RAMALLAH, West Bank — At Al-Amal Marriage Center, which opened in December 2016 in Ramallah, Amal Kokash Abu Hijleh spends eight hours a day in her office taking requests from men and women searching for a spouse.
Al-Amal Center is a marriage matchmaking service. Abu Hijleh, 45, matches couples by relying on her extensive social contacts, as she is the former mayor of Deir Istiya in Salfit governorate and a social worker. She has been a wedding videographer for 20 years.
Al-Monitor visited Al-Amal Center and met with Abu Hijleh, who explained why she opened the center. She said, ”Whenever I film weddings, women ask me to use my social network to find spouses for their sons, so I decided to start a matchmaking service. I also like helping older men find a spouse since their chances of meeting someone decreases with age.”
Traditional marriage (a marriage arranged by the parents without the couple having a prior relationship) is very common in the Palestinian territories.
Abu Hijleh emphasized that her main aim is helping women find a spouse, saying, “In our society men could be 40 years old before deciding to marry, and when they do decide they choose girls who are much younger. On the other hand, the chances of a 30-year-old woman finding a husband are slim.”
Al-Amal’s procedures require the man or woman to visit the center and formally apply by giving their personal information (name, age, marital status, employment, place of residence and so on), paying the registration fee of 300 Israeli shekels ($80) and writing a description of what they are looking for in a spouse. The center then starts the search, and if a match is found the applicant pays the balance of the center’s expenses, which ranges from 1,500 to 2,000 shekels ($400-$533). “After finding a match — which is a process that may take weeks or months — the center sets up a meeting for the couple in the woman’s home and in the presence of both families. This is where the center’s role ends,” Abu Hijleh said.
The center has been open for only two months and has received hundreds of calls inquiring about its procedures, even though it has not advertised or launched a website. Abu Hijleh added, “We receive hundreds of calls a day, indicating that the idea has spread to all provinces from only one poster at the center’s entrance. A woman took a photograph of the poster and posted it on her Facebook page to start a discussion; the picture quickly spread on social media and in local media outlets.”
Abu Hijleh said that about 20 men and women have filed applications with the center, a high number since the work that the center performs is not common in Palestinian society. She said that the center has so far successfully matched one couple.
The matchmaking service has some restrictions, as men, for instance, cannot just request women who are very beautiful. “Some men request a woman who is tall, light skinned and has blue eyes. But I refuse to include these very high standards in the application,” she said.
Abu Hijleh does not allow the couple to have their first meeting at the center, saying, “The meeting takes place at the woman’s home in the presence of both families due to the social traditions and customs.” The center also does not accept requests from older men who wish to marry a much younger woman because a large age difference would be unfair to the woman.
In regard to whether Palestinian society approves of the center’s work, Abu Hijleh said, “I think that the center has been well-accepted based on the reactions I get from the public. I expect the center’s work to double by next summer as I plan to open two new offices — one in Hebron and one in Jerusalem — in response to the demand in those cities. At first my friends and acquaintances scoffed at the idea when I discussed it with them and my husband didn't encourage me. I understand them, as the idea was strange in social terms, but I believed that it would succeed.”
Khitam Zahran, who works with the Palestinian Women's Development Society, told Al-Monitor in response to a question about how society views the matchmaking center, “A matchmaking center is a strange idea for [Palestinian] society that is not accustomed to it, but it consecrates the idea of traditional marriage in society. It might be difficult for the center to succeed in light of the gradual opening up of social relations and the technological advances that have made it easier for people to meet. Finding a spouse through a matchmaking service is not socially acceptable and is based on superficial specifications.”
However, a 38-year-old teacher in the northern West Bank who applied with the center disagrees. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he told Al-Monitor, “I submitted an application with the center several weeks ago, as I liked the idea and I thought it may provide an opportunity for older men to find a spouse. Many men and women are growing older without getting married, and there is a rise in the divorce rate. So this center may help them find a marriage partner.”
He is still waiting for the center to contact him about a suitable match.
Although the idea of a marriage matchmaking service is new to the traditional Palestinian society, many have accepted the center that opened in Ramallah. This acceptance may grow in the future in light of the societal changes such as the rising number of older unmarried men and women who are looking for a spouse.
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