Waithood: Gender, Education, and Global Delays in Marriage

The Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund
MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies

Gender, Education, and Global Delays in Marriage

An International Conference-Workshop at Yale University
Organized by
Marcia C. Inhorn
Yale University
September 27-30, 2018

In Collaboration with
Nancy J. Smith-Hefner
Boston University


In many areas of the world a silent revolution is taking place with regard to women, education, and age at first marriage (cf. Goldstein & Kenney 2001, Jones 2005).  The basic trend is one where, as educational opportunities have become more widely available, young women have taken advantage of those opportunities and have in many cases begun to surpass the accomplishments of their male peers.  Studies from contexts including but not limited to East/Southeast Asia and the Middle East, as well as Europe and the United States, have documented a similar pattern and suggest that the revolution in women’s education has not come without social and cultural consequences.  The most striking social consequence of this ongoing social transformation is a significantly later age for women at first marriage – or, more consequentially yet, even non-marriage among highly educated women.  

An additional consequence of this going social revolution is that, as women face a smaller pool of equally well educated men, the common pattern of hypergamy (or women marrying “up”) is being challenged by a pattern of hypogamy (or women marrying “down”).  Here, hypogamy may involve a woman marrying a man who has less education but also in some cases one who is younger or less economically secure.  A related effect in some cultural contexts involves women reaching across previously circumscribed ethnic or racial divides for marital partners.  Finally, the postponement of marriage and the prolongation of unmarried singlehood have led to a noticeable reconfiguration of courtship and dating practices and even of forms of marriage, as seen in the growth of online dating services, multiple romantic/sexual partners, cohabitation, and temporary marriage.  These latter changes have often been seen as a cause for ethical alarm on the part of an older generation and established religious and moral authorities and have led in many cases to efforts to address what is viewed as a serious societal challenge.  However varied their local forms, all of these transformations have also involved a powerfully important shift in social values.  That shift involves, not only the recognition of the value of educating women and an acceptance of women’s desires to work, but a more profound shift in gender norms and sexual identities away from a primary focus on social and familial responsibility to a concern with personal development and self-actualization.  

We borrow the term “waithood” from the work of Diane Singerman (2007), who has written extensively on education and marriage in the Middle East.  Singerman uses waithood to refer to a pattern of widespread delayed marriage and – because marriage is culturally linked to social adulthood – delayed adulthood, a situation that has resulted in considerable youth frustration across the region.  Singerman argues that in countries like Iran, Syria, Morocco, and Egypt, young people are obtaining higher levels of education than ever before, but that education is not leading to employment.  She has focused her research on youth in general.  However, she gives primary emphasis to the experiences of young men, so as to highlight the role of governments in failing to supply sufficient remunerative employment opportunities and the failure of educational systems to adequately prepare young men for the jobs that exist.  High marriage and housing costs and a cultural pattern whereby young people live at home until they marry, have led to a situation of prolonged dependence on parents, as young people are forced to wait – for a job, for housing, and for marriage and for a family of their own.

This conference-workshop builds on this framework, with its emphasis on the far-reaching and transformative consequences of “waithood” and social dependence.  Our conference also seeks to expand upon Singerman’s notion of waithood by examining the gendered aspects of the waithood phenomenon across a variety of cultural contexts in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, as well as in Europe and the US.  

Papers will highlight four related themes.  The first has to do with the new and emerging forms of courtship, marriage, and intimacy that have resulted from this new pattern of protracted singlehood.  A second and related theme has to do with personal transformations:  new understandings of self and of personhood that emerge as a result of the social exploration and experimentation facilitated by an extended period of unmarried youth.  A third focus of our workshop/conference will be waithood’s implications for fertility and family formation, as young women put off motherhood for education and careers, and as new reproductive technologies become more broadly available.  A fourth and final theme of our project has to do with the responses of governmental and religious authorities to the far-reaching transformations underway.  The changes taking place in young adults’ lives have serious implications for their personal and familial well-being; however, they have also challenged established religious authorities and ethics, not least with regard to personal fulfillment, gender relations, and social achievement.  In bringing together a group of scholars capable of addressing all four of these issues, we hope to draw attention to one of the most important but overlooked aspects of social change in the modern world.

To that end, we are holding a three-day conference-workshop at Yale University’s MacMillan Center, from September 27-30, 2018. The first day will feature a conference, open to the public, in Luce Hall. It will feature sixteen speakers who are working on the waithood phenomenon in a variety of global locations.  The second and third days would be devoted to a closed workshop of pre-circulated papers, which will be prepared for an edited volume. All of the proposed participants in the conference-workshop are social scientists—primarily anthropologists, but also political scientists and sociologists.  They work across five world regions, as shown below. Most are located at East Coast universities, which will significantly reduce conference costs.  

The Council on Middle East Studies would provide primary logistical support, per Prof. Inhorn’s affiliation there. However, we hope that other MacMillan councils will participate in this event, as it will be the first scholarly event devoted to the emerging waithood phenomenon across the globe.


Proposed Participants


Marcia C. Inhorn, Prof (US, professional women, egg freezing), Dept of Anthropology & MacMillan Center, Yale University

Jessaca Leinaweaver, Prof (Spain, waithood, adoption), Dept of Anthropology, Brown University

Manon Vialle, Advanced Graduate Student (France, (in)fertility), CNRS Marseille (Irène Théry’s lab on family & fertility)


Nancy J. Smith-Hefner, Assoc Prof (Indonesia, waithood, delayed marriage), Dept of Anthropology, Boston University

Matthew C. Gutmann, Prof (China, men, waithood), Dept of Anthropology, Brown University

Zachary Howlett, Asst Prof (China, women, waithood), Dept of Anthropology, Yale-NUS

Robin Leblanc, Lecturer (Japan, reproduction), Dept of Political Science, Washington & Lee School of Law

Middle East

Diane Singerman, Assoc Prof (Egypt, waithood), Dept of Political Science, American University

Fida Adely, Assoc Prof (Jordan, women’s education, delayed marriage), Arab Studies Program, Georgetown University

Mehrdad Babadi, Advanced Graduate Student (Iran, masculinity, emerging adulthood, waithood), Dept of Anthropology, Boston University


Adeline Masquelier, Prof (Mali, waithood, singlehood, Mali), Dept of Anthropology, Tulane University

Jenna Johnson-Hanks, Prof (Cameroon, professional women, waithood), Dept of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley

Dorothea E. Schulz, Prof (Uganda, waithood, masculinity), Dept of Anthropology, University of Cologne, Germany

Latin America

William Dawley, Advanced Graduate Student (Costa Rica, pentecostalism, masculinity, waithood), Dept of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego

Brendon Thornton, Asst Prof (Dominican Republic, waithood, masculinity), Dept of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Emily Wentzell, Assoc Prof (Mexico, parental advice, waithood, modernity), Dept of Anthropology, University of Iowa


Dhillon, N., Dyer, P. and Yousef, T., 2009. Generation in Waiting: An Overview of School to Work and Family Formation Transitions. Generation in Waiting: The Unfulfilled Promise of Young People in the Middle East, pp.11-38.

Hashemi, M., 2015. Waithood and Face: Morality and Mobility Among Lower-Class Youth in Iran. Qualitative Sociology38(3), pp.261-283.Jones, G.W., 2007. Delayed marriage and very low fertility in Pacific Asia. Population and Development Review33(3), pp.453-478.

Inhorn, M. C., forthcoming, “The Egg Freezing Revolution? Gender, Technology, and Fertility Preservation in the 21st Century.”

Inhorn, M.C. and Van Balen, F., 2002. Infertility around the globe: New thinking on childlessness, gender, and reproductive technologies. Univ of California Press.

Jones, G.W., 2005. The” flight from marriage” in south-east and east Asia. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, pp.93-119.

Jones, G.W., 2004. Not “when to marry” but “whether to marry”: The changing context of marriage decisions in East and Southeast Asia. Untying the knot: Ideal and reality in Asian marriage, pp.3-58.

Jones, G.W. and Ramdas, K. eds., 2004. (Un) tying the knot: ideal and reality in Asian marriage (No. 2). NUS Press.

Jones, G.W., Hull, T.H. and Mohamad, M. eds., 2011. Changing marriage patterns in Southeast Asia: Economic and socio-cultural dimensions. Routledge.

Kim, D.S., 2007. The rise of international marriage and divorce in contemporary Korea. Population and Society3(1), pp.1-36.

Singerman, Diane. “The economic imperatives of marriage: Emerging practices and identities among youth in the Middle East.” Middle East Youth Initiative Working Paper 6 (2007).

Singerman, D., 2011. The Negotiation of Waithood: The Political Economy of Delayed Marriage in Egypt. Arab Youth-Social Mobilisation in Times of Risk. Khalaf, S. & Khalaf, R. London, Saqi.

Smith-Hefner, N.J., 2005. The new Muslim romance: changing patterns of courtship and marriage among educated Javanese youth. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies36(03), pp.441-459