Available at: http://egypttoday.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=8531
Photo Credit: Mohamed Allouba
No apartment, no dowry, no wife, right? Not so fast. An obscure Al-Azhar decree says misyar marriage is halal.
By: Ethar El-Katatney
Thirty-two-year-old Hagar Gouda is a divorcée. Married in her mid-twenties, she gave birth to a baby boy and divorced her husband three years later. She has spent the past six years raising her son and looking for a husband. So far, she has not found a man she likes well enough who is willing to help raise her son.
A potential solution is for her to enter into a misyar (traveler’s) marriage: a marriage which would allow her to spend as much time as she wants with her son in her home. The catch? Her new husband would not be obligated to buy her an apartment, nor live with her or spend money on her. Her answer: “Over my dead body.”
In mid April, headlines such as “Dar Al-Ifta Legalizes Prostitution” and “Misyar: Prostitution with Another Name” were everywhere, with local newspapers furiously editorializing on a supposedly new fatwa (religious edict) saying misyar marriages were sanctioned by Islam.
Sunni Islam has always been adamant in its refusal to recognize mut’a (pleasure) marriages—a marriage with a specified end date, often entered into by couples with motives more temporary than setting up a home and bringing up children. Recognized as legal by the Shi’a sect of Islam, it is a type of marriage that is often exploited by men who ‘buy’ wives for a short duration of time. Unlike misyar marriages, a mut’a marriage needs no witnesses and no guardian.
A misyar marriage, on the other hand, seemingly strips women of even more rights. Rather than getting money from a short-term marriage, the wife gets absolutely nothing in terms of finances. She willingly gives up her right to live with her husband, her right to housing, and her right to nafaqa, a woman’s Islamic right to have her husband pay for her living and maintenance costs.
According to Dr. Ibrahim Negm, media spokesperson and advisor to Grand Mufti of Egypt Aly Gomaa’, Dar Al-Ifta did not issue a fatwa in April. What happened was that a reporter unearthed a reference to misyar in a list of decrees published last year by Al Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy, the highest Islamic authority in the nation.
The decree in question (Decree no. 218 of April 2007) listed types of marriage that are both Islamic as well as legal and those that are not — such as mut’a, boyfriend-girlfriend, and partner swapping. Number four on the list deals with misyar:
“It is the marriage which fulfills the pillars and conditions of Shariah [Islamic law], and has been recorded as an official document through a specialist intermediary. The summary of the matter is that the issue decided upon — in the contract or otherwise — is that the husband does not live with the wife, but visits her when he gets the opportunity. And it is a marriage built on all Shariah expectations [of marriage], except what the wife agrees to give up.”
There are four requirements for a marriage to be legal in Islam: consent of both parties, mahr (a gift from the groom to the bride), presence of two witnesses, and that it is made public. Historically, misyar was considered an option when the man traveled extensively and so could not live with his wife or had absolutely no financial means to give her a home.
An internet search turns up at least six online misyar matchmakers, with Msyaronline.com one of the largest in terms of members. Representatives from Msyaronline did not respond to interview requests, but the website offers four reasons promoting this type of marriage: “an increase in the number of spinsters and widows and those of special circumstances; the refusal of women to have a co-wife, leading men to marry the misyar way so his first wife doesn’t find out; the desire of unmarried men to get halal pleasure reconcilable with his circumstances; and the escape of some from the responsibilities of marriage and its costs, and this way is present [largely] in young men looking for this kind of marriage.”
Alexa.com, which tracks website traffic, ranks Msyaronline number 11,550 among the most-visited sites in the world, based on a three-month average. To put that into context, at press time, AhlyEgypt.com ranked number 9,056 and AmrKhaled.net ranked 6,851. Oprah Winfrey’s website ranked 1,579.
More than half of Msyaronline’s visitors come from just two countries: 32.6 percent of visitors are from Saudi Arabia, where it is ranked 441 on the list of most visited sites, while 24.9 percent are from Egypt, where it ranked 612. No more than 5 percent of its visitors come from any other country.
In Islam — according to Sunni scholars — a misyar contract is permissible because it follows all the conditions for marriage. However, says Negm, “a fatwa or decree on the validity of the misyar contract doesn’t mean [Dar Al-Ifta or the Islamic Research Academy] is advocating this type of marriage or that we are presenting it as a way to solve marriage problems in our society. It is not a license to marry this way.”
Many Islamic scholars have actually disallowed the practice of misyar marriage because of its perceived adverse effect on women, families, and societies at large.
Marriage on the Cheap
The proponents of misyar usually offer three reasons why it should be allowed: it allows couples with limited economic means to marry, it is a viable solution for spinsters or divorced women with limited marriage options or those of financial means who do not want a ‘full-time’ husband, and because a woman’s renunciation of her financial rights is only a moral and not a legal commitment, she can change her mind at any time.
However, even Msyaronline admits on the website that misyar marriage is not the “ideal desired picture of marriage, though it is legally correct.”
Costs of marriage, admit misyar opponents, are indeed high. In Saudi Arabia, dowries — the sum of money given to women by their fiancées — are so exorbitant that a group of young Saudi men launched a nationwide “Let her become a spinster campaign” this year, boycotting marriage because of the high costs. An average Saudi woman, says an article in the country’s Arab News, usually demands a dowry in the range of SR 50,000 (LE 75,000).
In April 2006, Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Fiqh Academy issued a fatwa saying that misyar was legal and valid. Arab News conducted an informal survey of 30 Saudi men and women regarding misyar: 60 percent of the men surveyed said they would consider misyar for themselves, while 86 percent of the women said they would not consider it. Only four women — all in the over-40 category — said they would.
Ma’aly Al-Faqih, a 29-year-old Saudi woman, believes misyar only compounds problems for Saudi women. “We already have a problem with polygamy because so many men can afford to have a second wife,” says Al-Faqih, a dentist and a TV presenter on a show called Hewar Melawen (Colored Dialogue). “But with misyar, so many more men would re-marry because it’s cheap to do so — they won’t have any financial rights or obligations! — and there’s less chance of their first wives finding out. But there are so many other problems to consider. What if the misyar wife gets pregnant?”
In Egypt, urfi marriage — where a couple signs a secret, unregistered marriage contract — is already stigmatized as a sex license for men who can easily ‘quit’ the marriage with few consequences. The Islamic Research Academy decree lists urfi as haram. Some see misyar as more of the same–a way to shirk responsibilities.
“It’s a great idea,” laughs 42-year-old shoe-shiner Khalid Abdel-Rahman. “It’s like being married without being married. Why would any man choose the hassle of financial burden when they can marry for free?”
No True Choice
That is partly what the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) fears. In a mid-April press release responding to the news that misyar was halal, the center states: “[Misyar] erodes family values by encouraging infidelity and immorality and facilitates multiple marriages built on secrecy and lies. [It] will lead to a deterioration of the family by opening the door to second marriages dissociated from the structure of the family. In addition, these marriages are detached from the personal, financial and family duties of both parties and are at the expense of the stability of the first/previous family.”
But what about all the spinsters, ask misyar advocates, who would be marrying of their own free will? According to government statistics, there are currently 9–10 million unmarried women in Egypt over the age of 30.
Not one woman interviewed by Egypt Today was willing to go on record in favor of misyar — perhaps not surprising, given the social stigma attached to it — although one said she would consider it. Thirty-four-year-old beautician Amina, who asked that her real name not be used, says that after her father passed away, she spent her twenties taking care of her four brothers and sisters, unable to leave home. “I’m very old and I’m poor and I’m not beautiful. I haven’t received a suitor in three years. I do want a normal marriage and children, but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” she says. “If a good man offers to marry me the misyar way, I might say yes.”
To get people to register with the website, Misyaronline’s homepage lists screen names and personal ads for 10 women and 10 men who recently signed up. The full database is only available to registered users. According to the posts, the women, who were between 22 and 48 years old, were from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and other countries. Among the new additions was ‘Eman,’ a 48-year-old Egyptian widow with older children who is looking for a “respectable man, knowledgeable, who can spend luxuriously on his wife and has a strong personality.”
Alwaleed Adel, owner and founder of Universal Marriage Office, the only marriage counseling and matchmaking office registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, rejects the idea of misyar. “It exploits women and it’s naive to say they are choosing this out of choice. Removing her options and saying she chose is no option. […] I bet you very few unmarried, childless women would choose misyar by choice. […] Misyar is a male convenience in a male-dominated country.”
The fear is that, in a country that puts a severe stigma on being unmarried, women who have not married by a certain age would agree to a misyar marriage even though they may have wanted a normal one, says Adel. They would agree to it even though misyar carries the stigma of being a lust-based alliance, tainting a woman’s reputation since it is believed that “she is giving herself away for free, marrying to have sex.”
Yomna Mokhtar, journalist and founder of “Spinsters for Change,” an informal Egyptian group that wants to change the negative attitude about unmarried women, believes this type of marriage is “a balwa soda [a horrible burden].” Unmarried at 27, she says that the pressures to marry are not enough to coerce her into a misyar marriage, ever. “It basically means marriage is only about a sexual relationship — this is what it has been reduced to,” she says. “There is no living together, no affection, no family, no kids, no security. I don’t even recognize this as marriage; if it becomes normal it will ruin the cornerstone of society — the family.”
Adel adds, “The nucleus and brain cell of any society is family and it is already problematic in Egypt. It’s hard enough to force neglectful fathers in normal marriages to fulfill their rights, what will happen to any children born from a misyar marriage?”
The Universal Marriage Office founder, who also has a TV show and appears on the radio once a week to talk about the family, conducted a study in March 2009, surveying 500 random young men ages 25–35 who had never been married. Adel found that 18.7 percent of them said they were not married because of the new updates in the family law that demand too much of them financially — alimony, maintenance, custody etc.
He also quoted a statistic saying the average age of marriage has increased by 50 percent for women and 38 percent for men in one generation.
Ghada El-Bedawi, one of the founding members of Mawada, a non-profit organization that gives courses to young couples beginning their married lives, agrees. “Marriage should be more than this,” she says. “It should be to build a home and generations. Misyar marriage is even worse than mut’a because at least in mut’a we admit it’s just about sex. Misyar tries to pass itself off as respectable. How will sons born of this marriage be raised as responsible, hardworking men who will raise a family? [How will girls] respect themselves as worthy of more than what their mothers settled for?”
In the end, many scholars agree that although misyar sticks to the letter of Islamic law, it does not stick to the spirit of the religion. Islam considers marriage a mithaq, a solemn covenant that should not be undertaken lightly. Negm says that even though the Grand Mufti and the Islamic Research Academy have said that misyar is technically permissible, “it does not mean that we advise the youth to practice it. […] This is an issue where we must open the door to discussion to the sheikhs to discuss the social and human dimensions of its [application]. And only then [can we] release a general fatwa saying whether [misyar] is a potential substitute or solution to problems like lack of housing and spinsterhood, or that it results in bad consequences to the society and family.” et