The existence of “misyar” marriages and the fact that they are being advertised on websites similar to western ones proposing sexual dalliances exposes the hollowness of the idea that prohibition eliminates the desire for promiscuity
The Guardian report published last Sunday regarding the prevalence of “misyar” marriage in Saudi Arabia has generated much hubbub in the Muslim world. There are few religiously-sanctioned occasions for discussing issues concerning sexuality but it seems that in addressing this above topic the Saudis and their Wahhabi fans around the world have found one.
In simple terms, a misyar marriage is the Wahhabi (we will use the term Sunni from here on) counterpart of the Shi’a “mutaa” marriage. The “misyar” or “traveller’s” nikah is carried out through normal Sunni Muslim contractual procedures and involves a knowing waiver of certain rights predominantly by the wife.
Under misyar, the husband and wife retain their homes and arrange for visits for a certain number of nights. In terms of waiving rights, the husband gives up his right to unabated sexual access (otherwise assumed in Saudi law) and housekeeping (since the wife does not live with him).
The wife, predictably, gives up much more, including her right to equal attentions of the husband (in case of polygamy), her right to maintenance or “nafaqah” and housing. In the event of children born to the union, custody goes to the father or his family after age seven.
Misyar is routinely presented as a pragmatic solution to sate the sexual appetites of men in a society where sexual promiscuity is strictly prohibited and prosecuted through hadd punishments. The argument in favour of misyar normally proceeds thus: misyar marriage allows those who are unable to provide a home or support a wife full-time an opportunity for female companionship, broadly interpreted.
The female beneficiaries of this “marriage lite” are supposedly the hapless spinsters, divorcees and other marginalised women who otherwise have no hope of male attention or companionship. Through this arrangement, they too can have a shot at marriage, though without most of the rights. Misyar thus, while socially unpalatable to Saudi jurisprudence in its capacity to showcase the centrality of male sexual appetites, is presented as the low-budget alternative to regular marriage meant, assumedly, only for virginal brides and rich men.
Misyar then is marriage for discarded women and unstable men, neither of which would have a shot at regular marriage in Saudi and perhaps also other parts of the Muslim world. Instead of agonising over the gender iniquities of a system that treats widows and divorcees as unworthy of marriages where their rights and human dignity are respected, a “lower” form of marriage has been invented to allow them a chance at having some male companionship. The sociological aspects of the fact that the women continue to be marginalised and treated as unworthy are left unquestioned.
Further arguments for misyar marriages focus on their legal defensibility. Shaikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, quoted in the Guardian report, instructs Muslims to look at the marriage as a “legal relationship between a man and a woman”. The Sheikh requests that misyar marriage be evaluated on the grounds that it is a contract between a man and a woman that is sanctioned by religion in that the limited liabilities and duties of both parties are adequately stated by both and hence known and apparent to both.
This argument is based on the legal premise that when conditions of a contract are explicit and consented to by both parties and within the parameters set by theology the ensuing contract is rendered legitimate and binding.
Yet the irony of this argument is that it denies the social facts that have led to the creation and permission for such a contract. The legal argument thus makes no mention of the completely unequal bargaining power of the two parties and the fact that the women have in actuality little power to insist on any condition being stipulated in the contract.
The fact that a woman acquiesces to a marriage that avowedly and explicitly provides her fewer rights than those she would be entitled to otherwise is a testament to her inferior bargaining power both as a contracting party and as a citizen within a patriarchal society. To argue thus that the contract should be evaluated entirely as a legal entity between two parties consensually coming to an agreement is to deliberately ignore the very social facts that led to the creation of the legal instrument in the first place.
Some attention is due also to the moral aspects of misyar marriage. Strictly prohibitive societies like Saudi Arabia operate on the premise that if the state regulates all aspects of life, then the most repugnant moral failings will simply be eliminated. In other words, with the imposition of strict penalties against sexual promiscuity, short-term dalliances will be eliminated and society will be safely ensconced in marital bliss.
The existence of misyar marriages and the fact that they are being advertised on websites similar to western ones proposing sexual dalliances exposes the hollowness of the idea that prohibition eliminates the desire for promiscuity. In the case of Saudis, misyar marriages demonstrate that sexual promiscuity or the desire for “no strings attached” dalliances has been far from eliminated. Instead, legal loopholes, under the sanction of faith, have been found to justify un-sated desires.
Finally, there are the tangible human costs of such legal loopholes that justify male libidos and further subjugate women into destructive choices. In the year 2008, Saudi Arabia had nearly 200,000 widows most of whom received no support at all from their blood relatives. The requirement that they produce “mahrams” to provide them with permission to work and travel often forced them into misyar marriages for the sole purpose of obtaining livelihoods or obtaining permission to travel.
Relegated to the edge of social acceptance due to the personal tragedies afflicting them, these women are victimised first by the widespread social denial of their inferiority and second by a legal fiction that uses their misery as a means for providing sexual gratification through a version of marriage by eliminating what few rights they were otherwise provided.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Misyar Marriage — a Marvel or Misery?
Somayya Jabarti, Arab News
JEDDAH, 5 June 2005 — To some, it’s an unthinkable act; for others, it’s better than loneliness, but in what is otherwise a conservative culture, misyar marriage goes against the grain.
Misyar marriage is a legal alternative marital arrangement more Saudi men and women are using to offset prohibitive marriage costs and the stigma unmarried women face.
In a misyar marriage the woman waives some of the rights she would enjoy in a normal marriage. Most misyar brides don’t change their residences but pursue marriage on a visitation basis. Some marriage officials say seven of 10 marriage contracts they conduct are misyar, and in some cases are asked to recommend prospective misyar partners.
Most of the women opting for misyar either are divorced, widowed or beyond the customary marriage age. The majority of men who take part in such marital arrangements are already married.
“All the misyar marriage contracts I conduct are between men and women remarrying,” said Abu Fawaz, who’s been a marriage official for four years. “For a misyar marriage all you need is witnesses, her dowry and the acceptance of both parties. Usually the woman either has her own place or lives with her family. Most of the time the woman’s family knows while the man’s family is in the dark about it, be it his first wife or any other family members.”
Arab News surveyed 30 Saudi men and women aged 20-40 regarding misyar marriage. Over 60 percent of the men surveyed would consider misyar marriage for themselves with the majority of the respondents in their 20s. Those who would not consider it for themselves would not allow it for kin, be it sisters, brothers, sons or daughters. However, among the men who would consider it themselves, only two would find such a marriage acceptable for a female relative.
“If I allowed myself to marry another man’s sister or daughter ‘misyarically’ then it would only be fair to accept the same for my own female kin,” said Mohammad H. “It’s a double standard for men to accept it for themselves and other men but not the females. After all, if we all took up the same policy then who would we marry — each other?”
The reasons men gave for favoring misyar most often related to cost, with some asking “why not?” “I get to maintain all my rights, but I don’t have to take care of her financially and don’t even have to provide a house for her,” said 25-year-old Rayan Abdullah, an unmarried medical student at the city university. “It’s a great solution — isn’t it? It costs less than having a girlfriend — doesn’t it?” Or is it a male convenience in a male-dominated culture?
“What are the things most of us married men complain about?” asked Ghazi Ahmad, a 38-year-old husband and father of three children. “Don’t all of us constantly complain about the financial burdens, the lack of personal freedom — the routine patterns? Then this is the best marriage ever as far as I’m concerned. Married but not married — perfect.”
The opinions of women respondents about misyar marriage were a sharp contrast to the males’. More than 86 percent of the women 20-40 would not even consider such a marriage for themselves. Only four women — all in the over-40 category — would consider such marriages for themselves or relatives.
Most of the women respondents called it “legal prostitution” or objected to the lack of women’s rights in misyar marriages.
“I’m set in my ways,” said a 42-year-old bank manager who chose to call herself Muna Saad. “I live with my mother and couldn’t tolerate the idea of leaving her to live alone, and I’m comfortable financially. At the same time, I’d love to get married,” Muna said. “I also think it would be amusing for the roles to be reversed and sort of ‘own’ the man for a change and having him owe me rather than the other way around.”
Despite optimistic expectations, such marriages are not always blissful. Former and current misyar spouses said it can become a nightmare if pregnancy results from the union or if there are already children from former marriages. With most misyar marriages rooted in secrecy, the husband is only a ghostly figure occasionally seen. Once a child is conceived, the luxury of secrecy disappears.
“My second misyar marriage was doing fine despite my hawk of a first wife,” said Abu Abdul Rahman. “But that was only until my second wife got pregnant, and then the real nightmare began. She wanted to announce our relationship publicly because it put her in bad situations societally — you can’t be single and pregnant. I had to tell my family and my wife, and all hell broke loose. Now both marriages are on the rocks.”
There can be other unforeseen consequences of secrecy. “I’d been married misyarically for almost a year when members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice paid me a terrible visit accusing me of prostitution,” said a 35-year old divorcee and mother of two who chose to call herself Warda.
“They wanted to drag me to the police station even though I kept shoving the marriage contract in their faces. I had to call my brother — with whom I wasn’t on speaking terms. It was terrible. I hated myself and hated all men — my children were 6- and 7-years-old.”
A social worker who frequents the courts denounced misyar marriage. “The courts are overflowing with problems from regular marriages regarding financial obligations that husbands ignore, custody problems and alimony,” she said.
“There is a horrible, growing problem in enforcing the law upon neglectful husbands and fathers. How can anyone legalize a procedure such as misyar marriage that will make room for more irresponsibility?” the social worker asked.
“Unfortunately, misyar marriage has made it easier for irresponsible, immature individuals to enter a relationship that is supposed to be based on credibility, reliability and respect,” said Abu Zaid, an elderly marriage official. “This isn’t the case. It’s treated as a temporary solution for lust. That’s not what marriage is all about. In regular polygamy all wives have exactly the same rights over the husband, be it financial, be it regarding time spent together or being public. Women think that misyar marriage is for their benefit when in fact on a long-term basis, they pay the price and not just from their pockets but from their emotions, as well.”
Many parents and children of misyar wives stated that they felt the woman as being sold short in such a marriage. Parents mostly said that the only reason they accepted the situation was in recognition of their daughters as adult women with their own needs and their right to respond to such needs. “I begged my divorced daughter not to marry a suitor who proposed a misyar marriage,” said Abu Fahda. “At the end, I gave in because I didn’t want to be the reason for her having an unlawful relationship with a man. I’m an adult, and I know she has her needs, but I’d be lying if I said that I have any respect for this stranger who comes to my house for intimacy with my daughter. I even have trouble looking her in the face,” he said. “My neighbor’s niece was married misyarically for a while, and then when the husband was done with her he just left her — just like that.”
Abu Fahda’s grandchildren share his sentiments — especially sadness. “I don’t know who this man is — this man who comes to our house and spends time with my mother,” said the 6-year-old boy. “He’s not my father, and he can’t be her husband because fathers and husbands live with their families.”
For sociologists, misyar marriage is a head-scratcher. “What are we telling others about our self-worth, and what are we telling our children about the significance and meaning of family?” asked Dr. Nahid L. “Marriage is about in-depth relationships — not just copulation. Why are more women willing to forgo what is theirs just to be ‘called’ or falsely feel married?”
When marriage was created it was to ensure that no one gets anything for free. “Each, husband and wife, has duties and rights — and even in regular marriages women are already taken for granted. Marriage isn’t just about sex. Misyar marriage is only going to make things worse as far as I’m concerned.”
Some say society msut consider other alternatives. “If they want to really solve the issue of unmarried women instead of making it easier for men to marry repeatedly and cheaply, they should make it easier for Saudi women to marry non-Saudis,” said a school teacher.
“Years ago in college, I overheard one of my son’s friends talking about marriage and girls, and he asked ‘why buy the cow when the milk is free?’ They were talking about loose girls and there not being any need for marriage with them around,” said a university professor. “With misyar marriage, haven’t we just legalized the ‘why-buy-the-milk-when-the-cow-is-free’ syndrome? And we’re supposed to be civilized?”