BANI NAIM, West Bank -- Of the many troubles that the economic slide has brought to this town on the edge of the Judean Desert, Jihad Manassrah saw none more threatening than the growing number of single women walking in prim pairs through its narrow streets.
Marriage, once a jubilant expression of love and status here, had become a tradition many could no longer afford.
So last month, Manassrah, the imam of a local mosque, presented a novel social contract to several hundred men gathered for a rare public forum. The agreement put a cap on the cost of weddings and bridal dowries that had swelled enormously in this once-prosperous town of merchants, day laborers and civil servants, who like many in the West Bank are now adapting to hard times.
The declining marriage rate here is one example of social change in the midst of what the World Bank calls "an unprecedented economic recession" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Political power, demographics, family structure and customs are being transformed by financial constraints in large and small ways that will likely outlast the crisis itself.
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Across the West Bank and Gaza, young men are abandoning towns and villages to find work in Palestinian cities, leaving communities like this one with a high concentration of unmarried women. At the same time, more Palestinian women are seeking higher degrees and jobs of their own to help husbands make ends meet, a trend university registrars say has accelerated in the seven months in which Hamas has run the Palestinian Authority.
In Bani Naim, a town of 20,000 people that fills several narrow valleys east of Hebron, the exodus of young men began a few years ago, and town leaders say it has quickened this year. The trend was reflected in a summer wedding season that, by all accounts, was the most meager in memory.
Women here commonly marry between the ages of 19 and 22, but many have been staying single far longer.
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In this town, where stone-block mansions overlook valleys of olive orchards, the average cost of a wedding had risen to $15,000 in the prosperous years between uprisings. But many of the newer homes remain half-built, evidence of a lifestyle that has become a thing of the past.
A Palestinian wedding is a lavish undertaking of parties, salon visits and a bridal dowry often used as a measure of status. A bride here had come to expect her groom to provide 300 grams of gold, bedroom furniture and a new wardrobe as her dowry, which families came to see as an insurance policy against divorce.
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There is also the celebration at the signing of the wedding agreement, which calls for the slaughter of a prized lamb, and a half-dozen bridal trips to the salon before each wedding-related event. Custom also demands that the groom rent a large convoy of taxis to retrieve the bride on the wedding day, which culminates in a feast of more than a dozen slaughtered sheep and an expensive fireworks display.