By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT, Oct 10 (Reuters) - In a luxury hotel suite, awayfrom prying eyes, twenty Kuwaiti female guests at a traditionalwedding party segregated by the sexes watch the men via a videolink.
The women snap pictures of the festivities on their cellphones and swap stories about how they met their husbands andtheir views on marriage. The contrasts between young and old inthe conversation expose a shift in society that has thegovernment worried.
"The most important thing now is getting a universitydegree," said Noora al-Jaber, 28, who married seven years ago.
"The woman should get a good certificate and the man asteady income. Only then can they think about marriage," shesaid, as the women sipped fruit juice from champagne flutes.
The role of the family is extremely important in Kuwait,where large clans forge blood ties that are essential not onlysocially but also in politics and business.
But the marriage rate is falling: in 2011 there were 359marriages per 100,000 inhabitants, a ten percent decreasecompared to 2007, according to figures from the Ministry ofJustice. Around 70 percent of the marriages were between twonationals of the Gulf Arab state, which is home to 1.2 millionKuwaitis and 2.4 million foreigners.
The government, which sees itself as the guardian oftraditional values and social stability, has shown its concernabout the trend with a campaign called "Marriage Comes First."
The campaign, launched in March by the Justice Ministry,encourages Kuwaitis to think about matrimony before materialgoods, studying, a career, travelling and having fun withfriends.
"You are right" to want all these things, say the brightlycoloured advertisements in local media. "But, MARRIAGE COMESFIRST."
Ministry officials declined to comment on the campaign. Butthe issue has potentially vast implications for the tiny oilproducer, including its effect on the birth rate and the role ofwomen and the family in what is still a deeply conservativesociety.
The trend in the fertility rate has remained largely stablesince 2005, although it is down to 2.3 births per woman in 2010compared to 3.5 in 1990, according to data compiled by the WorldHealth Organisation.
But this could change, reflecting a trend across the region,said Mona Almunajjed, a Saudi sociologist who has written aboutsocial demographics in the Middle East.
"In the long term it is very important because it is goingto affect the demographic curve. If women are becoming morefinancially independent, and marrying later, they are going tohave fewer children," she said.
A slower birth rate is not always a negative in countrieswhere the young make up a large proportion of the "age pyramid",such as in the Gulf, said Leila Hoteit, a management consultantat Booz & Company in Abu Dhabi.
"Given the large challenge they face to employ their youth,a drop in birth rate is not necessarily a bad thing forsociety," she told Reuters in an e-mail.
"The concern I would say is more around social factors: thesocial cohesion of families."
Although Kuwaitis live in a far more open social environmentthan their counterparts in neighbouring Saudi Arabia,relationships before marriage are largely taboo and people areencouraged to marry early, usually in unions arranged accordingto family ties and social status.
Polygamous marriages are not uncommon in Islamic societiesbut only small numbers of Kuwaiti men have more than one wife.Traditionally, up to a third of marriages have ended in divorceand that figure has been rising in recent years.
At the ladies' gathering, accessed by an elevator shieldedby a wooden screen to allow the women to enter and leave unseen,22-year-old Nour al-Rujaib said the pressure for women to marrystarts from around the age of 21.
"Girls want to get married so they can have freedom. Wecannot travel alone," she said, dressed in a red cocktail dressand black high heels.
She said she was happy to marry early if the man couldafford for her to have a comfortable lifestyle.
The number of men getting married later than age 24 grew to65 percent in 2008 from 61 percent in 2000, according to acalculation based on statistics compiled by the United Nations.
For women, the number rose only slightly over the sameperiod, from 38 percent to 40 percent.
Some urban Kuwaitis say that attempts to encourage early,traditional marriages belong in the past.
"Society is much more open than when I was a teenager. Youcan socialize through the Internet, go travelling more easily,"said 34-year-old Taiba al-Jaber, who caused uproar in her familyby insisting on marrying a man she had picked herself.
"I was Americanized. After the Iraqi invasion, our societyfelt the American influence when the American troops came here.We saw movies and soap operas. But back then I guess I wasalready too open for my community," she said.
Her husband, a Saudi national who works in informationtechnology, finally convinced her father he was a worthy partnerafter compiling a power point presentation on his familyheritage and income. They married in 2007, some seven yearsafter he first proposed.
Mohammed al-Muharib, a married 29-year-old naval officerdressed in traditional white Kuwaiti robes, said marriage hasbecome too costly and troublesome for some men.
"Some of my friends just don't want to get married. It hasbecome far too expensive," he told Reuters outside the doors ofthe male wedding party.
"We live in a society where the man bears the costs foralmost everything - the house, food, clothes, children, a maid,cars, shopping," he said, counting off the list on his fingers.
Inside the hotel ballroom, men danced with swords to thebeat of traditional drums. The air was heavy with the scent ofbakhoor, special incense worth more than its weight in gold.
Some men do not want to be tied down, said his friendAbdulmohsen al-Barjas, also 29, though he scoffed at thatconcern.
"I think this idea is just propaganda. I am married and I amfree. Us two, we went to Dubai recently, we get to travel."
Many Kuwaitis still opt for a "traditional" arrangedmarriage, with a courting period ranging from one week toseveral months, mainly in the presence of family members.
The groom usually pays a cash dowry to the bride's family tomarry - sometimes amounting to tens of thousands of dollars.
DIVORCE RATE RISES
Compounding the marriage problem from the government'sperspective is a rising divorce rate.
The number of divorces rose 16 percent in the five years to2011 to 172 divorces for every 100,000 inhabitants, according toJustice Ministry statistics. Kuwait had the highest totaldivorce rate among Gulf Cooperation Council countries, accordingto a 2010 report by Booz & Company.
Kuwaitis say divorce and remarriage have become easier andcarry less of a social stigma. Nearly a quarter of those whodivorced in 2011 had been married for less than a year.
Health Ministry officials told Reuters they were consideringsetting up pre-marriage counselling clinics to prepare Kuwaitisfor matrimony, rather than just testing them for hereditary andinfectious diseases as at present.
"What we need is a special centre outside the court forcouples to talk over their problems, but this is difficult inour society, people go to their families instead," lawyer Waleedal-Dousari said.
He sees himself as part lawyer, part counsellor, and handles5-6 new divorce cases a month. When he started out six yearsago, the number was half that, he said.
Dousari said it is important to prevent divorce because theclose-knit nature of Kuwait makes separation an especiallydisruptive force that pits whole families against each other.
"In our society, the problems that come after the divorcecan be even worse," he said.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)
Keywords: KUWAIT MARRIAGE/