Emirati women marrying in teens no longer the norm

Take our poll: In just over two generations, social and economic change has transformed the norms that used to shape Emirati attitudes towards marriage.

The pursuit of higher education is one of the reasons why Emirati women are marrying later.
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ABU DHABI// When Osha Al Mansouri married her first husband, she was 14 years old. She wore gold jewellery and an off-white dress.

"We were very young," the Emirati, now a grandmother aged in her 50s, recalls. "I was so happy. I loved him and he loved me."

Ms Al Mansouri had four babies then her husband died. She remarried and had four more children.

Today, those children cannot imagine a woman marrying so young.

One of them, 35-year-old Naama Al Mehairi, has a 14-year-old daughter.

"She's not even mature yet," said Ms Al Mehairi, from Abu Dhabi. "Her mind isn't for marriage. She still wants to play."

In the span of two generations, social and economic change has transformed the norms that shaped marriage here for centuries.

Before the oil boom, it was customary for girls to marry at puberty. Brides under 18 still exist, but they are rare.

In 2010, the average age of first marriage for Emiratis in Abu Dhabi was 25.9 for women and 26.5 for men.

A main reason for the shift is an increased emphasis on education.

"Families and societies become aware that women must go to school, especially for higher education," said Suaad Al Oraimi, a professor of gender and development at UAE University.

Dhabya Al Mehairi, a 21-year-old university student and Naama’s half-sister, said: "This is what my father told us: 'You graduate, and then you get married'."

Other factors influencing marriage age include urbanisation and exposure to different cultures, said Jane Bristol-Rhys, an anthropologist at Zayed University.

"We tend to make the Emirates into such a unique and exceptional case," she said. "And yes, there are some exceptional things about it. But really we're just talking about people dealing with rapid change."

Early marriage is common in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. One in three girls in the developing world will likely marry under 18, according to a report this month by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP).

"If we can end child marriage, we can change the lives of girls everywhere," the UNFP, the United Nations Children's Fund and United Nations Women said in a joint statement. "We can help them enjoy their childhoods; enroll them in school; protect them from complicated pregnancies and births."

Emirati women who married as teenagers described a variety of experiences, though.

Alia Rashid, 54, from Ras Al Khaimah, does not feel like she lost her childhood.

"I enjoyed my life, and I don’t think that I missed anything," said Ms Rashid, who married her cousin at 14 or 15. "I grew up with my husband – we are very attached to one another."

Ms Al Mansouri, who married in the 1970s, moved from Dubai to Abu Dhabi after her wedding. She remembers crying. "I felt like a stranger," she said.

Still, she spoke nostalgically of the days when Emiratis married young.

"Life was simple," she said. She described her feelings for her husband as love at first sight. She believes 18 is a good age to marry.

Mouza Al Mehairi, 30, a relative who is not married, countered that 18 is too young: "A marriage is a responsibility, and kids."

But Ms Al Mansouri persisted, saying that the new generation has made a family a second priority.

Marrying under 18 is not unheard of. The United Nations has no UAE-specific statistics, but Prof Al Oraimi said she heard of a girl in Al Ain who married at 17 last year.

Prof Bristol-Rhys said: "You can't paint this society or any society with one brush and one colour."

Thinking of her own path, Dhabya Al Mehairi said: "I want to live my life."

Naama Al Mehairi, who married at 19, teased her. "What do you mean, live your life?"

Naama is a working mother of three. "Super mom," she joked, as her children played on the floor beside her.