He was looking for a woman with particular attributes, hopefully a widow of a man killed in the struggle against Israel, without children, between 25 and 30, from southern Gaza. Her requirement was no less important. She was looking for a married man. For Majdi and Ghada Abu Mustafa, their simultaneous search for a spouse turned out well, and the pair are now married.
“She is beautiful and a widow of a martyr at the same time,” says Abu Mustafa, using the word preferred by Palestinians for a killed fighter, often a terrorist to Israelis. She is the second of his two wives.
“When I get wealthy, I will marry the third wife.”
The couple met on Wesal – it means communion or reunion in Arabic – a first-of-its-kind matchmaking website in Gaza. It has been successful, and not just because Tinder and other dating apps are banned or severely frowned on here.
Its founder knows his demographic well: residents of the religiously conservative Gaza Strip, with its culture of resistance. Some 1,400 men have been killed in the three wars with Israel since 2008, leaving many widows who would like to remarry. Tradition, however, can make it difficult for them to wed single men.
Abu Mustafa, 34, a maths teacher, said he had no specific reasons to get married again, but said he did wish to give “dignity” to a widow. His wife’s first husband died during the conflict between Hamas and Israel in 2012. Islam permits a man to have up to four wives. “Our men fight wars and die. Women stay alive,” says the site’s founder, Hashem Sheikha. “This is why my project supports polygamy.”
Sheikha, a Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia, says the site has led to 160 weddings since it started in March. The 33-year-old adds and more than half the marriage requests involved men seeking a second or third wife (though not yet a fourth).
“We want to spread joy and connections between people” and help them with “finding love and peace after going through a lot of suffering,” he says.
“Women who lost their men during the last three wars have difficult lives and few options,” says Reham Owda, a Gaza-based writer and analyst of women’s issues. “In most cases the husband’s family pressures the woman to marry the brother-in-law to control her life and seize any financial aid she receives.”
Owda adds that if the widow’s husband is affiliated with a political party, it might intervene and pressure the woman to marry a man from same group. She will often agree because she is struggling financially and the group will pay her a salary.
“This matchmaking service is positive because it encourages these women to choose the potential husband without fear and pressure in this religious and patriarchal society,” says Owda.
Wesal not only facilitates marriages for widows, but also for the divorced and those who have never married.
Part of Wesal’s immediate success appears to be how closely it hews to Gazan tradition, despite the digital medium. When completing an application, people must address several questions important to those looking for a spouse here: place of residence, occupation, salary, marital status, number of children. And there are some traditional terms users must accept: “I swear by Allah the Great that all my information is accurate, and that I won’t use this website for entertainment.”
What Wesal does not have is profile photos or any online chatting functionality, to protect the privacy of women and because both would be considered “haram,” or forbidden under Islamic law, Sheikha said.
“We are the halal version of American dating websites,” he says, using the word that connotes what is acceptable under Islamic tradition.
Wesal is ad-supported, plus a man and a woman who get married after meeting on the site are supposed to pay $100 each.
Though popular, with some 100,000 visitors in a population of 2 million people in Gaza, the website is not universally liked.
“This website is disgusting. Women are not a sack of onions,” says Lina Zein, 25, a single woman from Gaza City, explaining that Wesal felt too transactional in its approach to arranging weddings. “It limits my ambitions in marriage to someone’s income.”
Amal Seyam, the head of Gaza’s Women Affairs Association, an NGO, says the service appeared to have come at an opportune time to take advantage of changes in Gazan society.
“Polygamy has hit high rates in Gaza over the few past years, seemingly due to an increase in people’s religious inclination, especially after Hamas took power in 2007,” says Seyam, referring to the militant group that rules over Gaza.
Marriage rates overall have been on the decline in Gaza, and divorce is on the rise because of high poverty and unemployment rates, says the head of the Supreme Sharia Judicial Council in Gaza, Sheikh Hassan al-Jojo. Hamas itself has been trying to encourage marriage by paying the equivalent of £1,200 to any male who memorises the Quran, a bit of cash to help finance the next step in life.
Sheikh Abdul Khaleq Buhaisi, another official with the Sharia Council, which has authority over weddings, says he prefers more traditionally arranged marriages, often through a khattaba – a woman who pays home visits in the company of the groom’s mother to search for brides.
The khattaba inspects the prospective bride: body shape, skin colour, teeth, hair and other physical features. Traditionally, the polite way for a groom’s family to signal a proposal request is to ask to go to the bride’s family’s house for a cup of coffee. With the Wesal service, a prospective groom receives a woman’s address when the two have exchanged “likes” online. The man then has 48 hours to propose, something still typically done over the traditional coffee at her home.
Kholoud Sobouh, 27, said she got tired of being shown to men who knocked on her door with their mothers to propose. Through Wesal, she and her fiancé met in less than 24 hours. She requested an educated man who didn’t smoke and who could secure a home in Gaza. Her fiancé, Tareq – Sobouh did not want to give his surname, for fear of being criticised for meeting her spouse online – said he wanted a tall, light-skinned woman with religious manners. It will be the first marriage for both.
“Wesal service is the best discovery of my life,” says Sobouh. “I am the one who will get married, not my family or the society.”
In some cases, Wesal’s founder acts something like a traditional khattaba. Nour Ahmad, 25, left Gaza after her family finally agreed to let her marry a Palestinian man living in Saudi Arabia.
“The founder of Wesal came to my family and convinced them that the man is honest and wants to marry me,” says Ahmad. “I said yes because I wanted a man who is not jobless, who has a good life and works on his future.”
Sheikha, Wesal’s founder, says he wants the site to challenge longstanding customs surrounding matchmaking in Gaza, and to give women more agency in the process. “Our website encourages them to search for husbands by themselves, to truly choose and say what they like in the man,” he says. “We also fight old traditions that say divorced women should not get married.”
But while Sheikha is in favour of more options for women in the selection of a spouse, he is not a strong supporter of the choice to remain single. In addition to helping widows and the divorced find husbands, he says he hoped the site would also address “an increase in the number of spinsters in their 20s and 30s. The Arabic proverb says living in the shadow of a man is better than living in the shadow of a wall, which means that having a husband is better than staying unmarried.”
Sheikha says he was looking for a second wife himself and that he preferred she be a widow. The site has also found favour among divorced men. Rami Shatali, 38, works in a biscuit factory, earns less than 1,000 shekels a month, or not quite £400, and has four daughters living with him in the Al Maghazi refugee camp from an earlier marriage that ended in divorce.
His new wife, Majd Shatali, 26, also divorced and with a son, found him on Wesal in March. About 400 hundred people attended their wedding. The first dance was the couple’s slow one.
The groom’s daughters, along with the son of the bride, danced happily. From time to time, relatives of the groom sprayed glitter and wedding snow in the air. “I felt like I was the happiest man in the world on my wedding day,” says Shatali, “because I found a woman who madly fell in love with me, the one who could make me forget all about my pain.”
© New York Times
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