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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

A big cultural shift for Saudi Arabia

Saudi women’s empowerment has started, but how long it will take society to accept it?
More than 1.5 million women in Saudi Arabia under 30 remain unmarried in definace of Social norms, much to the concern of clerics. Fayez Nureldine / AFP

Women’s attitude to marriage is changing right the way across the region, and now, as The National has reported, it’s becoming a serious talking point for clerics in Saudi Arabia. They are alarmed that growing numbers – 1.5 million or 45 per cent of women over 30 – are opting to stay single, in defiance of social norms and without a care for conservative fears that spinsterhood might lead to an epidemic of immorality and endanger “the community as a whole.”

This is not particularly surprising. Similar discussions took place in the UAE a few years ago when more women joined the workforce, with all the implications for marriage, motherhood and maintaining family harmony. As has happened elsewhere in the world, when women get an education, get a job, gain financial independence and feel empowered, they may postpone weddings and babies in order to concentrate on their careers. In Abu Dhabi, the average age of newlywed women has risen from 23.7 years in 1995 to 25.9 in 2012. Of course, this is not solely because they all stay in education or find meaningful employment. Urbanisation and globalisation have also played a huge part.

Clearly then, change is a given. The question must be: what to do about it? Is there a way to support women who want to work in ways that would enable them to lead more fulfilled lives as wives and mothers as well? Is there a need to involve men more in the process of adjusting to this change? It was striking that one of the Saudi women quoted in yesterday’s news report said she preferred being single to marrying someone who would lay down all the rules and expect obedience.

Social harmony comes with a work-life balance as much as gender equity and empowering as many people as possible. But Saudi society is conservative and any change is seen as destabilising. Consider the description one Saudi writer offered for the trend towards spinsterhood: a “cancer” in society. The challenge is to be ready for change, all the better perhaps to retool it to suit oneself.