- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

ABWEEN, West Bank

The village matchmaker described the perfect Palestinian bride: tall, slim, fair-skinned — and college-educated. Times are tough, explained Nawal Sehwel, the local Cupid, and a college degree means an extra salary.

With poverty spreading after six years of fighting with Israel, that is a mantra heard across the Palestinian territories, where marriage is an increasingly delicate balancing act between tribal traditions and urban modernity.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, a bastion of the educated middle class, young career women increasingly pick their own mates, in defiance of tradition and sometimes their parents’ wishes.

In the conservative Gaza Strip, where veils as a show of piety are becoming more common, women are still married off by their families, often to men they have never met; they would be called immoral if they asked to have a say.

Some of the customs, such as marriage between cousins, are found across the Arab world, while others are linked to the dire straits of Palestinian life.

Palestinian brides are among the youngest in the Arab world — 18 on average, though one-fourth are 16 or younger — in part because some parents want to get daughters out of the house quickly and have one less mouth to feed. Yet 12 percent never marry, far more than in most other Arab countries, in part because so many young men emigrate or are in Israeli prisons.

Here, a bachelor’s mother and sisters initiate the search. The final decision is up to the groom; the bride is expected to go along with it, though she has the right to refuse him.

A matchmaker is sometimes called.

When Mrs. Sehwel, a farmer’s wife, got her start in matchmaking four decades ago, marriage was strictly a business arrangement between families, particularly in rural areas. Grooms wanted wives to bear them children and work in the fields; they didn’t have expectations of finding a soul mate.

Her first client, a cousin from Kuwait, simply asked that his bride be tall, and proposed to her after one chaperoned meeting.

Mrs. Sehwel, 57, wears a traditional robe and veil and follows a simple rule: Match people who have something in common. She is a frequent and popular guest at weddings, where unmarried women buttonhole her for a chat, signaling that they are available. Her turf includes Abween, her home village of about 2,500 residents, and two neighboring villages in the hills north of Ramallah.

She operates mostly by phone. She does not get paid for her work, and her reward is her neighbors’ respect, she said, sitting in her modest living room.

Mrs. Sehwel was married off to a neighbor’s son, no questions asked, when she was 17, and thinks her system is superior to the Western ideal of romantic love.

The matchmaker said that she has brought together about 200 couples, and that none has split.

But business has slumped — down to six couples in the past two years — because women are increasingly getting out into the world and making their own choices. Almost as many female as male students attend the 20 four-year and 20 community colleges in the Palestinian territories, according to official figures.

Expectations also have changed. “The new generation would not agree to marry without love,” said the matchmaker’s daughter, Nafeza, 36. She was forced into marriage at 15 by her father and uncles, over her mother’s objections, and said it took her 10 years to accept her fate.

Yet even in today’s changing marriage market, some things remain the same.

About 25 percent of the couples are cousins, according to official figures, reflecting families’ concerns about entrusting their daughters to outsiders. The bride customarily moves in with her husband’s family.

Youth and beauty are still key assets. A bride should be 22 or younger; after 25, she might have to settle for a divorced man or a widower with children, Mrs. Sehwel said. The ideal she describes is close to that of the West, and drawn from its movie and TV imagery — tall, slender, fair-skinned, with blue or green eyes.

Thus skin-lightening cream, colored contact lenses and dieting are popular. If a prospective bride is veiled, suitors can get a secondhand description from female relatives.

A good education can make up for homely looks, Mrs. Sehwel said, as can a foreign passport — preferably U.S. — to escape the fighting and joblessness and settle abroad.

Nowhere is the juxtaposition of tradition and change starker than at Gaza City’s Islamic University. Sixty percent of the 19,000 students are women, who wear long robes and head scarves and study in a wing separate from the men, but have escaped their mothers’ fate of a homebound life.

Crowding a courtyard on campus, the students said they expect to marry and will accept whomever their parents choose. However, they said they also prize their education and hope to get a job one day.

Third-year education student Islam al-Haj, 23, said her husband, an accountant, insisted she stay in school even after she gave birth, so that she could qualify for a teaching job.

Pregnant again, a veiled Mrs. al-Haj takes her little boy to class with her and struggles to keep up. “There is much sacrifice,” she said, “because you have to be a mother and be educated at the same time.”

A world away from conservative Gaza, at Birzeit University in the West Bank, a 23-year-old sociology student named Nasreen Karkar represents a rare defiance of parental authority. Dressed in jeans and hoop earrings, she says she will choose her own husband.

“My parents won’t live with me after I marry,” she said. “I will do what I want.”

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