Seven years ago, the Saudi blogger and activist Tamador Alyami admitted in a post that she did not want to wed via an arranged marriage. She spent months chatting online with a Saudi man, but the first time they spoke face to face was when he asked her father for her hand in marriage. “To this day, my parents think we met through work,” she said in an interview on the Rotana Khalijia entertainment channel.
She explained that her family pressured her to marry, fearing she would remain single her whole life. Alyami’s story sparked an uproar at the time and led to much discussion in the Saudi media about the issue of local women marrying late.
The new series, “Dahaya Halal,” which debuted last month on MBC’s Shahid channel and is available on the Apple TV+ app in Israel, touches on this issue with implicit criticism of a Saudi society that pushes Saudi women to marry at all costs. It premiered in Saudi Arabia in 2020, but the country’s General Commission for Audiovisual Media halted the broadcast after just two episodes, on the grounds that the content violated its rules.
The word “dahaya” in Arabic means “victims.” “Halal” is a term in Sharia that means “permitted” (similar to “kosher” in Judaism). In other words, the show’s title – “Halal Victims” – refers to the expectation that women will have a “kosher” relationship with a man within the framework of marriage and refrain from late marriage and relations with men outside of marriage.
The drama centres on a matchmaker who tries to find solutions for women aged over 30. She proposes “halal” marriages to them. The women marry but often find themselves trapped in marriages with much older men – and even as one of several wives since Saudi society permits polygamy. “Dahaya Halal” presents a very uniform picture, but the reality is more complicated as Saudi women have come a long way on their journey to freedom.
In 2013, the government approved the issuing of ID cards to all women without the need for a male guardian’s approval – a move that made it significantly easier for women to obtain government services and open their own businesses. Five years later, after a protracted battle, King Salman famously issued an order granting women permission to obtain a driver’s license.
However, the issue of late marriage and the pressure on women to marry remains unresolved, and the multitude of opinions and debates surrounding it reflect the changes occurring in Saudi society. Some Saudis see it as a problem that urgently needs fixing, while others view it as another sign of change in women’s status and their ability to make decisions for themselves without having to depend on a male figure in their lives.
“Late singlehood in Saudi Arabia is part of a wider trend in the Arab Gulf states,” says Ksenia Svetlova, a senior research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and also at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. She says there are numerous reasons for this, including changes in women’s social status and the rise in the average marriage age for Saudi men, which now stands at 30.
Saudi economist Dr Salem Bajaja explained in an interview with the Saudi daily Arab News that the cost of living, the increase in the dowry sums that men are required to pay and the big financial responsibility are making it harder for young Saudis to marry. “Many of them cannot afford to buy property or support a household, and so they choose to work longer and amass more money,” he said.
According to the General Authority for Statistics (a Saudi government agency), in 2018 one in every 10 Saudi women over the age of 32 was single. According to Middle East Monitor, in 2020 only 32 per cent of women ages 18-34 were married. Last February, the Saudi newspaper Okaz, which is associated with the government, published an investigative report about the phenomenon, along with suggestions from experts on how to reduce the number of unmarried women.
The paper said the purpose of the report was “to preserve marriage as an important social value in the Saudi kingdom.” Svetlova notes that, according to opinion polls in Saudi Arabia, a woman over 30 is perceived as belonging to the “late singlehood” group and her chances of marrying are very low. Despite the Saudi rulers’ tendency to view late singlehood as a social problem, for many Saudi women it is a turning point that is enabling them to demand more rights.
Amana Fatani, 27, from Jeddah, told the Arabic edition of The Independent that she does not want to marry and sees no problem with remaining single. She said she dreams of continuing to develop her career and not being like her mother or the other women of the previous generation, who married for lack of choice. “I’ve reached the point where I can make decisions for myself,” she said.
Saudi historian and women’s rights activist Hatoon al-Fassi says higher education is also affecting Saudi women’s attitudes toward marriage and giving them more self-confidence. “Some are even giving up on the idea of marriage altogether and see singlehood as a source of strength,” she wrote in her column in the A-Riyadh newspaper. “It’s no longer possible to control these things.”
In recent years, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been trying to promote changes in Saudi culture and the treatment of women, despite the conservative voices opposing this.
In May, Saudi astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi journeyed to the International Space Station – an accomplishment that made waves in the Arab world. Like Barnawi, more Saudi women are aiming for a genuine, ideological change in their standing, not just for appearance’s sake. They are carrying out a quiet revolution in the kingdom, successfully cracking the wall of conservatism surrounding the institution of marriage and choosing singlehood as a way of life.