The Marriage Question

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June 17th 2009
Published: June 17th 2009
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(I'm sorry for how insanely long winded I was on this one)

Chapter 1: Relationships (or lack thereof)

I’ve tried, numerous times, to try and do justice to the life of a young Palestinian here. It’s very difficult- I mean, there are so many positive aspects, but I feel like it must be seen and experienced to properly appreciate. The social problems of the West have been described, but aren’t really acknowledged as problems per se: divorce, abuse, drugs and alcohol, violent crimes. These are, well, the former more than the latter, seen as part and parcel with the relative freedom that comes from living in a ‘developed, democratic’ society.

The West also has an interesting idea of what Muslim society is like. Their world is decidedly misogynist; women are oppressed, women that wear the hijab (the headscarf, and who covers herself completely) particularly so. Most of the population (if not all) is also REpressed: liberties taken for granted in the Western world are seen as haram- a religious word meaning ‘shameful’- and are thereby unequivocally denied to youth in particular.

Well. There is truth to both sides, no? People in glass houses should not throw stones. I ask only that everyone reading this take a clear, judgmental look at their own culture before they denounce another. The problems may be different, but they are problems of equal weight, just the same.

So. To turn to my time here.
Upon finding out that the center would certainly not occupy all my time, I turned my attentions to finding out all I could about the lives of well, my Palestinian counterparts. I have been grilling (with many thanks for their patience) some of my friends here on the ins and outs
of everyday life.

Most of my friends here form the ‘young and single’ crowd. I am the oldest. They are all in the 18-20 range, and I can tell you, our conversations inevitably turn to new marriage proposals, and their
parents’ ruling on these.

But I get ahead of myself. Ok, let’s group this off.

Are virtually non-existent. Well, definitely when held to a Western standard. Girls are not allowed to be friends with boys. Most schools, except the private ones, are segregated by gender until university (funny, the all-boys and all-girls schools back home are the private ones). Girls are not allowed to talk with boys, nor venture out in groups with boys. On my walks through the ‘fashionable’ Rafidia district, the gender lines are clearly and strictly adhered to, as boys hang with boys, and girls hang with girls. Well, it’s more like large groups of guys sit around, unemployed except with the task of finding ‘muzzas’ (…what could be the equivalent in English? ‘hot chicks’?) for hours, while the girls bustle around in groups of two or three, not loitering, but heading back to Their domain- the home. (but that’s for a different entry). The university campuses are the one exception, where everyone can mingle, but it’s still fairly divided by gender.

So, as one can imagine, it’s very difficult to bridge the gap and start a relationship when the opposite sex is like a foreign species. Even the most liberal of families state that “You can have friends that are boys, but under no circumstances are you to have a boyfriend.” (liberal because they let their daughters interact with males) Mostly, interaction occurs on campus, and increasingly, covertly on the internet. (MSN and Facebook are all the rage here) It is here where the genders interact, but always on a very proper and morally high road. Even still, when a girl is seen talking to a boy, regardless of location, it’s the subject of a lot of gossip and slander. I can image why they keep away from each other.

Relationships here actually remind me a lot of Napoleanic England, or the times of Jane Austen or Louisa M. Alcott. (I found ridiculously cheap ‘Penguin Classic’ books that have been keeping me entertained in the downtimes) A girl is too look very proper, and she might attract the attention of a man, who then inquires after her, and might talk to her once or twice, and then consults with her family, and Boom, within two weeks they’re engaged. The girls here talk with boys (all very un-scheming though, as far as I can tell), and the boys might declare their undying love for them, and then, whether reciprocated or not, the girl (sometimes the young man in question) goes to her parents and determines his suitability. Her parents most likely have a checklist of attributes: is he a good Muslim? Does he come from a good family? Is he poor or rich? Is he from the refugee camps? (seen as lower class- more for later) Does he have a university degree? (this applies vice versa in the judgment of prospective wives). Sometimes, parents just don’t take a liking to the prospective partner, and that’s it. Khallas. (finished)

Even should he pass the enquiry, some parents wait until their daughter has finished university, which is the second large cohort of girls get married (the first being after high school, for the ones not rich or smart enough to go to uni).

This is how, according to society, a relationship should pan out. However, all youth, no matter where they were born or how they were raised, have a certain level of rebelliousness ingrained in our DNA. Some people have boyfriends and girlfriends Without their parents knowing.

This, however, is not even half as exciting as one would expect. But then again, you think, if even being seen talking to the opposite sex is practically haram, having a significant other without telling your parents is scandal enough. They might have long conversations online, telling one another repeatedly that they love one another, and will occasionally touch each others’… shoulders, or something other completely neutral. No hand-holding, let alone anything else!
Now, how different is this from North America. (I wonder how much their ban on alcohol affects this difference, haha)

Now. I’m not saying I agree with this way of living, but I had to very quickly think about the positive side to this lifestyle, lest I leave my friends embarrassed by my dazed reaction.

The obvious cons: well, you are deprived of the benefit of getting to know the opposite sex, and all that they have to offer. Some of my favourite people are male (unfortunately, haha), and I couldn’t imagine not being able to even talk to them. You are further deprived of just, well, having the freedom to decide who you want to be friends with. The opposite sex is thus left as a complete mystery, which I’m sure can’t help with the elimination of any gender stereotypes and discriminatory behaviour. Finally, well, when two people get married here, they are mostly married for life (naturally, divorce is allowed, but is much rarer than our Las Vegas-skewed divorce rates). Inexperience and false youthful ideals could get you in a lot of trouble when you find out that your spouse is definitely not who you wanted to spend the rest of your life with.

The less obvious: The hijab (covering up) is supposed to cover up a woman’s body so that men (who, I think it’s fairly undisputed, are visual creatures) will focus on a woman’s personality and mind as opposed to just her figure.

A side tangent: I don’t completely disagree with this. A girl once told me, at a club, “I only seem to attract really creepy and disgusting men! EW”. I looked her up and down, and thought to myself: “well, you get what you ask for.” Miniskirts and tube tops will get you a certain kind of attention. The kind of guy who falls in love with the pre-my fair lady, the pre-‘she’s all that’ girl… well, you know that he really loves Her for who she is, and won’t dump her the minute she can’t get rid of the baby weight.

Back on track: When guys aren’t allowed to get to know girls, they obviously can’t get to know their sweet, or interesting, or downright mean, whatever nature, and are left then to pick based on looks alone. Kind of self-defeating, n’est-ce-pas?

The pros: Well. I already mentioned Las Vegas and the drunken sham that has become the institution of marriage in the West. Now, don’t worry, I’m not some bible-thumping evangelical, but I do think that we do take love or whatnot a *teensy* bit too lightly in the West. Actually, that’s completely a lie. We take lust a bit too lightly, and love waaay too seriously. How are these kids able to declare their love of one another after knowing each other for just a few weeks? How can they promise to love each other forever in, again, such a short span of time? I’m not a romantic, but I do find that strangely sweet. However, youth in the West are ready to throw ourselves into bed with the first no one that our drunken eyes set upon. I think I agree with the Muslims: that’s just not, well, respectful to ourselves. Plus, it’s kind of dangerous. I wonder what the AIDS and STD rates are like here. (well, the true ones, because I’m sure everyone lies, nor even knows, for that fact). I don’t agree with the level of societal repression and pressure to conform to these impossible constraints, but I perhaps think that youth do need a little more control. (oh, I’m going to get slaughtered for this).

But seriously, what is that story that happened a few months ago, where some 12 year old (or something) got pregnant, and then there was controversy over Who was the Father?!

Come on, people, maybe we’ve gotten a wee bit too easy.

Now, for everyone who was brave (bored?) enough to read thus far, I thank you for your efforts! I’ll try to update more often and consequently be less long-winded.



23rd June 2009

Thank you for being so long-winded and helping me survive the boredom of my job!

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