Right from the very start, Walaa Mousa was unhappy about getting engaged. She wanted to finish university first and get her diploma in Arabic literature. She had also dreamt of having a real love story, marrying out of real passion and feeling and building her family on that basis. Still, she agreed to be engaged to the son of her father’s friend and business partner, just because she didn’t want to make a fuss and wanted to please those around her.
Walaa’s fiancé was very religious and conservative, although he had worked as a translator and had studied English literature. Walaa only learned about his conservatism later, after they had exchanged a number of visits, which always took place in the presence of their families.
Her fiancé tried to insist that she should wear a full niqab, while Walaa was already veiled and saw nothing lacking in the modesty of her dress. He also tried to force her to cut all ties with her girlfriends who didn’t wear the hijab. She felt increasingly suffocated with her every movement monitored, and her social relationships were soon confined to just her family and him.
Walaa never felt that her fiancé was meant to be her future husband, and a few months before they were to be married, during one of their family visits, she called off the engagement. The decision caused numerous conflicts with her father, which went on for months and nearly caused the two to become completely estranged from one another, before he was finally convinced that the young man had not been suitable for his daughter.
Walaa fell in love with one of her fellow students at the university. He was a Master’s student and hailed from another province. They could only meet together on campus, The conservative nature of the town where they lived, Yalda, in Rif Dimashq province, forbade any relationship between a man and woman outside the confines of family acquaintanceship or engagement.
The young man approached Walaa’s family to ask for her hand in marriage, though she never told her parents that they had had any sort of relationship with one another. Her family refused, because the young man was still a student and had no financial or material security to support married life.
Walaa was totally shocked. She tried to explain the young man’s situation to her father, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. Though she was devastated, she still refused her boyfriend’s suggestion that they elope without anyone’s permission or knowledge. Having come to such a crossroads, they had no choice but to end their relationship.
The years passed by quickly, and Walaa found herself aged thirty and out of a job after leaving her teaching position. Her parents were older and needed her help, and her brother was busy with his own life, family and job.
A widower in his fifties, with children and even grandchildren of his own, came forward to ask for Walaa’s hand in marriage. She refused the very idea of it on principle—she had no desire to marry a man who had been married before and who had already had children.
“Women in our society are so used to interfering in other people’s private lives,” she says. “They talk about all sorts of things like why this one was late to marry, and why this one has been taking so long to bear children, and they gossip and spread rumors amongst one another. In this society, any girl who’s older than twenty-two and still isn’t married is considered a spinster.”
Walaa could see the pity in her neighbors’ eyes and each conversation was a minefield, with constant implorations for Walaa to meet a nice man and settle down. She began keeping more and more to herself, avoiding attending social gatherings like weddings despite her mother’s attempts to accompany her so that she might catch some woman’s eye who might then in turn, try to make a match with one of their relatives.
Walaa’s psychological state deteriorated to the point where she began experiencing physical aches and pains as a result of her anxiety and stress. She developed a stomach ulcer and began berating herself, thinking she no longer knew how to behave in public, especially that she was shy to begin with and wasn’t the sort of girl who would automatically attract a man’s attention.
Today, at thirty-six, Walaa believes that marriage is something fated by God, and that it is God who has delayed her marriage so long in order to stop her from making a bad match.
“As time has gone on,” she says, “the list of qualities I’d like for my future husband to have has changed. A man I might have consented to marry at a younger age is probably not the same sort of man I’d agree to marry today. This is because I’m older and more mature and require different things from a husband. For example, I think I need more love and tenderness now, and I need someone more mature than I am.
“I wish that society as a whole could evolve its outlook toward unmarried woman,” she continues, “because the word “spinster,” is designed to shame, to make a woman feel like she’s weak, or lesser somehow.”