BEIRUT: When Dana decided at 22 that she wanted to get married to the boyfriend she had met at university, her friends and family told her it was too soon.
Now 28 and still single, she is considered to have been left behind, watching the majority of her friends get engaged or married.
The eight-year relationship, only recently ended, faced strains familiar to many Lebanese, as her boyfriend left the country to pursue his career in the United States, and the pressure of their different religious backgrounds meant her family found the relationship difficult to accept.
“You have all the family, the uncles, they all play a part in the decision,” she says. “It’s not like outside where you make the decision.”
Many Lebanese women, particularly those in their late 20s and early 30s, face a bind: expected to get married by a certain age to an eligible man in a country that so many men leave.
“There was a point when they started to feel ‘I need to get married now,’” says Dana. “That was around 26, 27. At 28, it’s over.”
“For my age, I should be dating seriously, and expecting to get married, and that should be made clear to him,” says 28-year-old Mona, who lives in Beirut. These expectations are passed through society, particularly from family members.
“Personally, I’m so happy, I don’t have time to date,” she says. “My family wants me to be happy, [which means] they want me to be in love, of course. All the messages I received for my birthday were ‘we wish you love.’ All the messages. I mean success, you have, amazing, great, but love ...”
“You have to get married and have kids within one or two years,” says Dana. “When you’re done with the marriage thing, it’s the baby. And when you’re done with one baby, it’s another.”
“If you don’t get married, you are considered to have failed one of the main purposes of life,” says Mona.
It’s not just about getting married though, says Michael Oghia, a master’s candidate at the American University of Beirut whose thesis looks at dating in Lebanon. Like Dana, for many young men, and even more so for women, it’s also about finding someone that fits the ‘right’ conditions.
“They have to be Sunni, or Shiite, or Christian. They have to be from this village, or this part of Lebanon. And they have to have this much money,” he says. “And it’s especially hard if you’re a girl. I hate the double standard but it’s true.”
The problem is further compounded, Oghia says, by the fact that there are few avenues by which to meet people.
“Work, school and family are pretty much the places where you meet. Maybe if you’re Christian through church,” he says.
“Which I think for a lot of people is a hindrance, because well what if I go to work in the same place every day, what if I’ve had the same friends for 10 years, what if my family don’t know anyone that’s eligible? Well, you’re kind of in a bind.”
“I really pity someone that’s older especially, and that’s single, because where are you meeting somebody?” he says.
The social pressure on women to be married by a certain age, coupled with the lack of chances to meet somebody, and lack of eligible people to meet can result in some extreme behavior, say Mona and Dana.
“If he is the right target she will never let him go, until he is hooked and he says OK,” says Mona.
“With some girls, if they find the right guy, they are always on him,” says Dana. “They call him like 15,000 times, send pictures and so on. Because there are lots more girls than men. So they don’t give him time to think about someone else.”
The Internet, social media in particular, is playing a large part in opening up new ways to meet people, allowing for recommendations by friends and enabling introductions with those who might be abroad.
“Guys come here on vacation, so the two meet through friends or family, and then they talk here once or twice, and then they travel again. Then he can add her on Facebook or MSN,” says Dana. “On Skype, you can talk for hours. I have lots of friends who do things this way.”
Both Mona and Dana feel the pressure to get married to the ‘right’ person is skewing young people’s expectations of relationships.
“I think people would have healthier relationships if they didn’t have the pressure,” says Mona. She says this has much to do with the normalcy with which cheating is treated.
“They just get married because they have to get married,” she says.
“When you’re 30 your clock is ticking, you have to get married, that’s the thing.”
“There are not enough people with all of the things people are looking for,” Dana says. “You have to compromise. Maybe it’s not what you expected, but it could be better.”
“In the end it all comes back to who are you marrying and how is it going to help our family?” says Oghia. “Because there’s no social support in Lebanon. If you don’t have a viable family, you’re screwed, that’s why dating is so contentious. Marriage in Lebanon is not about happiness, it’s about pragmatism.”
Oghia believes people’s expectations are changing when it comes to what they want from a relationship, but that this is not necessarily making the situation less complicated.
“It’s fine if you want to find someone from your religion, your family background, but why do you have to sacrifice this companionship aspect of marriage that’s completely overlooked,” he says.
“People just think, ‘I’m going to get married and everything is going to be perfect.’ But people are starting to ask these questions? Why do I have to wait for after marriage to be in love?”