By Adeeba Sanna Zahoor
Hundreds of women in their 30’s and 40’s are struggling to find a marriage partner at a time when women have more going for them than ever before, particularly in terms of career and education. In 2010-11, there were more female (55 per cent) than male full-time undergraduates (45 per cent) enrolled at university – a trend which continues. The University and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) revealed that the number of male students enrolling at university decreased by 22,000 (2012) and women were a third more likely to enroll on a degree than men. This is regardless of the fact that there are more young men in the UK than there are women (ONS, 2011).
This gender gap in education and career is relevant when seeking out a marriage partner particularly for women, who have historically been encouraged to “marry up”. Although this will have been more significant in the past when women were financially dependent on men, it is still an influential factor today, and even if women don’t marry up, seeking someone who is at least their equal is only natural.
The gender gap in career and education makes that difficult however. Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford says, women looking for male partners who are equally-educated, “will be forced to compete…and those that lose will have to downgrade their expectations and are likely to marry later as a result…We see this in the historical data – actual ages at marriage are later for those who marry down the social scale than those who marry up or at the same level.”
Although finding a marriage partner is proving to be difficult for women in the West, could it be that this is even more of a problem for Asian women living in the West? In line with national trends, Muslim women are also academically outperforming their male counterparts. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s, ‘How Fair is Britain?’ report states that it is more likely for Bangladeshi and Pakistani women to be employed as professionals, than men.
However, Asian men are likely to choose partners of lower economic and intellectual status, mirroring the domestic set up they were most likely raised in. These gender roles usually dictate that men are the breadwinners and women are stay-at-home mothers. Subconsciously or consciously this model is often replicated and having a wife who is superior financially and intellectually doesn’t really fit the dynamic. This of course is problematic for the increasing demographic of better educated Asian women.
In addition, there has always been a tradition for British men originating from the Indian subcontinent to marry women from their country of origin. This is a great option for men as not only does it further extend the pool of women to choose from, it also means that they can select someone who is culturally attuned to more traditional gender role expectations. This option is sometimes reinforced by family members, as there is the greater likelihood that these girls will be able to stay at home and look after their in-laws. This would probably be less possible with a “career woman” wife or daughter –in-law.
The importance given to family approval in South Asian households can also make finding the right partner very difficult. Pew Global found that Muslims in South and South-East Asia are more likely than Muslims elsewhere to say that families should actually choose a woman’s husband for her. Whereas westerners are struggling to find a partner they themselves desire, South Asians often have to find a partner that not only they approve of, but one their family would also accept. This is not limited to immediate family, as the extended family’s opinion is also very much valued, and having so many people to please is not always an easy feat.
Although the choice for women to marry someone from their country of origin is available, this option is perhaps not as ideal as it is for men. Not only would cultural differences exist and mindsets differ, so would the economic potential. With the standard of education varying between the countries, finding a good job (regardless of qualifications) is often difficult to replicate in the West even if the man was doing very well in his native country. This would most likely make the woman the sole or key breadwinner, a role she may not have anticipated or aspired to, and a role which may prove difficult for the man to accept.
Unfortunately, these differences and imbalances are not widely recognised and public expectations are not developing at the same pace as the lives of Asian women. Many stigmatise older unmarried women as difficult and fussy but the effect such an attitude can have on women should not be underestimated. Many find it difficult to cope with the intense pressure and despite all their efforts, can feel that they have failed. A shift in mindsets is necessary, and until this happens, Asian women will continue to struggle and feel inadequate, when in fact they are too good, rather than not good enough.