When she catches up with long lost female friends, Tarfa Itani usually anticipates their first question: “Are you married?”
“I answer ‘no’,” says the thirty-something jewellery designer and boutique owner in Beirut. And then they usually follow-up with, ‘Why, you’re pretty?’
Her eyes sparkle as she talks to filmmaker Simon El Habre who is on his own personal quest to discover why, at 40, he hasn’t yet found the woman he feels he wants to commit the rest of his life to.
Finding time for a personal life has not been easy and though Itani’s had several relationships, she hasn’t yet found a life partner. She feels that women’s expectations finding the perfect man are unrealistic, but also believes that many Lebanese women these days no longer feel pressure to see marriage as the be all and end all.
It’s not a burden or a responsibility. It’s about companionship, love and beautiful moments together. It’s unfair to link marriage to all these negative thoughts.
Tarfa Itani, jewellery designer and owner of Falamank Boutique
“It’s not a burden or a responsibility,” she says standing in her jewellery boutique where she supplies a growing Arab and international market. She’s referring to social pressures and growing divorce rates. “It’s about companionship, love and beautiful moments together. It’s unfair to link marriage to all these negative thoughts.”
El Habre comes across a number of factors contributing to increasing numbers of single, thirty-plus women in Lebanon.
Women outnumber men by more than 2 percent in the country of six million. It’s a situation that becomes more pronounced as people enter their late thirties and early forties and is exacerbated by the sometimes rigid roles imposed by Lebanese society, across religious and cultural boundaries.
Getting work has become an increasing problem following the end of the Lebanese Civil War, in 1990. Unemployment hovers around seven percent today, so many men now work abroad, marrying foreign wives. Educated Lebanese women, tied to the more traditional expectations of parents and extended family, have tended to remain in Lebanon.
For 40-year-old Adriana Lubos who works in advertising, that’s simply the way that it is.
“Men with qualifications leave Lebanon to get married, because there are no opportunities here for them to achieve their ambitions,” she says.
To try and better understand the situation, Adriana has been writing a blog, candidly sharing her experiences with online dating and relationships.
“People usually marry in their early thirties. But if they reach their mid-thirties, something must be wrong,” she says. “That’s the rule and you become the exception. So you try to understand why.”
Accurate statistics are hard to come by but informally Adriana believes that for every single, eligible man in Beirut, there may be six or more single women.
After living on her own and forging her own successful career in local government – and becoming the first female president of her municipality – Fadia Abo Ghanem Maalouf has finally settled into marriage. But when she met her future husband, it wasn’t all plain sailing.
“After we had many clashes, we suddenly fell in love. It’s the most beautiful thing. Life is shared between two, not one.”
In contrast to 10-hour work days and nights with as little as two hours sleep, Fadia has found fulfilment in a more traditional role.
“It’s nice to go back home and find someone waiting for you, someone who loves you, is kind, respects you and completes your ambitions,” she says.
El Habre concludes that, in today’s Lebanon, perhaps being single is becoming the new norm. Women are taking more control of their lives in ways that much of society has not yet adjusted to. The consequences for Lebanon – and potentially the Arab world as a whole – may be an increasing shift away from traditional family structures. But, as yet, no one quite has the answers as to what will replace them.
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