Article: "Altering the Economic Foundations of Marriage in the Gulf" (تعديل الأسس الاقتصادية للزواج)
Marriage has historically featured an economic partnership, wherein the man earns the family’s living, while the woman focuses her efforts on child-rearing, and managing household affairs. This arrangement led to certain marriage principles, among them the requirement that the proposing male be able to provide the female with an economically more comfortable life than that which her family affords her.
In the last century, when women were granted the opportunity to earn educational qualifications, a new principle emerged, which is the additional requirement that the man’s educational credentials be no less than those of the woman, with a preference that the man’s be superior. For example, a woman with a master’s degree should marry a man with a doctorate.
With changing economic conditions, and the lifting of the restrictions that prevented women from securing their educational and professional rights, the marriage equation changed. New principles have emerged, among them adverse ones, suggesting that society may wish to reconsider the maxims upon which people depend when seeking a suitable spouse.
Economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson carried out a piece of research titled: “When work disappears: manufacturing decline and the falling marriage-market value of men,” wherein they analyzed some the negative consequences associated with the penetration of Chinese manufacturing imports into US markets.
During the 1980s, several US states’ economies were dependent upon manufacturing, such as Ohio, Michigan, and Tennessee. When the Chinese economy rose during the 1990s, it competed with US products, leading to a significant and sustained abatement in the jobs traditionally performed by males, such as factory work and manual labor.
This contraction had several adverse consequences, including a substantial decline in marriage rates, and an increase in anti-social behavior by unemployed males, in turn resulting in a large rise in children born out of wedlock: in 1980, 18% of children were born to unmarried mothers, whereas in 2013, the corresponding figure stood at 41%. Most societies would regard such trends as undesirable.
The Gulf countries have not undergone an equivalent decline in the industrial sector, nor are they characterized by high rates of childbirth outside of wedlock. However, one thing that they have in common with those US states is the relative decline in the economic power of men compared to that of women. Female labor force participation in the Gulf has increased during the last 20 years, and the governments are striving to further raise it as a key goal in their economic visions. Females now represent a majority of university studies, where they outperform males academically, and in scholarships.
These are positive changes, because society should provide both sexes with the same professional and educational opportunities, primarily in the interests of justice; but secondarily because an economy cannot succeed if it deactivates half of its human resources.
However, improving economic equality has led to a decline in marriage rates, and to the delay of marriage to a relatively advanced age (for example, where both spouses are over 30), in addition to an increase in the divorce rate. Certainly, some of the rise in divorces is desirable, reflecting women’s ability to escape oppressive marriages, as they have become economically independent. In contrast, in the past, they may have been forced to endure oppressive circumstances due to their inability to earn a living.
Yet some of these trends potentially reflect stagnation in marriage principles, which have failed to adapt with the changing economic circumstances. If society clings to its previous maxims, such as the man earning more than the woman, and having a better education, then the marriage rate will continue to decline, especially in a demographic group that is of great importance to society, which is its highest-achieving women, who will find themselves unable to secure a husband who satisfies the traditional criteria.
Accordingly, society should consider modernizing the economic principles that govern the relationship between husband and wife, and upon which the marriage decision itself rests. Stable families are the cornerstone of society, and there must be an effort to avoid creating a tension between a woman’s independence and achievement on the one hand, and her getting married and forming a stable family on the other.
The solution does not lie in reimposing former restrictions upon women. In addition to being cruel and unjust, such a policy would be economically unwise, coming at a time when the Gulf economy is in need of the contribution of females, in the wake of falling oil prices.
As an alternative, consideration should be given to addressing the issue of spiraling dowers (mahrs) [the payment that a proposing male makes to his potential wife in exchange for her agreeing to marry him—the opposite of a dowry], which have begun to constitute a substantial barrier to marriage. Further, Gulf society’s may wish to revise the traditional criteria that were formed during the era of men’s economic and educational dominance over women, and become more accepting of marriages where the wife earns more than her husband, and has a better education.
If such traditions persist, then the GCC countries may experience what we are seeing in Japan, wherein the marriage rate has fallen from 10 per 1,000 people in 1970, to 6.5 in 1995, and 5.8 in 2014; and where, in 1970, the average expected number of children per woman was 2.13, compared to 1.42 in 2016. The English writer, George Elliot (Mary Evans), once quipped: “It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses, we must plant more roses.”
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