Moroccan matrimony

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Young people in Morocco are getting married at older ages, largely because of economic difficulties. This has had an impact in a society in which young people who are religiously banned from pre-marital sexual relationships but have to wait longer to get married. America Abroad's Sean Carberry traveled to Morocco to find out more.

MARCO WERMAN: The global economic meltdown has not spared the Arab world. In fact, it's had a profound impact not only on the Arab economy but on Arab culture. Reporter Sean Carberry travelled to Morocco to explore how economic conditions are causing a delay in marriage, and shifts in social, and sexual, customs.

SEAN CARBERRY: It's 11:45 on a Sunday night. An elaborately dressed crown of 250 Moroccans is gathered outside a wedding hall in what looks like a strip mall. [PH] Mohammed Mahoufi is the proud father of the groom. He's beaming with joy as he's now married off the last of his eight children, all at this venue.


MOHAMMED MAHOUFI: I have three sons that I already married. This will be the last one. And I've married four daughters as well in the same place.

CARBERRY: And it's possible that deep down some of his joy is the fact that he and his family don't have to pay for any more weddings.


MAHOUFI: Everything is getting really expensive. The rent is really high.

CARBERRY: Tonight's celebration cost around $7,200. While that might seem like a bargain to fathers in the US, that number exceeds the average annual wage in Morocco. Studies show that marriage costs in Arab countries like Moroccan can range from four to ten times per capita income. But as Mr. Mahoufi says it's not just the cost of the wedding itself.


MAHOUFI: Now the people are really demanding. The people will not accept just anything or to live just anywhere. They ask for very nice furniture and marriage has just become really, really hard for someone who has a limited salary.

CARBERRY: In the past, a couple could move into a modest apartment with hand-me-down furniture. A young man today is expected to have a good job, a nice apartment, and a sizeable dowry all ready to go before popping the question.


JAWAD: And the biggest problem we have now, it's about a house. You know, where you going to live after getting married.

CARBERRY: [SOUNDS LIKE] Jawad is uneducated. He sells fish in the port in Casablanca and he's struggling to get his finances in order while the clock ticks off the years.


JAWAD: I had to work hard to make money to looking for a house to buy. The girl I'm with now she works in a company and she can have credit and then she can help me live, you know, to find a house soon.

CARBERRY: Is that normal, for the woman to help or do usually they expect the man to pay for everything?


JAWAD: Before, yes. Before the husband must pay anything, but now, about the situation, the world has changed. So, she must help her husband a little bit.

CARBERRY: In the past, the notion of asking a woman to help with the finances would be unthinkable. But as housing prices continue to rise faster than wages, young men are exploring this option. And Jawad is under tremendous pressure. A generation ago, the average age of a Moroccan man on his wedding day was 24. Today, it's 32. He's 34, two years above the average. He estimates it will cost about $40,000 to buy and furnish an apartment and pay for the wedding. His sweetheart's family wants their daughter to find someone with a better job and his father is pushing him, too.


JAWAD: My father always telling me all the time without wife you are always weak in my eyes. And he's pushing him all the time. More than the rest of the family or the friends. So, here in our community, in our society, if you are married, you are an important person. And if you are like hanging out in the streets and with your friends, you mean nothing in your society.

CARBERRY: This exclusion from society adds to the pressure and frustration felt by young men in Morocco. And while delayed marriage can be viewed as a barometer of the tough economic times in Morocco and the Arab world, it's also changing social customs. Abdel-Samad Aldealmi is a sociologist in Rabat.

ABDEL-SAMAD ALDEALMI: We can observe sociologically a sexual explosion in Morocco. A lot of premarital sex, non-marital sex, emergence and [INDISCERNIBLE] of homosexuality and lesbianism. A lot of emergence of fornication also.

CARBERRY: Predictably this growth of sexual liberalism has caused a backlash among religious conservatives. They've mobilized to reinforce conservative values and practices in Moroccan society. And stuck in the middle of all this are young men struggling to find a job, buy a house, and get married. For The World, I'm Sean Carberry.

WERMAN: That report came to us from America Abroad, public radio's monthly international affairs program.