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?”