This story was written by Wisam Gangari from SUDAN.
“Congratulations on your (insert significant milestone)! Here’s to your wedding!”
This – or some variation of it – has become a standard salutation which I, and many other young Arab women, have heard upon the accomplishment of significant milestones in our lives. It is the 21st century, yet social norms in the Arab world still hold tight to the notion that a woman’s goal – nay, destiny – must be to get married. Any other ambition or desire must be secondary, and is therefore, less important.
Growing up in a predominantly Arab culture, dating at a young age is generally not accepted by the family. Couples who are brazen enough to publicize their relationship are often expats or individuals who come from ‘liberal’ families. Most parents emphasize the importance of education above all else and instil within their children the notion that good grades lead to a successful future. This mentality inspires the youth with a sense of purpose, ambition and a desire to achieve greatness, all of which are admirable traits. However in my case, and in the case of many other women like me, this proves to be more a burden than a blessing.
I always strive to excel academically so that I may pursue a career in which I can make a difference, accomplish a sense of fulfillment and self-worth, and ultimately live my truth. Upon graduating from university, I had planned to get a job working for organizations or think tanks, diplomatic missions and so on. I dreamed of working in establishments that aimed to improve lives. I saw for myself a future in which I was a successful working woman, proud of my accomplishments. I never expected that what is objectively seen as an admirable goal could also be a source of shame.
I found that not many people within my society found my dreams and ambitions to be as admirable and noble as I did. On the contrary, many people criticized my choices. Because my priority was not to ‘find a husband’ (as if husbands were to be picked from an aisle in a grocery story), I was wasting my child bearing years and was going to end up forever alone. My desire to pursue a career somehow meant that I was anti-marriage. Many women who seek to fulfill their professional goals are frowned upon and are considered by society as too liberal or intimidating, and therefore unapproachable.
I found that not many people within my society found my dreams and ambitions to be as admirable and noble as I did.
In the years since I have graduated university, I have been faced with comments like, “Why are you still single?” or “When is your wedding?” or “Have you found someone yet?” While these questions in and of themselves may seem harmless, they are really asking a different question altogether: “When are you going to abide by the social norms that have been prescribed to you and stop disgracing your family?” Of course not all families are adamant to have their daughters married off before they are ready, because society deems it necessary. However, where social and familial ties are so strong, it is always harder to defy the status quo and reject social standards that are so deeply imbedded in the culture.
The concept of marriage loses its value, worth, and sanctity once it becomes an obligation that is forced upon you for all the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, I believe that marriage is a beautiful and sacred notion that everyone (who wants it) should be blessed with. It is the start of a new and exciting chapter in life. It can be an exhilarating ride. It should be a source of comfort, love, and safety. Marriage is not at odds with wanting to pursue a career, it is not at odds with having the desire to travel and explore, it is not at odds with wanting to complete your education. You are not forbidden from pursuing your dreams just because you want to get married and you are not forbidden from getting married because you are pursuing your dreams.
So here’s to you, to the ones who want to climb Mount Everest! To the ones who want to get their PhD! To the ones who want to save lives or become the next CEO! And here’s to you, to the ones who want to get married! There is nothing wrong with that.
This story was part of Safety First for Girls (SAFIGIs) #SharingNotShaming campaign.