Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I Was Playing in the Street When...

This is the phrase I've heard several old women using when emphasizing how old they were when they were married off:

"I was playing out in the street when they came and brought me to see this strange man and..."

My MIL estimates that she was probably around 11 years old when she was married off to her husband, a man 20 some years her senior (we never did know exactly how old my FIL was, God rest his soul). She claims that she hadn't even started menstruating yet, as once a girl hits puberty she can no longer play "out" in the street. The woman he'd been married to passed away suddenly and at the wake, his uncle came to comfort his grieving nephew.

"Why don't you marry my daughter", he offered to him. The man felt in his heart of hearts that having a new wife would ease his nephew's suffering as well as provide his daughter with a husband he knew and trusted. And so, my MIL was married off to my FIL.

As was common in those days, a new bride did not become the managing force in her household but rather, she became a part of her new husband's family's home. His mother was the matron and called all the shots. She was expected to be an apprentice to her husband's mother, bear the children and eventually, after her MIL became old and infirm, she would take over the managing the household.

More than likely due to the strain on my MIL's yet undeveloped body, her first 3 children died immediately, within a day or so, after birth. Although in the days "before oil" the infant mortality rate was astounding, 3 in a row would be tough! She was probably not even in her mid-teens before her first living child was born, at home, as were all the children at that time. After having lost 3 children in a row, they didn't take ANY chances with this one. Believing that someone had given them an "eye" resulting in their babies deaths, they hid the newest baby for over a year and didn't announce the delivery to anyone outside of the family. As a result, my husband's oldest brother didn't get circumcised until he was around 8 or 9 years old as well as never discovering exactly what his age is.

Such was life, back in those days. Both my MIL and FIL were illiterate and had to work hard for everything they had. My FIL was a manual laborer and worked various unskilled jobs throughout his life, jobs that S.E. Asian workers now do for less pay. There were no other options for girls back then; they were destined to become wives and mothers. Education for men was only available to the elite and the clergy in the past and upon attaining puberty, a girl was ready for the next stage in her life: marriage. There wasn't any thing else.

These days it's unheard of for a man to marry an 11 year-old girl in Saudia and attitudes have changed towards young marriage. Although you will hear of the occasional 14 year-old getting married, it's a rarity and teenage pregnancy rates in the west are probably higher than the rate of Saudi girls the same age marrying. Even marrying in high school is becoming more infrequent with every successive year. Some become engaged in the last year or so of high school or immediately after graduation. Many young women now are trying to finish university and get a year or two in working before marrying.

Occasionally, especially during exam times, I hear comments from some of the older women. "I don't see why they're killing themselves with all this studying for university when they're just going to get married and stay at home with the kids."


Haleem said...

Wow it's surprising to hear that local Saudis used to do menial work like that just one generation ago.

Actually in fact when we went for Umrah we say a local guy (Saudi) sweeping the floor of the Kaaba as well.

Mama Z said...

Assalamu alaikum! your recent blog reminded me of the stories we hear about the old Turkish customs. it is getting better here too, we don't hear much about really young marriages anymore... i also want to say i love you blog! fun to read and see the similarities. keep up the good stuff!

Anonymous said...

I think *progress* is happening in Saudia for women though very slowly but it's still a major difference than 20yrs ago. I do hope they *allow* women to do and become more contributing members of the society. Btw, 11 is really young,so did she go to her husband's home or she stayed at her home until she reached puberty?? I remember some older women used to say they didn't know they were getting married until they got home(from playing outside) and were covered by this sheet(it's a tradtion indicating marriage,now they have a specific day, we call it *rubut*). That's how they knew it was THEIR wedding. sf

Molly said...

subhanAllah!!!!! 11???

I kind of agree though, my hub wants me to get a masters so he can say his wife has a master, and me I just want to stay home with the kids and maybe write a lot. I think a masters would be a waste unless it could somehow contribute to my writing career.

Cairogal said...

I do love to hear the pre-oil stories from the Gulf. So what percentage of Saudi women actually enter the workforce? Surely there are jobs in women-only facilities (banking?, teaching, even perhaps w/in the service industry)

I recently received some emails from Emirati women I taught at the university level. Many of them, between 23 and 25, are in the workforce. When I ask about plans for marriage, they are honest: want/need to focus on new career (and no really good candidates). Makes me very proud to hear them talking about their careers. I'm wondering if Saudi's segregated society actually creates a lot of employment opportunities for Saudi women.

Saudi Stepford Wife-Daisy said...

haleem- maids, drivers, sanitation workers and street cleaners were all Saudi. My husband estimates this started to change in the '70's which seems right since it coincides with the oil boom.

mama z- wa alaikum salam. You've touched on one of the purposes of my blog...our similarities far outweigh any perceived differences and I try to draw on that.

sf- My husband insists that she's exaggerating but I don't think she is. She's adamant that she wasn't covering yet and hadn't yet had her first period. My Yemeni friend described something similar about the "sheet" but I didn't see it done in the wedding I went to for her family-member.

Molly- although it doesn't seem like it now, there will be life after children, LOL! Even when they go to school you'll find opportunities to sneak in a bit of a career or studying during school hours, so you can have your career-cake and eat it at home too.

cairogal- I know there's some great statistics in one of the papers just within the last week...but I can't remember. You'd think there'd be tons of stuff but really , there isn't unless you're a teacher or a doctor/nurse. Lately I've noticed a lot of ads for female accountants. The segregation prevents us from many jobs as its too much work for most companies to make a "woman's" section.

Anonymous said...


I have a daughter who will be 13 on Saturday and I cannot imagine any man wanting to marry her! Don't get me wrong,shes my daughter,I love her to death but shes immature,can hardly take care of herself some days,doesn't know too much about cooking,and
certainlty doesn't know the demands of a husband,a household or children.I know times are different and maybe "back in the day" these things were taught more to the girls growing up but I certainly wouldn't want to be married to her!
By the way,The teen pregnancy rate in Saudia was a real eye-opener for me.I guess I just "assumed" there were more teen marriages than that.I am glad to hear they're on the decline and girls/women are now starting to have choices about it.Actually I'm glad for the boys/men too as my husband was forced into an unwanted marriage at a young age by his parents.Very informative post!Thanks!tinaahmat

Anonymous said...

You still have Saudis doing menial work now, they are Shia. I was in villages around Hassa and the people had no food for Iftar after the dates to break their fast during Ramadan. Mud houses with no windows. Sleeping on the roof of their home or on the sidewalk in the summers because they have no AC. Please do not be misled from rich Saudis. Marrying young girls is still common also. I had students my age (mid 30's) marrying 12, 13, 14 year olds. It was no oil boom in the 70's the government just decided to use the interest from their bank accounts to develop the country after many complaints from the masses of poor people. Ask old Saudis and they remember getting zakat from Egypt!lol. -gassus

Saudi Stepford Wife-Daisy said...

Tina- I know what you're talking about, my oldest is 10 and worthless at anything domestic!!! Because the girls were just assimilated into her husbands family, kind of like another child, there wasn't much responsibility on her. She just needed to do what her mother-in-law instructed.

gassus- wow, zakat from Egypt... how the tables have turned! My Egyptian friends have it so hard. And the kind of mud-house you're talking about, my in-laws live in one (and I just got back from visiting there an hour ago) and I lived with them for a time. I always thought of it as a cave, but we do have a/c.
And I MUST write a post on what lazy pieces-of-crap most Sunni boys are. We're Sunni but I can recognize how lazy they are as compared to the Shia boys who are working their butts off doing menial, dirty labor for next to nothing. Our family is bursting with girls, but they've only run across a few girls who were married at that age or knew of one who was married. This is true of the schools I've taught in as well. One of our niece's classmates just got married, age 14, and people couldn't stop talking about it!

ammena said...

wow, thanks for the insight sis.. veyr interesting masha'allah

Anonymous said...

Salaam 'alaykum,

This was very interesting! My maternal grandmother married at the age of 9 but she and her husband didn't have conjugal relations until she was in her mid-teens and considered mature enough bodily and mentally. Within the very next generation though things changed and my mother married in her mid-20s and I at the cusp of 30.

Thanks for sharing this story!


Saudi Stepford Wife-Daisy said...

ammena- :-)

Rickshawdiaries- 9!!! Yikes!! I think the marrying age goes up as life expectancies increase as well. People were dropping dead left and right "back in the days" and even in America in the early 1900's, life expectancy was in the late 30's. Thanks for stopping by.

Saudi Stepford Wife-Daisy said...

ammena- :-)

Rickshawdiaries- 9!!! Yikes!! I think the marrying age goes up as life expectancies increase as well. People were dropping dead left and right "back in the days" and even in America in the early 1900's, life expectancy was in the late 30's. Thanks for stopping by.

daydreamin 24/7 said...

Aslk, our story was really interesting, but inst it unislamic to marry someone who is below puberty? I've heard people getting married that young in the old days but usually they had reached puberty.

Oh and you have my sympathizes we are experiencing dust storms here in Jeddah as well,they make me wanna cry! I really like your blog, keep posting.

Anonymous said...

Assalamu alaikom,
I have two family members who married when the woman was young and the man was much older. I have to admit, sometimes it colors how I view them (him). Even though they are old now and "that was how it was back then"... just... It's wrong. Children should not have sex lives! (Crazy as that sounds!)

Nzingha said...

I would beg to differ on the 'lazy sunnis' vs the 'butt busting shia'. I think the difference is income and advantages vs disadvantages coupled along with how someone is raised.

I have a new driver, a Saudi shia (from al Hassa) hard worker, I've also had a sunni saudi driver, just as young and just as hard working (worked his way up from a driver to a better position).

Mr. Man is big into saudization, while he has many shia employed busting their rears, there are just as many sunnis doing the same. His family is filled with sunni young males going to school, and working nothing is handed to them.

But I've found a common link, income of the family and how one is raised. Sure there are those that think everything should be handed to them, but I think that is a stereotype that so many butt busting saudis (be they shia or sunni) don't necessarily deserve.

Intlxpatr said...

I know a girl, recently, age 13 who was married to a guy around 25 - 30. I was horrified, but . . . she was thrilled. He gave her a cell phone. They married, but she stayed with her family for a year while they . . . dated? courted? Then there was a big wedding. 18 months later she started popping out babies. She really likes her husband.

Some men tell their Moms they want a young girl, untouched, pure.

Mona said...

I'm delighted to hear that things are alhamdulillah getting better and better in Saudi Arabi. Earlier i used to hear many cases where very young girls were brought to the hospital for delivery as my father was a doctor there once..


Anonymous said...


thanks for sharing this information....something new I never new about..... it's very interesting to say the least....

Anonymous said...

wow, that was certainly insightful...I honestly didnt realize that such traditions had continued all the way into the 20th century...but i guess it also depends a lot on the family, and local traditions..thanks Daisy for sharing

UmmAbdurRahman said...

welcome back to the blogging world daisy. we missed you!

Ann said...

Assalaamu alaikum,

I'm not advocating marrying girls off when they're so young in these days, but I think we lose sight of the fact that that's how it's been at all times and in all societies until very recently. Puberty meant eligibility for marriage - and after all, puberty is the physical sign that a person is ready to reproduce. This has only changed recently in societies where girls are expected to finish school and maybe start a career before marrying. My mother-in-law married at 12, and that was typical for her generation. I know a Filipina whose mother married at 9; one of my husband's aunts (or great-aunt) was married at 9. There were no schools for them; when you reached puberty, you were ready for marriage. It's still that way in some societies.

Umm Yusuf said...

Assalaamu Alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuhu,

Very interesting, Mash'Allah. I agree, this was a different time. Back then, girls matured faster mentally. My aunt (American) was married at 14 in the 60s. Nearly all of my grandmothers were married at 15 or 16. My mom married at 18 and I married at 17. I think it is something that varies from one woman to the next. Yes, Alhamdullilah, It is great for women to get their educations and work if they want. However, I got my education after I was married paid for by my husband. Then had the choice to work or stay home. I worked a few years and decided that, here in the US anyway, it was too much fitnah. So, I quit and decided to stay home.

Miss Muslimah said...

patiently waiting for your next post :) ....

Cairogal said...

D, Here's a relatively new blog from an American woman living in JEddah. Her recent post touches on her own MIL's early betroathal.

TeacherLady said...

My grandmother was about 13 when he was married off to my grandfather. I was 23 when I got hitched! I did hear of one girl whose hopes of going to uni abroad were crushed by an arranged marriage, and she didn't even get to finish high school. She was one of the smartest girls in her grade, apparently. It's a shame some people have yet to realize you can be a great wife and mother AND be a positive influence in your community through outside activities too!

Saudi Stepford Wife-Daisy said...

Sorry to everyone whose comments I neglected for too long:-(

daydreamin 24/7- to be honest, I can't bring myself to ask my MIL if the marriage was consummated before she menstruated or not.I think that it's ok in the sunnah to marry before menarche but that it shouldn't be consummated till after menstruation has occurred.

anon- I had that same thought about my FIL. I tried to filter out my cultural bias but I just can't.

nzingha- in Al-Hassa, the rift between the sects are so much more apparent than in the Dammam area. In my in-laws neighborhood, there are some really, really poor people however, as my husband put it, "they'd rather answer phones and make SR1,500 and sit in a nice clean thobe and a/c than dirty themselves with hard work and sweat for more".

intlxpatr- I've noticed that the latest trend is to give the new bride a cell phone after the engagement. Inshallah that little girl will still like her husband after she's a bit older and can actually consider her situation with thought and true maturity.

mona- I can just imagine what your father saw!!! Al-Humdulillah, young women are actually young WOMEN now when they marry, for the most part.

theangrymuslimah- I'm not done yet:-) plenty more to come inshallah.

anon- if you consider that Jerry Lee Lewis(the singer "great balls of fire) married his then 14 year-old first cousin, and that was in the 1950's in America, the fact it happens here doesn't shock me much. Change happens here just as it happened in the west.

ummabdurrahman- thanks:-)

ann- what's that saying, something like "old enough to bleed, old enough to breed".

umm yusuf- since I married young (20 is young in the west) I ended going to university and working after marriage and children too. Having said that, as my brood increases in number, I find it harder to make that choice to work since my obligations to my home are so strong.

miss muslimah- quality, not quantity. Trust me, in the scatterbrained state of mind I've been in since insomnia hit hard, you don't want to read what I have to say!!! something akin to babble:-P

cairogal- how ironic, my daughter and I were looking at the pictures on her blog together just a few days before you commented. Great minds think alike:-)

teacherlady- how did they manage to find someone to unburden them of such an old spinster...23!!! I've met a few really bright ladies who've had to quit school because they've had so many children, and I'm talking middle school and high school. Everytime I met one like this I always wonder what she could have been and what she could have contributed to the world had she just been allowed to.

Lady Writer said...

I have a gf at school, Aisha, who, if told to get married before she finishes her degree, would rain down all manner of arguments... :) Nothing beats an articulate muslim woman, discussing issues of Islam, when roused to anger. *sigh*

Saudi Stepford Wife-Daisy said...

lady writer- I can only hope my daughters to grow to be so articulate.

the mad momma said...

got here via mummyjaan and have enjoyed every word i read. i shall be back... as arnold said!


His Sweetheart said...

You said nothing but the truth!!
Mom got married when she was 11 years old. She didn't mensturate yet that time!! She too had two dead born babies!!

Luckily, many people have stopped marrying their kids at early ages these days. Sadly, a girl in her twenties is considered a spinster unfortunately!! Why, I don't know but this is what is happening!!

I am one of those who strongly believe that a girl should get married after finishing her education if not working!!

Even guys look for a working-wife these days to aid them in thier life and also because their veiw of a lady having a certificate hanged at home became totally different!!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Interesting read. I thought this custom might not have survived but from the discussion here it seems that it is still prevalent and the image of a Saudi man with multiple wives and a great many children is not a myth.
Well, what to say? When such tradition is hammered down your throat with the combined force of society and -------, who can but succumb to it. I really loath the sheer hypocrisy of it all.