Amna Fatani knows she wants a brilliant career and a life different from that of Saudi women of her mother’s generation who married early, usually to a husband not of their own choosing.
The 27-year-old, studying for her master’s degree at Georgetown University in Washington and hoping to someday become Saudi Arabia’s first female labor minister, is part of a growing number of Saudi women choosing to remain single through their 20s and into their 30s as they pursue other ambitions.
The trend has ruffled ultraconservatives who see it as an affront to the very foundations of the kingdom, where strict interpretations of Islam and rigid tribal codes have long dictated the terms of marriage.
“My friends and I have reached a point (where) we’re very specific about what we want,” she said. “I need someone who trusts that if I need to do something, I can make the decision to ask for help or choose to do it alone.”
Saudi women stand at the center of a societal pivot between the kingdom’s push for greater women’s education and rights to work, and laws that give men final say over their lives.
Women cannot travel, study abroad, marry or undergo certain medical procedures without the permission of a male guardian — usually a father or husband, or in their absence, an older or even a younger brother.
The growing number of single women has alarmed clerics, who have responded by pushing for early marriage and warning of alleged evil consequences of “spinsterhood,” such as sex outside wedlock.
During a 2005 sermon, the imam of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, Abdul-Rahman As-Sudais, raised an early outcry against “the dangerous phenomenon of life-long spinsterhood,” saying it endangers “the community as a whole.”
Traditionally, women in Saudi Arabia are expected to be married by their early 20s. In 2011, more than 1.5 million Saudi women aged over 30 were single, according to the Economy and Planning Ministry.
According to government figures, 3.3 million are women over 30 in this nation of 20 million people — and if the ministry’s 2011 figure is unchanged, it means that about 45 percent of Saudi women over 30 are single.
While women’s rights activists agree there’s a rise in the numbers of single women, some question the accuracy of the government’s figure, saying it supports the norm that Saudi men are allowed more than one wife.
Women have been taking on a greater role in public life, though their jobs are mostly in the education sector. The Labor Ministry says there are more than 400,000 working women in Saudi Arabia, compared to less than 55,000 before 2009.
Women outnumber men in the kingdom’s universities, and there are tens of thousands of women among the 150,000 Saudis studying abroad on government scholarships.
Education is also changing women’s attitudes toward marriage and giving them more confidence, said Hatoon al-Fassi, a professor of women’s history in Saudi Arabia. “You can no longer control these attitudes,” she says.
Some Saudi women are also challenging the rules on how to meet a prospective husband as they navigate through tradition and customs.
The kingdom’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam keeps the sexes strictly segregated, making it harder for young people to meet. Morality police make sure women and men are apart in restaurants, malls and public spaces, and schools and most universities are segregated.
Families are expected to arrange or, at the least, approve marriages. Conservative families see the idea of a daughter looking for a match on her own as scandalous. Entrenched tribal customs also weigh strongly.
In the conservative central Najd region — the home to the capital, Riyadh — women are often barred from marrying outside their tribe. In 1977, a 19 year-old Saudi princess was rumored to have been killed for trying to elope.
One young woman said that at work, her sister fell in love with a Saudi man who was not from a tribe. Their father agreed to the marriage after meeting him, but an older male relative threatened to cut off the entire family if the marriage went ahead.
The sister was forced to end the courtship and eventually married a man from her tribe, the woman said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss her family’s private matters.
Parents usually arrange a “showfa” — Arabic for a “viewing” — so a man can see his potential bride at her home, without the traditional black robe and face veil worn by most Saudi women in public.
The practice is widely accepted and is sometimes the only chance for a man and a woman to see one another before deciding on whether to get engaged. Among the most conservative families, a groom is only allowed to see his wife after the wedding.
However, stories of secretive courtships away from parents’ prying eyes abound in Saudi Arabia, pointing to a rebellious shift among the younger generation.
One woman said she spent months chatting with a man online. They finally agreed to meet at a grocery store, where they texted from opposite ends of an aisle. They spoke face-to-face for the first time when he asked her father for her hand in marriage. Until today, their parents believe they met through work.
Saudi blogger and women’s rights advocate Tamador Alyami says tradition is being outpaced by the Internet’s potential for match-making. Private chat rooms and social media have given Saudis a space to pursue relationships on their own terms.
Alyami said women today are asserting their greater independence. “They don’t just want their mothers to meet with their (prospective) husbands’ mothers and, you know, make all of the arrangements on their behalf.”
Some Saudi media have joined the clerics in hand-wringing over — as one newspaper put it — “the army of spinsters.” A Saudi writer for the Al-Sharq news website called the phenomenon a “cancer” in society, leading to vice. Popular Saudi talk show host Dawoud al-Shiryan dedicated an entire recent broadcast to discuss spinsterhood.
In al-Shiryan’s show, family psychologist Fawzia al-Hani said the government is partly responsible for the large numbers of young single women because young men find it increasingly difficult to afford a house, wedding and “mahr” — a sum of money a groom traditionally gives his bride.
Some pundits have blamed fathers for demanding exorbitant sums of money from male suitors and have even accused them of intentionally keeping their working daughters single because they rely on their income.
But ultimately, many Saudi women are staying single longer by choice.
Fatani wants a husband who has also lived abroad and has aspirations similar to hers. She prefers to meet him outside of an arranged setting and wants the chance to experience “things like grocery shopping together” before deciding if she wants to marry him.
“I definitely want to know him outside a traditional showfa,” she said.