Islam brought a new social and legal structure to a community that had no form of government, no set of laws, and a loosely based morality code. Among the practices which came to an end with the rise of Islam were the inequities that women dealt with in marriage, such as protection against being inherited, forced into marriage, or denied financial compensation. But as certain types of temporary marriage gain religious sanction by certain scholars, Muslims should be wary of these types of marriage due to the negation of these basic rights.
Upon the advent of Islam, the Qur’an revealed a new social and legal structure to a community that had no form of government, no set of laws, and a loosely based morality code. Among the practices which came to an end with the rise of Islam were the inequities that women dealt with in marriage; by the new laws of Islam, women were given rights and protection against being inherited, forced into marriage, or denied financial compensation.
In theory, Muslim women’s marital rights could sway even the most ardent of westernized feminists. In Islam, women are given the option to approve or deny a potential suitor, decide what sort of financial agreement she would want to be in with her husband, and dissolve the marriage should certain circumstances arise. One of the more important marital rights for a wife is the right to be taken care of financially, as well as to receive child support for any children she may have or may be carrying if her husband leaves or is found to be behaving in a way that is dissatisfactory to his wife. The Qur’an even provides for specific actions for a couple to work within when they have problems – e.g., seeking outside intervention and allowing a duration of time to occur before the divorce can be finalized so as to give the couple a chance to work things out.
Yet with the changing times and situations, Middle Eastern legislatures have relied on the Mufti of the country to provide Islamic jurisprudence advice when updating secular legislation for Family Law. In June 2009, an Egyptian journalist, Ethar El-Katatney, reported on a series of fatwas that were to be decreed at Al-Azhar University, which discussed the validity of certain types of marriage: zawaj al urfi (contract marriage), and zawaj al misyar (travelers’ marriage). In addition, the Saudi Arabian Higher Council of the Ulemas has also agreed that both zawaj al urfi and zawaj al misyar are valid as long as a mahr is offered, the bride accepts freely, there are two witnesses, and there is no date of expiration (such as in nikah mut’ah).
However, regardless of the jurisprudence in favor of these marriages’ validity, women and larger society should be wary of these types of marriage. An urfi marriage is usually a secretive marriage committed by younger people who are unable to wed either because of financial reasons or because of age. In the best of these cases, the two decide to go their separate ways amicably, and destroy the paper contract which they signed while declaring “enti talaq,” or “you’re divorced,” three times.
Yet in some other cases, the secret marriage is forced into public knowledge with disastrous results: a different suitor may propose to the “bride” via her unaware family, or someone learns about the marriage and divulges the secret. Even worse, a woman who had an urfi marriage which she thought was ended mutually may find herself charged with bigamy if the man denies the divorce (as a woman cannot claim divorce herself in an urfi marriage).
Another form of marriage is called zawaj al misyar, or the travelers’ marriage. Unlike zawaj al urfi, which almost always occurs between two people who know each other, zawaj al misyar often occurs between two people who do not know each other well or even at all. From ads in local classifieds to Facebook groups, those seeking physical comfort do not have to compromise much or look very far. These examples were cited in an August 2009 Guardian article on misyar marriage:
Young man, 21, excellent monthly income, seeks marriage as soon as possible to single girls up to 70 kgs, living in Jeddah
Saudi clerk, 38, from a well-known family, seeks pretty, white, delicate, businesswoman or clerk for misyar marriage. With Allah’s help, if things work out, the marriage will be official.
Accountant, 30, seeks misyar marriage with Saudi woman. Age, experience, number of children, widow or single or divorced unimportant. What is important is her ability to satisfy the needs of a man who desires things permitted by religion (halal).
According to jurisprudence, zawaj al misyar is a form of marriage that does not require that a man provide a home or even sustenance for his wife. Rather, she continues to live with her family or in her own personal residence while her husband lives with his family, in his residence, or, in many cases, with his wife and children. He owes her nothing, short of regular conjugal visits. Proponents say that zawaj al misyar provides a marital option to women who are “spinsters,” widows, divorcees, or those who seek marriage but do not wish to live with her husband for some reason. It provides them with a lifestyle option that gives them the right of marriage but may still protect their children from a step-father or from family gossip.
While proponents of both types of marriage have claimed that it is a step forward for women’s rights, many see them as the opposite. The fact remains that both types of marriage, zawaj al misyar and zawaj al urfi are considered Islamically legitimate. However, from a sociological and legal viewpoint, women who choose these marriages are putting themselves in a very vulnerable position. In these marriages, women forfeit their right to child support, financial compensation if divorced, and even the right to seek a divorce. In fact, the only true right a woman has in the contract or travelers’ marriage besides physical comfort is the right to name her child after the father. The equity that Islam has entitled to women in the form of rights, whether they be marital or financial, are simply being pushed aside in regarding the act of marriage as primarily a physical act of little consequence. Therefore, these forms of marriage deny a woman of the majority of rights afforded to her by the Almighty.
Katherine Wilson is working on a BA in Justice Studies with a focus in women’s issues. In her spare time, she volunteers for a grass roots domestic violence program and is a parent volunteer. She lives in Providence, RI.