Monday, September 14, 2009

Islam & Marriage

Everyone knows that under Islam a man can have up to four wives. Not surprisingly, most don't. As one Bahraini taxi driver told me, "*groan* Don't do it!! Big headache!!"

Under Islam if a man has more than one wife he has to treat them equally. If he gives one a gift he has to give the other a gift, if one has her own house the others have to have their own houses and so on. The man also has to pay a dowry to a woman that he marries, and pay for the wedding, so that gets expensive. These days, at least in the Arabian Peninsula, one generally has to be wealthy to have multiple wives. (I'm also still not sure how a man breaks the news to his first wife that he is going to have a second wife. In the West you would likely "accidentally" fall on a knife in the middle of the night with that kind of news.)

But most westerners do not know that there are other types of Islamic marriages as well. These are not as well known as a traditional marriage we are used to but certain types of marriage are occasionally used in some areas of the Islamic world:

1) Mu'tah marriages. This is practised amongst Shi'a Muslims, under Sunni Islam it is forbidden. It is in essence a temporary marriage. Marriages in Islam are a contract between a man and a woman, and in some parts of the world such as the Gulf the contract to be quite specific (is she allowed to work? How much bride-price she will receive and so on). In a Mu'tah Marriage the marriage contract has a specified ending time, once that time is reached the marriage is over, no divorce proceedings required.

Now I believe such a structure could be used for very temporary marriages, such as a day or a week, but I'm not sure how prevailant that is. The bride still gets a bride-price of course. Sunni Islam forbids Mu'tah because they believe the intention of a marriage contract is that the couple intends to be together forever and putting a fixed end-date on a marriage violates that principle.

Wiki has a good articleand there is a huge paper on Mu'tah here.

2) Misyar marriages. This type of marriage is practised amongst some Sunnis. In a misyar the woman gives up the right to be treated equal to the man's other wives and may give up other rights such as reduced bride-price etc. Unlike a Mu'tah marriage there is no time limit. Apparently some women who are widows or divorcees agree to this type of marriage to get some companionship, in other cases it is used as a means by which a man can get to better know a woman without violating any religious prescriptions -- they will be able to go out together and he would be able to see her without a veil. By being able to "date" so to speak the misyar could lead to a standard marriage. Apparently you can even have a misyar where the contract stipulates no sexual activity will take place between the couple.

A friend forwarded me an interesting article from the Guardian on misyar. There is also a wiki article. Misyars can be controversial, some imams frown upon them as they believe many just use them as a way to have a boyfriends/girlfriends without really being interested in a long-term marriage commitment. A Qatari friend of mine said misyar was not usually practised there but it is not forbidden.

3) Bride exchanges. This occurs in Central Asian countries such as Turkey and Pakistan. Two families, who usually don't have a lot of money to be paying bride-prices for their sons to get married, agree that Family A will marry their son to Family B's daughter in exchange for Family B's son being allowed to marry a daughter from Family A. So a brother and sister from Family A marry a sister and brother (respectively) from Family B. The agreed bride-price paid to each bride is exactly the same so in the end the families are no worse off monetarily.

Exchanging brides can be problematic if the two marriages are treated as a linked-exchange, which means that if one couple divorces the other couple has to divorce, even if they were happy together. There can also be retribution consequences. If one man abuses his wife, her family might take revenge by abusing his sister. Authorities in Turkey are trying to encourage people who enter into bride exchanges to make them "unlinked" so that if one couple is happy together they do not have to divorce if the other couple divorced. I am not sure how common is types of marriages are in Central Asia except for Pakistan were about 10-15% of marriages are due to bride exchanges.

Al Jazeera had an interesting documentary on this type of marriage a while back but I do not think it is available online.

4) Bride kidnapping. I saw a documentary on this and it is apparently common in Kryzgystan (sp?), mostly in rural areas. Bride kidnapping is exactly that -- when a guy wants to get married his best man and a group of guys goes out and finds a woman that they think is suitable and kidnap her. This is not some cute custom, the woman has no idea what is going on. She is kidnapped by a bunch of strange men and brought to some house where she is married to a stranger. From what I could tell in the documentary when the bride is brought to the house a couple of ladies just wave some pieces of white linen over her and that's it, she's married. Some of them are resigned to their fate, others flee back to their families anyway even though they are "spoiled".

Now while these people profess to be Muslims from even my limited understanding of Islam bride kidnapping is not in any way Islamic. Under Islam it is quite clear that a woman cannot be married against her will. I also cannot see how kidnapping people is justified anyway. There is also no contract, and I don't think there is any bride-price paid. I suspect this is some cultural tradition in Kryzgystan that predates Islam and the people shoehorn it into their beliefs somehow. It was a really sad documentary to watch, a Kryzgystan group trying to get rid of the practice estimates that up to 50% of rural marriages occur in this way. Ugh. The sooner this type of practice is gone the better.

That about covers it. One day I hope to be able to attend a Qatari wedding (which will be a standard traditional marriage, not one of the ones mentioned above).

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