Amman (Al-Ghad) – Umm Muhammad lives with her two children from a previous marriage in a run-down house in the village of Mudoura in the southern Maan governorate.
Widowed for a year, she was forced by her uncle in 2008 to marry a wealthy Saudi, who used to pay her a ten-day visit once a year.
“My uncle married me off against my will to get rid of my burden, because I’m an orphan and a widow and I’ve only got a sixth-grade elementary education,” she explains with a pained look. Although aged 35, her face is worn with physical and mental exhaustion, giving her the appearance of someone in their 50s.
Although Umm Muhammad’s marriage was registered at the Sharia court, the Saudi husband verbally made it conditional on being a misyar marriage – Arabic word for “traveller’s marriage”.
She has not heard from him for the past two years. She has had no children from him, another condition he put on the marriage. He no longer provides for her. She has been left “hanging”, and doesn’t know how to get out of it.
Huda, 27, is a university graduate from a middle-income family. She got married to a “Gulf diplomat” under amisyar marriage two years ago. He also made it a condition that he will not get her pregnant. He spends 20 days with her every year at a house he bought her in an up-scale district of Amman.
Two years on, Huda says she has started to feel “like a prostitute.” All her husband wants from her is sexual gratification. “And that has made me feel like taking revenge on him by throwing myself at any man who comes along”. Money seems to have been the only reason Huda accepted the “misyar” marriage.
Muna, 45, holds a diploma and comes from Dair AIla, 65 kilometers west of Amman. She agreed to marry a Jordanian man in his 60s who already had another wife, on the understanding that their marriage would remain secret, he would not provide her with a home, and he would only visit her once a month.
She agreed to these terms because “I could no longer stand the insults and insinuations as well as being called a ‘spinster’, especially from my brothers’ wives.”
Five months into the marriage, she is full of regrets. “We can’t lead the life of a married couple, or even just take his arm and go out in public. I’ve started to feel like I’m nothing more than a mistress, who has to wait for her lover to make time for her,” she says.
Maysaa, 37, never completed her basic education and comes from a poor family. For the past five years, she has been working as a prostitute out of a nightclub in Shmeisani district.
Maysaa explains: “I took revenge against my brother. He married me off in a misyar marriage when I was barely 30 to a man from the Gulf in his 60s, in return for money. Two years later, this husband threw me out with no roof over my head, no money, and not even a kid. He has left me hanging until now, with no divorce.
Rima, 29, had to have a hysterectomy due to severe bleeding after an abortion she had in 2010 when she was six months pregnant. Her rich Iraqi husband, with whom she had a misyar marriage, did not want a child from her, as he already had another wife and family. Rima, who hails from a middle-income family living in Mafraq, 72 kilometers northeast of Amman, she holds a bachelors’ degree.
This reporter has interviewed 500 Jordanian women from a range of social, occupational and educational backgrounds who fell into the trap of misyar marriage over the course of her investigation which lasted for a year. Most did so to avoid the stigma of being a “spinster”, divorcee, or widow in a traditional conservative society. And in the process, they agreed to surrender their legal and social entitlements and their right to motherhood.
Most married nationals of other Arab countries. Jordanian law does not acknowledge misyar marriages and so does the society. However, the marriage is officially registered at the Sharia court, but the couple agree between them on the terms of the “misyar” package.
Interviews were conducted with women in Amman, Zarqa, Irbid, Karak, the Northern Jordan Valley, Mazar, Maan, Ramtha and Mafraq.
The investigation underlines how women’s ignorance of the law and of Islamic sharia law often allows them to be exploited by men and in the process they are deprived of their legal and other rights in the absence of a clear fatwa(religious edict) prohibiting it.
Two out of every three women interviewed said they went into these marriages with the agreement or encouragement of their families, either for money or to escape “spinsterism”. The number of eligible women over 30 who have never been married currently exceeds 100,000, compared to around 3,000 twenty years ago.
Religious opinions differ over this kind of marriage. In Jordan, some religious scholars prohibit it as a flagrant violation of women’s rights. However, the General Ifta Department considers the conditions attached to it to be impermissible and invalid, though it accepts the marriage contract itself because it is registered as a legal marriage at the court.
For his part, Jordan’s Chief Islamic Justice maintains that misyar marriages are not covered by Jordan’s personal status law as amended in 2010 or previous legislation, because they are a novelty. They are not registered as such in the sharia courts, but listed as ordinary marriage contracts. However, the couple agree verbally and in advance on conditions attached to it.
According Dr. Wassef al-Bakri, a member of the sharia appeals court in Amman, said that while there may be “a few cases” of misyar marriage in Jordan, the sharia courts are unaware of them and there are no statistics to indicate how common they are.
University of Jordan Sharia professor Mahmoud al-Sartawi who helped draft the 2010 personal status law, takes the view that Islamic law prohibits this kind of marriage. “Sharia does not support misyar marriage nor accept it under any circumstances. It is prohibited from sharia’s perspective because it goes against its purposes, be they the provision of personal and social protection or procreation,” he asserts.
Rather, such marriages are sought by men who want to avoid complying with their obligations under sharia, he argues, by taking on another wife without affecting their existing families in order to satisfy their physical and other urges. Usually, he said, they get married to women from a different nationality who belong to a society that frowns on such marriages.
These marriage contracts comply with sharia in as much as they involve a guardian, two witnesses and a contract. “What makes them contentious among scholars in terms of whether they are permissible or impermissible are the verbal conditions to which the spouses agree to beforehand, which are usually unfair to the woman,” Sartawi explains.
He argues that the women themselves are largely responsible for this problem, as in some cases “the woman knows that this is going to be a misyar marriage…and in most cases the man makes that an unwritten condition, but she still agrees to it.”
Nevertheless, Sartawi maintains that misyar marriages in Jordan “are few in comparison to other countries,” thanks to the fact that “social values remain effective and strong among Jordanian families, and society which views such marriages as shocking.”
Jordan University sociology professor Dr. Majdeddin Khamash says these marriage are exploitative by nature. They typically involve “rich men with children who opt for misyar for the purpose of pleasure and exploit the material needs of the girl. Most of the women who agree to such contracts come from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds.”
In Jordan, he stresses, marriage “is more of a relationship between two families than between the boy and the girl,” and its conservative tribal society “abhors this kind of marriage. So whatever cases there are in Jordan, they remain individual and do not constitute a phenomenon.”
This writer also met with 100 men who married Jordanian women in misyar marriages, including 80 non-Jordanians, predominantly Saudis and Iraqis.
Ahmad, 55, from al-Hashimiya 33 kilometers northeast of Amman, insists that “misyar marriage” is not a problem. Rather, “it is a solution to the women’s problem.”
Ahmad is married to four women under contracts filed at the sharia courts, in addition to two urfi (common law) wives, plus a Syrian woman under a misyar marriage which he did not register in Jordan. This means he has seven wives.
Warming to his theme, Ahmad continues. “Misyar marriage eases the burden on the husband”. He asked: “what is wrong for that when polygamy is socially unacceptable and if the woman agrees to not being maintained?” He admitted that he abandoned his misyar wife in Syria after the “revolution” but he has not divorced her.
Abdallah, a 45-year-old Saudi businessman, had a misyar marriage to a Jordanian widow in 2009 in Amman. He visits her whenever he can. He says that misyar “safeguards the man against adultery, and allows him not to reside with the woman so long as he grants her some rights. I am married in Saudi Arabia, but I am not doing anything that is haram (religiously prohibited). I married a Jordanian, so what?”
Sharia and Law
Sharia judge Bakri concurs that the personal status law does not address misyar marriage. But he disagrees that this constitutes a legal loophole in the legislation.
“It is a new phenomenon, over which contemporary religious scholars have disagreed,” he explains. “Some have issued fatwas permitting it on the grounds that the contract is legal and meets all the necessary requirements – all there is to it is that the woman has renounced some of her entitled rights which is acceptable. Others have said these [marriages] should be dissolved, or they have prohibited them because they are demeaning and unfair to women.”
He maintains that in Jordan, a woman in a misyar marriage “is entitled to take her case to the sharia courts to demand the legitimate rights, including financial maintenance, accommodation and the right to have children. If she gives birth, she can file a case to prove paternity and demand her full rights as a wife”.
Bakri’s own view is that as the permissibility of misyar marriage is disputed by religious scholars, it should – in line with another principle of Islamic legislation – be “shunned in order to uphold rights.”
For his part, sharia lawyer Nidal al-Abbadi argues that there is no problem from the legal/sharia standpoint withmisyar marriage, because “there is no text prohibiting it either in the Jordanian personal status law or even from the Ifta Department. Rather, they both allow women to renounce some of their rights, just as they allow men to renounce some of their rights.”
Women’s Rights in Misyar Marriage
Under misyar marriages, women give up many of their rights. Experts differ on whether marriage under such conditions constitute a violation of women’s rights and cause an injustice that must be prevented, or whether women are free to make a contractual agreement.
Mufid al-Sarhan, head of the Afaf Charitable Society, stresses that socially unacceptable marriages like misyar inevitably place women under psychological duress.
Dr. Bakri, the sharia judge, argues that while misyar marriage is not dealt with in the personal status law. However, he said article 27 in the law allows either spouse to attach conditions to a marriage contract provided these are not contrary to sharia or to the substance of the contract.
He reasons that a woman could give up her marital right to accommodation, for example, if she considers it unnecessary. But financial maintenance is a requirement of the marriage contract, so renouncing that right could be considered contrary to the substance of the contract under that legal clause.
The contract may be valid, but if the woman feels that the conditions are unfair to her, she must go to the sharia court and demand her rights, he stresses.
He adds that it is possible that the personal status law will be amended in future to add a law on misyar marriages after discussion by relevant authorities.
For Inaam al-Asha, legal advisor at the Womens’ Solidarity Society, the priority is to take preventative action and persuade women to shun such contracts, even if they are valid under sharia. “Any condition that contravenes the purposes of marriage is necessarily invalid,” she remarks. “A woman has the right to demand its annulment. There is absolutely no need for her to hold to a contract that affronts her dignity and humanity.”
Sociologist Khamash believes that misyar marriage contracts subject women to mental stress and enhance her feelings of guilt and low self-esteem.
This writer conducted an informal survey of men in Maan, Amman and Ramtha. She found that 60% of the 118 out of 224 men who agreed to be quizzed said they have no objection to misyar marriage. Furthermore, 40% of the women said the same.
Willingness to consider a misyar marriage was highest among men and women in the 35-45 age group, particularly among married men (37.9%) and divorced or widowed women (30.8%). 48.7% respondents who said they were ready to enter into a misyar marriage had a monthly income of below JD 500.
Misyar in Sharia in Jordan
At the request of this journalist, the fatwa department issued an edict in October 2012 terming the status of misyarmarriage as “a contractually correct marriage with invalid conditions”.
It ruled that spouses are not entitled to agree to such terms as part of the contract as they run contrary to the purpose of the marriage contract and its original intention (namely to provide a stable basis for raising a family and upholding rights and duties, and not just a license for sexual pleasure).
While opinions and fatwas may differ on the validity of misyar marriage, as Asha sees it, the responsibility rests mainly with women themselves not to agree to contracts that deny them their most basic rights.
This investigation was supported by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARI) –www.arij.net – and coached by Saad Hattar.