First Published: 2006-07-20

 
Misyar opens happiness door to Saudis
 

Form of temporary marriage offers alternative to cash-strapped men who want to avoid lavish weddings in Saudi Arabia.

 

Middle East Online

By Souhail Karam - RIYADH

No strings attached

Khaled never thought a form of temporary marriage, described by some in Saudi Arabia as legal prostitution, would open the door to his happily-ever-after.

The 25-year-old Saudi security guard opted to marry Zeinab, also a Saudi, through a "misyar" contract -- a kind of marriage-lite under which couples often live separately but get together regularly, sometimes just for sex.

Khaled and Zeinab are among thousands of people who choose misyar in this ultraconservative Islamic kingdom where contact between unrelated men and women is forbidden and extramarital sex regarded as a grave sin.

Misyar also offers an alternative to cash-strapped men who want to avoid lavish weddings but would like a relationship, without incurring the wrath of the morality police.

Under misyar, the husband is not financially responsible for his wife, and the marriage often ends in divorce.

Khaled, who declined to give his full name, admitted he wasn't serious about commitment when he decided on misyar.

But now, he and Zeinab are expecting a baby together.

"I thought let's give it a try ... and now I feel like a hero in a romantic film," he said.

Misyar is allowed under Sunni Islam and it is legal in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. But it is traditionally frowned upon and the fact that it leaves the wife financially vulnerable has angered many women's activists and intellectuals.

"Misyar reduces marriage to sexual intercourse," said Hatoun al-Fassi, a female Saudi historian. "For clerics to allow it is shameful for our religion."

A man’s moods

In regular marriages in Saudi Arabia, men must pay for expensive ceremonies, huge dowries and a home. If the couple divorce, he must pay alimony and child support.

So misyar appeals to men of reduced means, as well as men looking for a flexible arrangement - the husband can walk away from a misyar and can marry other women without informing his first wife.

Wealthy Muslims sometimes contract misyar when on holiday to allow them to have sexual relations without breaching the tenets of their faith.

A misyar is often one of the only options for older spinsters, divorcees and widows who often struggle to find husbands in a society where they are stigmatised.

This vulnerability has sometimes encouraged abuses: women sometimes act as matchmakers for less than scrupulous men on the prowl for lonely and wealthy spinsters.

Suhaila Zein al-Abideen, of the International Union of Muslim Scholars in Medina, said almost 80 percent of misyar marriages end in divorce.

"A woman loses all her rights. Even how often she sees her husband is decided by his moods," she said.

But Saudi television presenter Rima al-Shamikh said misyar is the result of frustration among Saudi Arabia's largely youthful population, bound by a strict religious code but exposed to Western lifestyles through the media and Internet.

"Our young people watch the satellite television channels. There is dissatisfaction," she explained. "Misyar is a way of getting around the obstacles of marriage in Gulf societies."

Marriage-lite

Some scholars say misyar was practised in the Arabian peninsula during the early days of Islam, when men were often away for months during battles or for trading.

The practice reappeared in the early 19th century in Egypt, where it is known as urfi marriage and is now very common.

After years of study, the influential Mecca-based Islamic Jurisprudence Assembly in April declared that misyar marriage was legal, angering many women’s rights' activists in the Gulf, where misyar is practiced in several countries.

Influential Muslim cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi has given his blessing to misyar, but said there should be at least some form of dowry to provide a guarantee for the wife.

"No doubt it is somehow socially unacceptable, but there is a big difference between what is Islamically valid and what is socially acceptable," he recently told Al Jazeera television.

Saudi clerics say misyar is authorised as long as it meets the basic requirements of sharia, Islamic law - consent of both parties, the blessing of the woman's guardian, the presence of witnesses and a state marriage official.

Adverts for Saudi men and women seeking misyar marriage abound on the Internet, recalling the "lonely hearts" columns popular in Western newspapers.

"I am a 33-year-old Saudi man with acceptable looks seeking to marry a Saudi virgin or a divorcee," read one posting on a special misyar site. "Saudi man seeking divorcee living in Jeddah, no objection to children," read another.

But not all misyar couples are in it for the short-term. A few, like Khaled and Zeinab, find misyar can be a first step to something more durable.

"We got used to each other very quickly," said Khaled, who has been married for 18 months. "Then she got pregnant. We couldn't bear our situation, so we decided to live together for real, not just with misyar."

 

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