since it is not common for young people to live alone before marriage, there is a real need for places where one can be intimate.
- 48 A is 34, Shiite, living alone in Beirut. Her family is living in South Lebanon.
(A) When you have a car, you have no problem. True it is uncomfortable and a bit risky but you can always drive out of the city and find a quiet place. The problem is when you don’t have a car. You can go to a hotel, but often they’ll humiliate you, ask for a marriage contract or just look at you in a bad way and it is expensive too. There is also the family house in the mountains or the chalet at the beach when the family is not there, but this is only when your boyfriend is from a good family. It is such a luxury to have a place of my own. At one point I needed money and a friend needed a place so he proposed to rent a room of my flat just to be able to make love there from time to time. We continued our arrangement for three months. I was actually happy to serve as a facilitator for love.48
50Certainly there are more and more young women who live alone in Beirut. Usually their family lives outside of the city and in order to avoid travelling back and forth every day, they rent an apartment, alone or with some friends. Often there is a fluid transition between living in dorms as a student, renting a place with other female students and finally living alone. The last step is only rarely taken. First because living alone is expensive and secondly because it is something not done unless practical necessities leave no other choice.
51Most of these places are only ever conceived as temporary and little investment is made in furniture and decoration. Depending on where the flat is situated more or less time and effort has to be invested in the relations with the neighbours and the house owner in order to prove ones respectability. To live together as boy and girl friend is still unacceptable and most couples present themselves as being married or family or apply other strategies in order to reduce the gossip.
(R) It’s true Getawy [a Christian neighbourhood in West Beirut] is a little village. In the beginning they don’t accept you but once you’ve set your standards, they know and khallâs. They are not very happy about me living with a flatmate who is a man but I made it clear, because they can see. There are windows on all sides and I open them all so they can see everything and see what was happening in the house. I was in a way appeasing their curiosity. I wanted to state that a man and a woman can live in the same house without them being together. So I think they’ve accepted that idea
52In many cases the interference by neighbours and house owner goes beyond gossip: young women are “gently” asked to leave because their presence is a stain on the reputation of the building, men impose themselves believing that a woman who accepts an extra-marital relationship, accepts just any man, neighbours turn their head away, put their garbage in front of the door or use other tactics to annoyances to convince the woman to leave.
- 49 Azza Sharara-Baydoun sees two contradictory currents. On the one hand there is a movement towards m (...)
53Women complain that it is difficult to find a man who has similar ideas on marriage. The choice of the future husband is the reason for conflicts between women and their surrounding, primarily their parents. Many are not willing to go against the will of their parents but can’t find a man who suits both their personal wishes and their family’s requirements. For them these different perceptions of marriage are at the basis of their celibacy. The reverse also holds true. With more and more women marrying late and the subsequent changes in the way women are perceived, in the way they live alone, study and work, the perception of marriage changes inevitably. Currently these changes take different forms, creating a variety of possible answers. Lebanese society consists of multiple islands each characterised by its own lifestyle, its own opportunities and constraints49. If some choices are open to some, they are unthinkable to others and if some rules imprison some in webs of prohibitions, taboos, lies and secrets, these same rules appear completely irrelevant, dépassées, and even illusionary to others. The variety and disparity of the data presented here can only give a glimpse of what marriage means in contemporary Lebanon, of how the increasing number of young single women influences perceptions of marriage and the ways relationships between the sexes are perceived, lived and given form. The disparity offers some idea of what is happening, of possible directions of change and most of all testify to the difficulties young women face in living their sexuality, in finding a suitable partner and also of their braveness in confronting society with new ways of answering this very old question of how to live as man and woman together.