Women's Socioeconomic Characteristics and Marital Patterns in a Rapidly Developing Muslim Society, Kuwait *

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Changes in marital composition and patterns are important elements of the social, economic, and cultural transformations in a society. Behaviors relating to how soon people marry, whom they marry, and how many spouses they marry, are shaped by not only the traditional preferences and values but also by the new realities generated by the progression of a society along its path of socioeconomic development. There are two prevailing views on why, and how, modernization and urbanization affect marriage. The first one holds that marital patterns change as part of a larger transformation in family systems owing to the intrusion of the cash nexus into agriculture, followed by industrialization. Family functions get narrowed as a part of this transition as family based enterprises are replaced by wagebased employment. This view argues that the family systems worldwide are being homogenized. The main proponent of this view, Goode (1963) states that" ... at the present time a somewhat similar set of influences is affecting all world cultures. All of them are moving towards industrialization, although at varying speeds and from different points. Their family systems are also approaching some variant of the conjugal family." Other aspects of the above change consist of a later age at marriage and a decline in polygyny. The second view holds that the perception of a trend towards homogenization is based more on ethnocentric beliefs rather than facts (McDonald, 1992; Kaufmann and Meekers, 1998). There is a great deal of diversity associated with cultural settings that cannot be summarized according to a single presumed regime of homogenization.

While the debate on homogenization of family structure continues, age at marriage has been increasing in a multitude of developing countries, especially for women (Smith, 1980; Smith, 1983; McDonald, 1985; Farid, 1984). In the Arab world, the average singulate mean age at marriage (SMAM) for women has increased to 26 years in Morocco and 25 years in Jordan, Bahrain and Tunisia (PRB, 1996). The average age at marriage in some Arab countries is thus approaching some of the highest recorded in the world, for example an age of 27.7 years for Japan in 1995 (Retherford et al., 2001). The rise in age at marriage implies an increase in the proportion single (unmarried) at a given point in time and perhaps a reversal in the presumed universality of marriage in Arab Muslim cultures.

Two developmental factors, women's education and their work participation, are emerging as especially critical catalysts for bringing about changes in other aspects of women's life and behavior, including their marital patterns (McDonald, 1985; Isiugo-Abanihe et al, 1993). The above two factors, to varying degrees, have been instrumental in pushing up the age at marriage, and impacting the type of marriage a woman enters. In Sri Lanka, for example, where the SMAM has increased during this century by 6 years (from 18.5 years in 1901 to 24.4 years in 1981), rise in female education and the jobs that such education enables have become crucial factors in increasing the desirability of women in the marriage market. A simultaneous shift has occurred towards marriages arranged by the couple or "love marriages" rather than marriages arranged by parents, indicating the diminishing role of the family (Caldwell, 1996). In urban areas of Nigeria, average age at marriage for those with tertiary education is 6 years higher than women without any schooling (23.8 and 17.4, respectively). Also, the average age of women who had worked before marriage was 4 years higher than those who did not work before marriage (Isiugo-Abanihe et al., 1993). Increased education and work opportunities for women have made it possible for daughters to be more independent, and to contribute to the financial well-being of their families, thus reducing the pressure for early marriage.

The type of marriage a woman undertakes is also associated with socioeconomic position. …