Amna Fatani knows she wants a brilliant career and a life different from that of Saudi women of her mother’s generation who married early, usually to a husband not of their own choosing.
The 27-year-old, studying for her master’s degree at Georgetown University in Washington and hoping to someday become Saudi Arabia’s first female labour minister, is part of a growing number of Saudi women choosing to remain single through their twenties and into their thirties as they pursue other ambitions.
The trend has ruffled ultra-conservatives who see it as an affront to the very foundations of the kingdom, where strict interpretations of Islam and rigid tribal codes have long dictated terms of marriage.
“My friends and I have reached a point [where] we’re very specific about what we want,” she said. “I need someone who trusts that if I need to do something, I can make the decision to ask for help or choose to do it alone.”
Saudi women stand at the centre of a societal pivot between the kingdom’s push for greater women’s education and rights to work, and laws that say women cannot travel, study abroad, marry or undergo certain medical procedures without the permission of a male guardian – usually a father or husband, or in their absence, an older or even a younger brother.
The growing number of single women has alarmed clerics, who have responded by pushing for early marriage and warning of alleged evil consequences of “spinsterhood”, such as sex outside wedlock. Traditionally, women in Saudi Arabia are expected to be married by their early twenties. In 2011, more than 1.5 million Saudi women aged over 30 were single, according to the economy and planning ministry.
According to government figures, 3.3 million are women over 30 in this nation of 20 million people – and if the ministry’s 2011 figure is unchanged, it means that about 45 per cent of Saudi women over 30 are single. While women’s rights activists agree there’s a rise in the numbers of single women, some question the accuracy of the government’s figure.
Women have been taking on a greater role in public life, with jobs mostly in the education sector. The labour ministry says there are more than 400,000 working women in Saudi Arabia, compared with less than 55,000 before 2009. Women outnumber men in the kingdom’s universities.
Education is also changing women’s attitudes toward marriage and giving them more confidence, Hatoon al-Fassi, a professor of women’s history in Saudi Arabia, said. “You can no longer control these attitudes.”
Some Saudi women are also challenging the rules on how to meet a prospective husband. The kingdom’s dominant Wahhabi interpretation of Islam keeps the sexes strictly segregated, making it harder for young people to meet. Families are expected to arrange or, at the least, approve marriages. Parents usually arrange a “showfa” – Arabic for a “viewing” – so a man can see his potential bride at her home, without the traditional black robe and face veil worn by most Saudi women in public. This is sometimes the only chance for a man and a woman to see one another before deciding on whether to get engaged. Among the most conservative families, a groom is only allowed to see his wife after the wedding.
However, stories of secretive courtships away from parents’ prying eyes abound in Saudi Arabia, pointing to a rebellious shift among the younger generation.
One woman said she spent months chatting with a man online. They finally agreed to meet at a grocery store, where they texted from opposite ends of an aisle. They spoke face-to-face for the first time when he asked her father for her hand in marriage. Until today, their parents believe they met through work. Tamador Alyami, a Saudi blogger and women’s rights advocate, said tradition is being outpaced by the internet. Private chat rooms and social media have given Saudis a space to pursue relationships on their own terms. Ms Alyami said women today are asserting greater independence. “They don’t just want their mothers to meet with their [prospective] husbands’ mothers and, you know, make all of the arrangements on their behalf.”
Some in the Saudi media have joined the clerics in hand-wringing over – as one newspaper put it – “the army of spinsters”. The Saudi talk-show host Dawood al-Shiryan dedicated an entire broadcast to discussing spinsterhood.
In Mr Shiryan’s show, the psychologist Fawzia al-Hani said the government is partly responsible for the large numbers of young single women because young men find it increasingly difficult to afford a house, wedding and “mahr” – money given to the bride.
Ms Fatani wants a husband who has also lived abroad and has aspirations similar to hers. She prefers to meet him outside of an arranged setting and wants the chance to experience “things like grocery shopping together” before deciding if she wants to marry him.