GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – At 29, Tahani is considered a spinster by the standards of deeply conservative Gaza. So in her search for a husband, she turned for help to the best in the marriage business: the Islamic militant group Hamas.
"I gaze at all the men on the street and think, 'Oh God, isn't there just one for me?'" said the young woman with dark skin and honey-colored eyes, set off by a maroon headscarf.
Her application is among 287 from single women in the files of the Tayseer Association for Marriage and Development in Gaza. Photographs stapled to the files show Muslim women in headscarves, some wearing makeup, some smiling, others looking startled. They all want a husband, and the Hamas loyalists running the association are intent on finding a man for each.
Despite its fearsome reputation elsewhere, Hamas is known here for its cradle-to-grave welfare programs for the poor. It is a cornerstone of its political support in Gaza, where poverty is deepening as Israel and Egypt maintain an almost two-year blockade of the Hamas-run territory. Now, the group is branching out into matters of the heart.
"This is our vision of humanitarian work," said Wael Zard, director of the Tayseer association. "This makes people close to Hamas and makes Hamas close to the people."
While Tayseer's matchmaking service helps both men and women, it is particularly important for women since staying single is a cruel fate for them in Gaza. They are often treated as unpaid maids by their extended families and, says Gaza sociologist Naser Mahdi, increasing economic hardship has made the marriage market even harsher.
The dwindling number of middle-class men with steady incomes can have their pick of the prettiest women, leaving others to work hard to find a suitable husband. Meanwhile, poor families are reluctant to marry off working daughters, hoping to keep their salaries.
About 40 marriages have been arranged since Tayseer opened its matchmaking department in 2007. Most women apply in secret because it's taboo for women in Gaza to seek husbands outside the traditional route. Most girls are married in matches set up by their mothers. Dating is nearly nonexistent and love marriages are a novelty.
Tahani, who spoke on condition that only her first name be used because she is using the service without her family knowing, said she turned to Tayseer a year ago. Her mother died when Tahani was young, and none of her relatives were helping her find a groom.
The young woman said she became more determined to find a husband after Israel's three-week war on Hamas, which ended in January. Israel's assault killed hundreds of civilians, and Gaza's residents hunkered down in homes and shelters during the shelling, not knowing where bombs would fall next.
"My brothers held their wives when they were scared. I felt lonely," said Tahani, a university graduate in social work.
Most women are shy when they first come in the door, said Tayseer matchmaker Nisrin Khalil, 21.
"I tell the girls, be like Khadija!" said Khalil, referring to the Prophet Muhammad's first wife.
Muslim tradition says Khadija proposed to Muhammad — and was years his senior. It's a powerful message to women: Islam's first lady bucked conservative Arab tradition more than 1,400 years ago and they can defy Gaza tradition now.
The applicants, who pay a fee of $10-$70, are divided into categories according to their eligibility. Women under 25 are easiest to marry off; more challenging are women over 30 and divorcees.
But in a nod to Gaza's grinding poverty triumphing over its conservative culture, there is a special file for women with jobs. Bringing home a salary in Gaza can trump any other category, matchmakers say.
In the women's application, they describe their ideal man. Most ask for a devout Muslim with a job and his own apartment, a top find in crowded Gaza.
Women also must describe their appearance and answer a killer question: "Do you consider yourself pretty according to Gaza standards?"
The ideal of beauty in Gaza means tall and fair-skinned with blue or green eyes and light-colored hair — and that's what men usually ask for. But most Gaza women have dark hair and bronze skin.
"If we see a girl that appears to match (a man), but she's not physically what he wants, I'll call him and say, 'Well, she's pretty, but she's dark.' Or 'she's short, but she's white.' We encourage them to be a bit more realistic," Khalil said.
The one other matchmaking service in Gaza is little used. The Tayseer association was originally founded to fund and organize mass weddings, a service for poor or disabled Gazans who often can't afford the costs of a ceremony. Next month, a mass wedding is planned for more than a dozen blind Palestinians.
While Hamas is considered a terrorist group in the West because of its attacks on Israel — including suicide bombings — it also provides Gaza's poor with food coupons, medical care and other services. Its social network helped make the group popular, gaining it victory over its Palestinian rival Fatah in 2006 parliament elections. The following year, Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip in clashes with Fatah.
Around 40 men a month turn to Tayseer in search of a wife. When association employees think there's a match, they quietly organize a meeting, with employees acting as chaperones in compliance with Islamic law. If the couple like each other, Gaza's traditional courtship kicks in.
The man's relatives visit the woman's family, saying that a well-meaning stranger told them of a girl wanting to marry. The matchmakers are not mentioned, because their role is still taboo, said Khalil.
If the woman's family accepts, a wedding is planned. Often women bully their families into agreeing, Tayseer workers said.
Rania Hijazi, 29, applied to Tayseer in March 2008 and two months later married Ashraf Farahat, 36. She said she went to the service because she feared her family's matchmaking efforts were going nowhere.
"I felt embarrassed when I applied," said Hijazi, who has since become a mother. "But then I said, 'I won't find a man any other way' and I tried to be strong."
Plenty of other women are waiting.
"I want to have a man, a husband," said Tahani. "I don't think that's a selfish request."