For a Middle Eastern woman in the West, dating and marrying do not come easy

Families from Middle Eastern backgrounds and upbringings need to broaden their minds beyond impossibly restrictive expectations.
Sunday 08/07/2018
A Middle Eastern couple exchange rings during their wedding ceremony in Cyprus. (AFP)
Love is enough. A Middle Eastern couple exchange rings during their wedding ceremony in Cyprus. (AFP)

LONDON - Cultural pressures can make the dating world seem like an overwhelming mine field.

I remember the first time I felt the pressure to get married. I was standing in church at a close friend’s wedding, freshly graduated from university and excited to enter the “real world.” That was also the first time I had heard the Arabic courtesy idiom “o’baleek,” which translates into something like “hopefully, your turn is next.”

It was soon to become a phrase I’d hear repeatedly at weddings and engagement parties but it was that first wedding I had attended that marked me the most.

Standing in church at the wedding, two of my mother’s friends greeted me with firm hugs and an even firmer message: “Now that you’ve graduated, you need to find a good husband and get married.”

I laughed the statement off and didn’t take much of it. I thought then it was totally ludicrous. However, the older I became — and as more of my friends married — I heard that statement with increasing frequency. Not only from strangers and random aunties at church but from close family relatives and friends.

I was getting closer to hitting the mid-20s in my life with no engagement ring on my finger. An absolute disaster in our Middle Eastern culture. The pressure to find a suitable match at the difficult-to-define “marrying age” is very strong and real. It can leave some young women feeling wrongly incomplete and unaccomplished.

The pressure isn’t just in finding someone, it is in finding someone suitable. The qualities and characteristics of the individual are measured and scrutinised to conclude whether the person in question is an adequate match.

As a Coptic Christian living in the United Kingdom, it is hard enough to find somebody from the same background and somebody who shares the same beliefs, let alone has the acceptable occupation, family and personal attributes. It sometimes feels virtually impossible to meet someone who meets your expectations — and your family’s expectations, too.

My family has made it clear there are certain expectations in finding a suitable match. “Love” isn’t enough. One must decide with the mind as well as the heart and make a sound and logical choice as to the person with whom she should spend the rest of her life.

Choosing from the same church or culture also is not enough. If his family is not to the same social or financial standard of your family, that could be a pesky issue. Also, if he is not working towards a good, stable and highly remunerative job, this will be a sticking point that many parents will not tolerate lightly.

I recently became aware of the experience of one of my close friends from church who was dating another close friend from the church. They were both good people with good hearts and very kind natures.

She, however, was from a very stable, middle-class family and he was not. Given his less-than-stable upbringing by a single mother with a working-class status, the girl’s family found it hard to accept him as a suitor for their daughter.

The relationship eventually broke down as it could not survive the constant scrutiny of her family. This young man was shunned, even though he is from the same community and culture, with good attributes and working towards a great future in medicine. His family background from a “broken home,” however, was too much to accept by the other family.

This is not the first and unfortunately will not be the last time a situation like that occurs in my culture. It is a very upsetting and unsettling thought that good-hearted young men are being shunned for something that is too often indefinable and out of their control.

Families from Middle Eastern backgrounds and upbringings living in the West need to broaden their minds beyond their impossibly restrictive expectations. Happiness may not necessarily require the fulfilment of all such expectations.