International Research and Theory in Human Ecology

Vol. 18, No. 1
ISSN: 1546-2676

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM, Vol. 18, No. 1. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2009. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

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Mate Selection of Young Muslim Women in the United Arab Emirates

Douglas A. Abbott,
University of Nebraska, Lincoln


The purpose of this project was to conduct a qualitative study of the mate selection process of young Arab women, as compared to their mothers, in a modern Islamic country. Fifty-eight students at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates were interviewed and surveyed in a variety of settings over a period of six months. Results indicated that in one generation, from mothers to daughters, major changes were occurring in the process of mate selection and marriage. The young women, as compared to their mothers, would be older at marriage, have greater mate selection choices, would likely have fewer children than their mothers, but still subject, like their mothers, to restrictions in employment and to the possibility of polygamy.


The objective of this study was to devise a valid qualitative study of the mate selection process of young Muslim women in a conservative Arab Gulf country. To accomplish this task careful steps were taken to gain the support of young Muslim women and to elicit valid narrative data. In the past 30 years the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been transformed from a small, desert, tribal community to a modern industrial powerhouse (Abed & Vine, 1998). Rich in oil and natural gas, the economic and social environment has changed dramatically especially in the areas of marriage, family, and women’s issues (Ghareeb & Abed, 1997; Hatem, 1999).

The UAE is located in the southeastern part of the Arabian Peninsula. It is slightly smaller than the state of Maine with a population of about 2.5 million, but only 25 percent are national citizens; the others are foreign workers. The population is 96 percent Muslim. Arabic is the official language. The literacy rate is 80 percent. The UAE is similar to other Gulf countries (Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain) in politics, economics, and culture but is much more westernized than more conservative countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

Zayed University in the city of Abu Dhabi is a new four-year college especially built for Emirati women. I was hired during the second year of its operation. My female students had never had a male teacher. In the family science department I was the only male professor. The women were dressed head-to-toe in black coverings; about half wore face veils and gloves so only their eyes were visible.

Literature review on mate selection

Searching the extant research, few articles were found relevant to mate selection in Arab Gulf societies (Harik & Marston, 1996). Mate selection is herein defined as the psychological, behavioral, and social processes whereby individuals are united for the purpose of marriage (Surra, Gray, Cotte, & Boettcher, 2004). The emphasis in this paper, however, is on the observable, interactional steps that occur in mate selection not on the intra-psychic, sociological, or biological theories about why individuals marry (Buss, 1998; Miller, 2000).

There were several published reports on Arab families in general (Daneshpour, 1998;Young & Shami, 1997), and on Muslim women’s issues (Brooks, 1995; Fernea, 1985; Shatzmiller, 1996). Four articles that described Emirati families were located but these papers addressed healthy family functioning or family therapy issues (Alnajjar, 1996; Alnajjar & Smadi, 1998; Schvaneveldt, Kerpelman & Schvaneveldt, 2005; Smadi & Alhussain, 1996). In general “little is known about courtship, love, and marriage in the Middle East…studies on contemporary issues of marriage in the Islamic world are virtually nonexistent” (Sherif-Trask, 2003, pp. 122, 123). Qualitative research is especially rare. Current research is needed because western ideals, values, and behaviors regarding mate selection, marriage, and women’s rights are impinging upon traditional Islamic customs and practices in many Muslim countries (Roald, 2001).

Theoretical Perspective

Symbolic Interaction Theory (SI) was used to conceptualize this study (Klein & White, 1996). One assumption of SI theory is that an individual’s sense of identity and self-worth are developed through social interaction and society’s positive or negative feedback However, a person’s own reflections, attitudes, and values interact reciprocally with the evaluations of the larger society to produce an ever-developing sense of identify and self-worth (Winton, 1995). Social roles are not static but change over time due to continued interactions between the individual and the environment.

A young Arab woman’s self-identity and the enactment of social roles are influenced by her own cultural values as well as by the values of western societies that saturate Emirati culture. Western values, ideologies, and education would be expected to influence female identity and women’s roles. In the West for example, women have the freedom to work, unrestricted interaction with males, and control of their sexual behavior and fertility. Young Emirati women are exposed to these western images at school, at the mall, on the Internet, and when watching television.

In the process of “role making” these Emirati women may modify traditional Arab roles and adopt more western attitudes and behaviors even when such changes are in opposition to traditional Arab customs and Islamic beliefs (Brooks, 1995). Winton (1995) stated that Symbolic theorists “assume that people have the autonomy to carve out for themselves patterns of action that may violate social norms and expectations” (p. 131). Thus, one could expect changes in how Emirati women view themselves and their social roles as spouses and mothers.

Young Emirati women may be in the process of integrating some aspects of Western society (e.g., personal autonomy and egalitarian relationships) with traditional Arab values of family honor and the sacred duty of wife and mother. A visual image of these young women may illuminate this clash of values. From the outside one sees only young women clothed in black from head to toe, shayla and abyah properly displayed. They pray at school and fast during Ramadan. They read the Qur’an. Yet this author often saw students on field trips, at the malls, and at the beach. Underneath the dark monolithic exterior, students wore revealing clothes, heavy make-up, and listened to hip-hop music on iPods. Unlike their mothers, these young women have grown up in a rich, modern society inundated by Western media, dress, technology, and liberal cultural values. Thus, one would expect changes in the mate selection process.

Methodology: A Qualitative Approach

Getting Inside a Closed Society

The author, with his wife and three teenage daughters, went to the UAE to help build a recently established family science program at an all-women’s Muslim university. Most of our friends and neighbors were Emirati or Muslims from North Africa, Iraq, Sudan, Jordan, and Lebanon. Our closest friend, a computer science professor from Libya, lived next door with his family. Our families shared many meals and activities together. Although I am an American Christian, I studied Arabic and the religion of Islam. I talked frequently with my Muslim friends about Arabic society, the Muslim religion, and various aspects of marriage and family life.

At Zayed University I had three roles: teacher, student advisor, and assistant dean. My tripartite roles were an advantage in doing this research. Most of the female students had never had a male teacher; thus, in order to collect data it was important to develop rapport and trust with them. My efforts to learn Arabic and understand Islam and my inclusion of the Muslim perspective on marriage and family topics allowed me to gain some trust and respect. The officers in the Family Science Club were popular with the other students and were respected for their scholarship and leadership. I met with them several times to explain my research, to get their feedback, and to enlist their influence with the other students. They were the gatekeepers and the inside informants. My wife taught introduction to nutrition, and she and my students developed friendly and positive relationships. This, no doubt, helped the young women to trust me. After the first six months, I perceived an open and comfortable relationship with the students so began the research project.

Design & Data Collection

This research is primarily a qualitative, phenomenological study (Creswell, 2007). The goal of such an approach is to capture the meaning of an event or process (i.e., mate selection) from the perspective of the actual participants (Daly, 2007). But a variety of data collection strategies were used: (a) informal discussions with students, (b) focus group interviews, (c) self-report student questionnaires, and (d) analysis of relevant documents (e.g., government reports, newspaper articles, and other Muslim publications (Mertens, 1998). This project was approved by the IRB at Zayed University, but I was only allowed to survey my own students (n=58) and not sample the entire student body (N=450). About one-third of my students could speak and write English well, while the remainder were less skilled but could still communicate sufficiently in class to comprehend lectures, participate in discussions, and complete writing assignments.

Five focus groups were conducted by the author over a three-month period. In each session there were 8-12 female students. They were 18-22 years old. Two or three women in each session were married. Each discussion lasted about one hour. I asked two questions: (a) “What is the process of mate selection for young Muslim women in the UAE?” and (b) “Is the process different from what your mothers experienced?”

The women were uncomfortable with audiotaping, so I could not tape the sessions. During the discussions I took notes, and the next day I typed a more complete account of their answers. Three students (officers in the Family Science Club) with high English proficiency edited my written descriptions several times. In addition, four recently married Emirati women and one Emirati man who worked at Zayed University provided additional details on mate selection.

Fifty-eight family science students also completed three short surveys over the course of two semesters regarding their mother’s mate selection and marriage experiences. Thus, I was able to compare the daughters’ data with their reports of their mothers’ experiences. It was not possible for me to directly interview the mothers for it was taboo for an unrelated male to be in the presence of a married woman. Also, most fathers of these students would not permit an interview with a wife even if the husband was present.


Explanation of the Analysis

The data were mostly qualitative, but some frequencies and percentages (from the self-report questionnaires) were integrated into the narrative. Because of the limitations of the sample, these statistics are not emphasized and cannot be generalized to a wider population of young, single Emirati women.

The interviews were analyzed using the constant comparative method of content analysis. In this process significant statements or phrases are identified and categorized by similarity of content. These are considered first level categories. More generalized categories emerged from combining specific, and more concrete categories into more general, abstract themes. Categories and themes were continually revised as new data were added and analyzed after focus group interviews and class discussions (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Strauss & Corbin, 1990).

Credibility of the narrative data (i.e., it’s truthfulness or trustworthiness) was supported in several ways: (a) member checking (discussing my findings with the young women on several occasions), (b) use of an external audit by three Muslim faculty at Zayed University who read my original notes and critiqued my summaries, (c) triangulation of data, i.e., getting data from more than one source including individual interviews, group discussions, and published documents (Creswell & Plano Cark, 2007).

Presentation of qualitative results varies (Gay & Airasian, 2003). Some researchers complement the narrative with supportive documentation and commentary (Allen & Walker, 1992; Gilgun, Daly & Handel, 1992; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Others include additional references to support or challenge their results (Gilgun, 1995; Lindsey, 1998). I used both methods. Few quotations were used because I could not audiotape the focus groups. Thus, the descriptions are summaries of what was said, not the actual words of the students, though there are a few exceptions.

Comparing Daughters and Mothers Mate Selection

The main purpose of this study was to compare the mate selection process of a sample of young Emirati women with the students’ reports of their mothers’ experiences. Table 1 presents a summary of the findings, and then a more detailed explanation follows.

Table 1: Changes in Mate Selection and Marriage: A Comparison of Mothers and Daughters

Generational Changes



Age at Marriage

early teens

early twenties

Marriage Arranged by Parents



Marriage Partner


kin or kith

Girl’s ability to reject a male suitor

very limited


Premarital Interaction:

    Brief chaperoned visit at home

    Unsupervised visit at home

    Supervised activities outside of home

    Unsupervised activities outside of home











Bride’s Dowry and Cost of Wedding



Possibility of Polygamy


very unlikely

Number of Children



Employed Prior to Marriage

very unlikely


Employed After Marriage

very unlikely


Probability of Divorce

very low


Arranged Marriage

The daughters (the students) reported that the mothers’ marriages were completely arranged by parents. The mothers had little say in the matter. Surprisingly, arranged marriage was also the preferred custom for the daughters. Daughters said that when parents arrange a match they are primarily concerned with the social and economic status, family reputation, and tribal affiliation of the groom. Match-making begins when parents (or close kin) search for a suitable match among relatives and tribal families. If a mother, for example, finds a suitable bride for her son, she first confers with her husband. The boy’s father gathers information about the girl’s family. If the evaluation is positive, then the boy’s mother approaches the girl’s mother.

The girl’s father then does his own detective work and investigates the prospective groom’s family. If he approves he (or his wife) presents the proposal to the daughter. The daughter reviews the information and approves or rejects the suitor. In most cases, the girl accepts the parent’s judgment and consents to the wedding. If the girl refuses the match, the parents will attempt to resolve her concerns. She may then consent or still refuse the proposal.

The Groom

The mothers of these college students all married cousins, usually first cousins. Most of the daughters plan to marry cousins. Two students had already married first cousins, and three others were engaged to first cousins. They believed that if you marry a cousin he is more likely to treat you well and less likely to divorce you. Students explained that family members support cousin marriages, and if there are marital problems, relatives attempt to resolve the dispute and discourage divorce.

In addition, a cousin is likely to share a similar socio-economic and religious background that leads to greater likelihood of couple compatibility. Another reason to marry a relative: If the marriage fails, economic resources do not fall into the hands of an outsider.

With cousin marriages, the couple will usually have a blood test to check for the possibility of birth defects. One engaged student had already done this. Students are concerned about congenital abnormalities, especially thalassemia, a condition where abnormal red blood cells can cause severe anemia and require frequent blood transfusions (Nazzal, 2000a).

However, 25 percent of students said they would prefer to marry a non-relative. They saw several advantages: (a) a lower risk of birth defects, (b) the opportunity to enlarge one’s social networks, and (c) it was more romantic to marry a stranger rather than someone known and familiar, like a cousin.

The Girl’s Consent

Students explained that a Muslim a girl cannot be forced to marry. In principle she can accept or reject any suitor. Parents may recommend a suitable boy, but they cannot compel her to marry. Muhammad (the prophet of Islam) said, “A young maid is in possession of herself.” This means that she must give her consent (Chaudhry, 1991). A young woman’s silence, when given a proposal, is, however, considered her consent.

Students reported that reality is often less than the ideal. In some families patriarchal authority is quite strong and the girl would be afraid to defy her father’s decision. In addition, these girls want to please their parents, and they trust their parents to do what is best for them. Thus, a few students said they would accept a proposal without enthusiasm if their parents insisted. As one student exclaimed: “We accept it and then hope for the best.”

A few students admitted a third reason to accept an indifferent proposal: it might be their only opportunity to marry. Students explained that the older they get, the less likely they will attract a marriage proposal. Women in their late twenties are considered old maids. A few believed that if they did not marry at the first opportunity, they might be forced at a later time to accept an older, unattractive husband.

Premarital Interaction

Muhammad (the prophet of Islam, circa 610 CE) recommended that a young couple see each other once and speak briefly prior to marriage. But even this recommendation is considered too liberal for some Emirati families. Students said that the extent of interaction with a prospective groom depends upon the values and customs of the two families. Half the respondents said they would be allowed one brief visit with the boy prior to the Marriage Contract (the legal document of marriage). During this visit, the girl wears a long black dress (an abiya) with a head-scarf (a shayla). If the girl normally veils in public, she will unveil her face in the presence of the prospective groom. This visit occurs in the presence of other family members and lasts only a few minutes. A few students said that their parents may allow the boy and girl to speak briefly in private, but this is the exception and not the rule. The other half of the students explained that they would not be permitted to see or speak to the boy prior to signing the Marriage Contract.

Students said that there should be no physical contact of any kind prior to marriage: no holding hands, no hugs, and no kissing. Muhammad said: “When an unmarried man and unmarried woman are alone together, there is a third presence, shaitan (Satan),” that would tempt the couple to engage in physical intimacy. Thus, students believed that physical contact between the boy and girl before marriage must be avoided at all costs. In rare occurrences in the Middle East, a young unmarried woman has been injured or killed by male relatives who thought she was too flirtatious or intimate with an unmarried man (Brooks, 1995; Twenty Jordanian Women Slain, 2001).

The engagement

Engagement is a suitable word to represent the period of time after the verbal agreement to marry (the khootbah) and before the Marriage Contract (the nikbah). The students explained that engagement can last a few days, several months, or extend to several years if the young woman plans to finish college or if the young man studies abroad. During the engagement, the parents of the two families plan the wedding celebration.

Several students expressed concerns that wedding costs can be a barrier to marriage. The groom and his family are responsible to pay for the following: the wedding parties for men and women separately, the mahr gift (the dowry), wedding dress, perfume, new clothes, and jewelry for the bride. Students said that the total cost for these items could range from US $25,000 to over half a million dollars. These costs, however, are not part of Islamic religion. Only the mahr gift is required for a Muslim wedding.

The students explained that the mahr gift is money and jewelry given to the bride. The five married students reported that they received clothes, gold jewelry, and kitchen appliances. The UAE government recommends 30,000 dirhams (US $8,200) as a maximum bride price, but these students said that most weddings far exceed this limit (Nazzal, 2001a).

Students explained that due to the expense of weddings, the UAE government provides funds for newly married Emiratis. Government documents revealed that Emirati men (having salaries less than $4,200 per month) who marry Emirati women are given 70,000 dirhams ($19,000) by the government as a marriage incentive. An Emirati man would receive $27,500 if he married an Emirati divorcee, and he would receive an additional $5,000 if he married an Emirati woman over the age of 30 (Marriage and Divorce, Emirates Style, 2001). If he is part of a group wedding where several Emirati couples are wed at the same time and place, he will receive an additional $24,500 (Shaghouri, 2001). Also, many couples may qualify to receive free land and a new villa. This good fortune happened to one of the married students in this sample.

Several students complained that some Emirati men marry foreign women from Egypt, India, or the Philippines because these brides ask for little or no dowry (Zeitoun, 2001). A few of the students realized that a fancy wedding is foolish and impractical, but to please parents and to maintain the proper social appearance they may indulge in a big wedding.

During the engagement the young couple is committed to marry, but either person may end the relationship. This does not happen often, the students explained, because there is so little private interaction between the boy and girl prior to marriage. If the boy is a relative, the girl may see him and talk to him occasionally at a family gathering or other celebration, but there would be no unchaperoned time together. If the boy is not a relative, the couple may not see or speak until the Marriage Contract is signed and they are legally married.

The marriage contract and the wedding

Students explained that the engagement ends with the Marriage Contract. The Marriage Contract is a legal document signed by an Islamic judge, a Matawa. The contract is binding if the following conditions are met: (a) if there is consent of both parties, (b) if the groom gives the “mahr” to the bride (i.e., cash determined by the bride’s father, usually several thousand dollars), (c) if two witnesses are present, and (d) if there is a public notification of the marriage. The mahr dowry becomes the bride’s personal property and is traditionally given as economic security against the possibility of divorce or widowhood (Stewart, 1994).

After signing the marriage contract, the couple may have a small celebration with food and music. The couple is now legally married, but they continue to live separately with parents until the public wedding celebration. The bride and groom are allowed to talk with each other in person or on the phone but not to cohabit.

The wedding celebration may take place a few days or a few months after the Marriage Contract. One student had been waiting for nine months for her fiancé to return from school in America. The wedding is a public event where hundreds of family and friends gather to celebrate the marital union. It may last for several days depending upon the wealth of the groom’s family. Women and men wedding guests celebrate in separate tents (if it is an outdoor wedding) or in separate rooms (if it occurs in a hotel or conference center).

The possibility of polygamy

The students calculated that 70 percent of their grandfathers were polygamous and 40 percent of their fathers had more than one wife. The students themselves believed that only 20-25 percent of them would eventually experience polygamy. Their feelings were quite strong. None desired it, but they did not reject polygamy believing that if Islam permits it they must accept it (Martaus, 1999).

Students were asked why a husband would take a second wife. The wife’s infertility or chronic sicknesses were reasons most often mentioned. Marital unhappiness was a third motive. A few students believed that some men seek a second wife to gain sexual variety or to have more male children.

If the man does marry a second wife, the first wife may or may not be consulted. In some cases the first wife may not know there is another wife (Nazzal, 2001c). When all is revealed, the second wife may live in the same house with the first wife or she may have a separate domicile. Students stated that wives living in separate households are the typical arrangements in the Emirates. If the wives live separately, the husband rotates between homes for eating and sleeping, though he may spend more time with one wife than the other—in violation of religious doctrine that enjoins complete equality in treatment of wives (Denny, 1994). Both wives and all the children may come together on holidays or other festivals.

If both wives live in one home, each wife and her children are given separate quarters. The children may interact regularly, but the wives may have limited contact with each other. Interaction between wives varies considerably depending upon the attitude of the husband and his equitable treatment of the women. If he is kind, loving, and fair-minded, then chances are the wives will interact often and harmoniously (Abdul-Rauf, 1995).

Motherhood and work

Students explained that the ideal Muslim woman is a married woman and a mother of sons (Tarazi, 1995). Pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and rearing children are considered spiritual actions pleasing to Allah (God), and a good mother is entitled to God’s blessings and rewards (Abdul-Rauf, 1995). The students believed that women have special characteristics including affection, compassion, gentleness, and unselfishness that enable them to care for children (Tarazi, 1995). These students held motherhood in high regard.

All of the students considered it God’s plan for them to become wives and mothers. When speaking of this, they would always add the familiar phrase, “In shaallah” (God willing). The students wanted three or four children, at least one of each sex. The students appeared to accept the idea that men’s and women’s roles are different, yet complementary. The husband is the provider, protector, and leader; the wife is the nurturer, the child’s moral and spiritual teacher, and the caretaker of the home (Tabbarah, 1993).

In addition to motherhood, the majority of these students planned to work outside the home. Half of these young women were well on the way to employment because they were doing internships at businesses, government agencies, hospitals, and schools. Employment, however, is not an obligation for a traditional Muslim woman. Students explained that the husband is totally responsible for the “nafaqua,” the monetary support of his wife and minor children (Haneef, 1996). Any money the wife earns is hers to keep and do with as she pleases (Engineer, 1996).

The students were asked if their mothers worked and if they planned to work after marriage. Only two of their mothers had been (or were) employed, but over half of the students said they would like to work after marriage at least until the first child was born. Most said they would need to negotiate the freedom to work with their husbands.

Students were asked if they could combine motherhood with a career. A few (20 percent) reported that they would return to work after a few months of maternity leave. These future working mothers were quick to point out that even if they worked, they would still have sufficient time for their babies. The usual workday for many government offices and Arabic businesses is from 8 am to 2 p.m. Thus, the working mother would be separated from her child for only part of the day. When asked about childcare, these students assumed their mothers or other relatives would care for their children. A few would prefer full-time nannies if they could find capable, reliable ones. None considered full-time center care as an option.

Most of the students said they would quit work and stay home if and when they became mothers. They believe motherhood is important and they would be happy to be homemakers (Tarazi, 1995, p. 58). For many Arab women, the family is precious and many women prefer homemaking to employment. A few of these future stay-at-home mothers speculated that they might return to work after their children were in school, but they expressed a wait-and-see attitude.


The purpose of this study was to design a qualitative study to investigate a little understood practice of contemporary Arab mate selection. Symbolic Interaction Theory was employed to conceptualize changes in mate selection and to guide the phenomenological research methodology. Because so little was known about mate selection in modern Arab countries, this was primarily a qualitative, descriptive investigation (Gilgun, Daly, & Handel, 1992).

Using Symbolic Interaction Theory the author proposed that changes in mate selection would occur because of the intrusion of western culture into Emirati society. Results were somewhat as expected. These Emirati college students accepted many western ideas about marriage but still held onto traditional values and behaviors. Thus both role taking (i.e., accepting some traditional female roles and behaviors) and role making (i.e., creating new roles and behaviors) occurred (White & Klein, 2002). These young Emirati women grew up in a world very different from their mothers (Fernea, 1985).

In one generation, from mothers to daughters, these young women appeared to think differently and planned to act differently in mate selection and marriage. For example, these young college students desired more freedom in choosing a spouse. Though parents would still arrange most marriages, fewer young women would agree to marry men who they have never met or spoken to (Alnajjar & Smadi, 1998). Unlike their mothers, most of these young women would insist on the right to reject a suitor selected by parents.

One dramatic change in marriage over the past fifty years in the Emirates is the high cost of the wedding celebration. This fact may make it more difficult for some of these women to marry. Harik and Marston (1996) observed, “The size of the mahr gift being asked by fathers for their daughters has soared in recent years, especially in the wealthy gulf states” (p. 53). The students explained that even with government subsidies, a young man may need to borrow additional money from a bank or from his father to pay for the wedding. Either way, the dowry and wedding costs are likely to cause hardship for the groom and his family (Farook, 2001). There are many Emirati women who have reached their thirties and forties unmarried in part due to the high cost of weddings (Zeitoun, 2001). Thus, in some cases, wedding expenses prohibit a young man from proposing marriage to an Emirati woman (Zabara, 2000).

These young women will be older (by 3-5 years) when they marry than were their mothers (Heaton, 1996, Schvaneveldt et al., 2005). They may choose to wed a non-relative, which was unthinkable in their mothers’ generation. A few may even postpone marriage indefinitely because, like other women in the Middle East, they are afraid of a male dominated marriage where they may experience inequality, unreasonable restrictions, unwarranted criticism, and a lack of companionship and emotional intimacy (Shaaban, 1988).

Western style dating (i.e., conjoint activity without supervision) is unlikely to happen anytime soon in the Emirates. Such ideas are creeping into the consciousness and conversations of these young women, but few would dare to deceive their parents and have a clandestine meeting with boyfriends or fiancés. Displays of physical affection are still taboo in Emirati society and may remain so for some time to come. The students apparently agree with these restrictions.

It should be remembered that a woman’s virtue still has great importance in Arab culture. For many Arabs, a woman’s virginity is the most important factor determining family honor (Al-Qaradawi, 2000). Some Arab men believe that a woman’s sexuality is a cause for worry and concern. They believe that a woman must be guarded and protected after puberty to ensure her chastity. Thus, a young woman is usually required to wear concealing clothing and a veil in order to shield her from the gaze of strangers and to signal to men that she is “virtuous and unapproachable” (Harik et al., 1996). Because of these cultural attitudes, western style dating in Arab gulf countries is almost non-existent (Muslim Women’s League, 2000). Traditional dress of black hijab, at least in public, is still the norm.

Motherhood is a priority for these young women, as it was for their mothers. Many hadith (sayings and teachings Muhammad) speak of the importance and rewards of motherhood. For example, Muhammad said that each time a mother nurses her child, or arises at night to comfort a sick child; she will receive the reward “equal to one who buys the freedom of many slaves.” In another hadith, the Prophet stated, “If the mother dies in childbirth, she is equal to the martyr who dies fighting in the cause of Allah” (Schimmel, 1995, p. 45). Muslims believe that such martyrs and mothers automatically enter paradise (Esposito, 1998). Thus, given the high status of motherhood in Islam, it is not surprising that most of these students desired children and considered homemaking a worthy vocation.

Although motherhood is a priority for these young women, they only wanted three or four children. This ideal family size, if it should occur, would be half the size of their families of origin. Most students had between 6-12 siblings. The birthrate for the entire country has been falling for decades from a high of 41 babies per thousand couples in 1970, to 31 per thousand in 1990, to 23 per thousand in 2000 (Nazzal, 2001b).

In addition to having fewer children than their mothers, most of these young Emirati women also planned to seek employment before and after marriage. A few, with the permission of their husbands, will even combine motherhood with a career. Most, however, said they would drop out of the workforce if and when they had children. The mother’s role as homemaker and nurturer of children is still a vital role in Emirati culture.

Polygamy was a dirty word to these young Muslim women. They wanted none of it! Many of their mothers endured it, but they were unanimously opposed to polygymy. They hoped that only a few of them would be forced to accept the presence of a second, third, or fourth wife If these young women have their way, multiple-wife households will decrease dramatically in one generation (Smadi & Alhussain, 1996).

As a final change, these young Emirati women may have an easier time than their mothers of ending an unhappy marriage (Nazzal, 2001d). In Islamic law a woman has always had a limited right to divorce her husband, but it was extremely difficult especially in certain Islamic countries (Esposito, 1996; Maudoodi, 1983). The woman must have solid reasons for divorce such as her husband’s adultery; an incurable communicable disease; cruelty, or financial non-support (Khan, 2000). In addition, she must present proof of her husband’s misbehavior—her testimony alone is usually not sufficient. In 2001, the first ever Emirati woman was granted a divorce for nonsupport when her husband abandoned her and her six minor children for four years while living with another wife in Oman (Nazzal, 2000b).

In conclusion, the limitations of the data should be acknowledged. The results represent the opinions of a small group of students at a particular university in the UAE. They may be different from other Emirati women because they have chosen to attend an English-speaking university (Al-Fa’ruqui, 2000). They, and their parents, may be less traditional and more willing to be exposed to western customs and ideologies. Because of the small convenience sample, these results cannot be used to make generalizations about changes in mate selection in the UAE.

The author’s understanding of Emirati culture is limited to a one-year sojourn in the UAE and the lack of proficiency in Arabic. The shyness and timidity of the students, when faced with their first male teacher, may have made them less responsive to direct questioning and honest answers (Young & Shami, 1997). Last, only a woman’s perspective is presented. The male point of view is missing because the author had no access to young, unmarried Emirati men. In spite of these limitations, the author is confident the description of the mate selection process is accurate for this group of participants. This study gives some insights into possible changes in mate selection and marriage for a new generation of Muslim women.

Arab identity and traditional female roles are important to these young women, but, like a stone rolling down the mountain, bits and pieces of Arab values and traditions will get knocked off here and there by continual contact with western ideologies, commercial products, and higher education. Daily, these women are subject to foreign influence—in the classroom, on the Internet, at the mall or movie theatre, in the supermarket, or at home watching TV—that will shape their identities and alter their social roles to be different from their mothers. Wealth, education, and western culture are challenging old customs and traditions of mate selection and marriage in the UAE.

The goal of this paper was to conduct a qualitative study in an Arab country undergoing tremendous social change and intense interaction with western culture. It is unique in that it is the only known report of mate selection in a modern Gulf country. It is the author’s hope that this effort might encourage others to learn about and study women’s issues in Muslim societies (Leeder, 2004). There is also a growing population of Muslims living in American, nearly eight million. The US government, for better or worse, has become embroiled in many Muslim nations including Kuwait, Afghanistan, Palestine, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Iraq (Keegan, 2004).

It is certainly an opportune time for child and family scientists to engage in the study of Arab and Muslim families who account for one fifth of all humanity (Adams, 2004; Rauf, 2004). The ability to conduct qualitative and quantitative studies in more closed societies where religion, language, and cultural traditions are so different than our own is another major challenge for American researchers.


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