Marriage and Attitudes Towards Marriage Age

While some form of marriage organization exists in all societies, the social rules for ordering those relations vary dramatically from context to context and they change historically alongside transformations in the larger socio-economic structure of a society. In the West Bank and Gaza, these larger determinants of 'who marries whom and why' have undergone some profound transformations since the late 19th century.

Prior to the rise of wage labour, when social relations were predominantly peasant-based, the need to organize production through land within and between extended families, was the primary determinant of marriage relations. Lineage solidarity, property and family labour maintenance or distribution were thus primary determinants, not only of who married whom, but also at what age. While a social ideology that refuses to recognize individuals as adults outside of the structure of marriage persists, the logic of contemporary marriage arrangements in the West Bank and Gaza are both diverse and different from those in the past.

Since the beginning of the century, with growing education levels for women and hence social mobility, marriage arrangements based on individual relationships outside the context of family have developed. Local universities have represented an important site for this development, as have the rise of student movements. Where access to higher education and social mobility does not exist (in many villages and some refugee camps), the family continues to play an important role in organizing marital relations, and the exigencies of the entire family unit play a determinant role in the logic of marriage relationships. In villages where women's mobility is constrained, and issues of land inheritance are sometimes involved, marriage relations can remain determined by the property or solidarity arrangements of the extended family group. In refugee camps, however, where property is usually not a factor, issues of household density and scarce family resources are often the crucial determinants of marriage. Marriage arrangements based on a need to preserve kinship bonds persist in some sectors of society, although their original role as a way to preserve property or power arrangements has disappeared. Instead, kinship-based marriage arrangements now exist as a way to preserve the continued identity of dispersed communities. Although this pattern has disappeared among refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, who continued to organize marriage in the framework of their village or place of origin up through the 1970s, it remains strong among migrant workers and exiles living outside of the occupied territories. The latter phenomenon is typified in the (almost) annual summer months of 'bride-shopping' that takes place when overseas Palestinians visit the occupied territories.

Marital status is a factor of profound importance in assessing women's living conditions in any social context. But in social contexts in which women do not participate heavily in the labour force, and do not have independent sources of income, marriage becomes the mechanism through which much of their economic life is decided. This also has implications for women's ability to make independent decisions about their lives; if women are dependents does this also imply constraints on their ability to act as individuals and to seek ways to improve their own future as women? Alternatively, are women empowered through the mechanism of marriage? Are there other forms of support for married women that affect their ability to make more active decisions about their lives and future?

Some basic data on marital status is presented in table 10.1. The table presents the basic frequencies of marital status of women in the sample population and then breaks marital status down by age sets.

Table 10.1 Marital status by age. Percentage.
AgeUnmarriedMarriedMarried but spouse working abroadDivorcedWidowedSeparatedN
40-4988602 30155

While the overall number of women who are or have been married in the sample population seems quite low (69%), this is primarily due to the age range of the sample. The largest number of unmarried women in the sample are in the pre-marriage ages of 15 to 19; they constitute 55% of all unmarried women in the sample population. Women in their twenties also comprise a sizable part of the unmarried women in the population (26%): there is a high likelihood that these women could be categorized as pre-marriage as opposed to permanently unmarried. However, once a single woman reaches beyond her twenties in Palestinian society, marriage is less likely. It is interesting to note the distribution of unmarried women within each age category of 30 years upward. In each of the top three age categories (40 years and up), less than ten per cent of the women have been unmarried all their lives. But for women in the 30 to 39 age category, a full 17% are still unmarried. This may mean that the upper limits of socially acceptable marriage age are higher than expected, or it may imply that for certain reasons a number of women in this age range either choose not to marry or do not have the opportunity. An analysis of their educational achievement shows that they have a higher educational achievement level than married women in the same age group, and that a higher percentage of them work outside the home. These factors may be a cause or an effect of their being unmarried.

Exemplifying the strong stigma attached to divorce in Palestinian society, and the lack of social and economic support available to divorced women, only about 1% of the female sample population is divorced. On the other hand, 7% of women in the population are widows, the majority of them are in the 60+ age category, thus their status seems to be the result of natural life cycle processes added to age differentials that exist between women and their spouses among the older generations.


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