LOVE AND DATING IN THE ARAB WORLD
As western flower sellers, restaurants, and chocolatiers prepare for Valentine’s Day, how do couples in the Middle East mark the day – or do they?
Even though in most of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region Valentine’s is a growing phenomenon, some countries and cultures, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, strongly oppose it. Religious police enforce a ban claiming that it is a western import that incites immorality. Any idea of dating before engagement or marriage is frowned upon, from both Christian and non-Christian circles. In church circles, for example, a deeply conservative attitude is maintained, regarding friendship across the sexes before marriage.
SECRECY AND DENIAL
Such restrictions and rules have lead young adults to rebel and form dating friendships behind their parents’ and churches’ back. By keeping relations secret, young adults cannot share their experience and be advised by their parents. To address this issue, SAT-7 ARABIC’s program Needle and New Thread, recently produced a special episode dedicated to exploring the topic of love and dating in the MENA. Producer Maggie Morgan says: “In the Middle East, there is no dating. Usually, there is engagement. But in reality, what happens is that people date anyway behind the backs of the families and institutions – they mix and interact and get married because they know each other.”
“They are not encouraged to mix at all,” Maggie explains. “at one point in their lives, they are expected to make a decision about who to marry. But how can they make a good decision with no experience!” There are limited opportunities to meet members of the opposite sex in most Arab societies. Schools are not co-ed. Most church groups separate the sexes even at university age. There are no mixed singles groups, and in more conservative areas a girl and boy are not even supposed to stand alone together after church.
The secrecy young people in the Arab world are forced into “is actually riskier,” Maggie says. “A lot of girls are in abusive relationships because they have no one to tell them if a guy does this or that to you it’s not good. Bringing these issues into the light is the healthiest thing, but parents are always so scared,” she says.
HEARING DIFFERENT VIEWS
For this episode, Needle and New Thread welcomed two guests who discussed their various viewpoints. Rosette, a young teacher and leader in a Brethren church, and Michael, a church elder and development worker, took opposite views within a clear, Christian framework. “The show was very clear at the beginning, that we were not talking about premarital sex,” Maggie says. “We were looking at the best way to establish healthy relationships between young men and women.”
Rosette said her fellowship discouraged any one-to-one dating and mixed groups. She felt it is enough to learn from other people’s advice and experience until they are ready to get engaged. Although it is possible to end an engagement, Maggie points out, there is a lot of stigmas attached to this for the girl.
Michael opposed Rosette by saying that he wants his son to be able to talk to him about girls he likes so he can be involved as a father and mentor. He felt having healthy, non-sexual friendships would give his children the ability to make a good choice at the right time. He felt if young people brought a boy or girl home it would be a great way for parents to get to know them and give advice.
“WALK IN THE LIGHT”
The show set these personal views in a biblical context: of marriage being intended for life, and the decision to marry as a great responsibility. Michael questioned the region’s fearful attitude towards love, quoting 1 John: “There is no fear in love” and stressed a Christian’s calling to be people who “walk in the light” as Jesus did. Presenters and guests emphasised the need to develop emotional intelligence, to control emotions, ask questions to get to know someone properly and to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Viewers were invited to call in, and parent callers were the most concerned: “’They ‘re very young and irresponsible. What if they make a mistake?’, meaning what if they have sex,” Maggie interprets. “That’s always the biggest fear.” Premarital sex or having a child outside marriage is viewed as gravely by Christian families as it is by others in the Middle East.
“’I wish I could tell my Mum’ were the typical responses we were getting from younger viewers,” Maggie says. “I remember especially a university student from Assiut in conservative Upper Egypt who said, ‘Yes! I wish everybody would hear what you are saying.’”
The program did not arrive at a consensus, but it had raised an important aspect of young people’s lives that the Needle and New Thread team feels is not addressed realistically, even in church. On 19 April Needle and New Thread plans to explore the subject of love and marriage further and pose the question: should we marry for love or other reasons? No doubt viewers will have some interesting thoughts on that episode as well.
VIEWERS HAVE THEIR SAY
“I encourage my daughter to meet boys but with limits. I teach her that she must be careful regarding other people touching her so as not to exceed the limits of privacy.”
“Dating doesn’t depend on age. It depends on maturity. Before dating, I must know the consequences so I can judge if the relationship is going in the right direction or not.”
“This isn’t what God wants. It is normal to feel attracted to another person, but dating causes us to hurt one another in the process when the couple isn’t mature enough or responsible.”