The existence of “misyar” marriages and the fact that they are being advertised on websites similar to western ones proposing sexual dalliances exposes the hollowness of the idea that prohibition eliminates the desire for promiscuity.
A Guardian report, published in August 2009 regarding the prevalence of misyar marriage in Saudi Arabia, has generated much hubbub in the Muslim world. There are few religiously-sanctioned occasions for discussing issues concerning sexuality but it seems that in addressing this above topic the Saudis and their Wahhabi fans around the world have found one.
In simple terms, a misyar marriage is the Wahhabi (we will use the term Sunni from here on) counterpart of the Shi’a mutaa marriage. The misyar or “traveler’s” nikah is carried out through normal Sunni Muslim contractual procedures and involves a waiver of certain rights, predominantly by the wife.
Under misyar, the husband and wife retain their homes and arrange for visits for a certain number of nights. The husband relinquishes his right to unlimited sexual access (otherwise assumed in Saudi law) and housekeeping (since the wife does not live with him). The wife, predictably, gives up much more, including her right to the equal attention of the husband (in case of polygamy) and her right to maintenance or nafaqah and housing. In the event of children born to the union, custody goes to the father or his family after age seven.
Misyar is routinely presented as a pragmatic solution to sate the sexual appetites of men in a society where sexual promiscuity is strictly prohibited and even prosecuted through hadd punishments. The argument in favor of misyar normally runs along the following lines: misyar marriage allows those who are unable to provide a home or support a wife full-time an opportunity for female companionship, broadly interpreted.
The female beneficiaries of this “marriage lite” are supposedly the hapless spinsters, divorcees and other marginalized women who otherwise have no hope of male attention or companionship. Through this arrangement, they too can have a shot at marriage, though without most of the rights. Misyar, while socially unpalatable to Saudi jurisprudence because it showcases the centrality of male sexual appetites in Saudi culture, is presented as the low-budget alternative to traditional marriage, which appears to be reserved for virginal brides and rich men.
Misyar then is marriage for discarded women and economically unstable men. Instead of agonizing over the gender iniquities of a system that treats widows and divorcees as unworthy of marriages in which their rights and human dignity are respected, a “lower” form of marriage has been invented to allow them a chance at having some male companionship. The sociological aspects of the fact that these women continue to be marginalized and treated as unworthy are left unquestioned.
Further arguments for misyar marriages focus on their legal defensibility. Shaikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, quoted in the Guardian report, instructs Muslims to look at such marriages as a “legal relationship between a man and a woman.” The Sheikh requests that a misyar marriage be evaluated on the grounds that it is a contract between a man and a woman that is sanctioned by religion in that the limited liabilities and duties of both parties are clearly stated by both and hence known to and agreed upon by both. This argument rests on the legal premise that when conditions of a contract are explicit, consented to by both parties and within the parameters set by the religion’s tenets, the ensuing contract is then rendered legitimate and binding.
Yet the irony of this line of reasoning is that the legal argument makes no mention of the completely unequal bargaining power of the two parties and the fact that the women have little power to insist on any condition being stipulated in the contract. The fact that a woman acquiesces to a marriage that provides her with fewer rights than those she would be entitled to otherwise, is a testament to her inferior bargaining power both as a contracting party and as a citizen within a patriarchal society. To argue that the contract should be evaluated entirely as a legal entity between two parties consensually coming to an agreement, is to ignore the very gender inequality that led to the creation of the legal instrument in the first place.
Some attention is due also to the moral aspects of misyar marriage. Strictly prohibitive societies like Saudi Arabia operate on the premise that if the state regulates all aspects of life, then the most repugnant moral failings will simply be eliminated. In other words, with the imposition of strict penalties against sexual promiscuity, short-term dalliances will be eliminated and society will be safely ensconced in marital bliss.
The existence of misyar marriages and the fact that they are being advertised on websites similar to western ones proposing sexual flirtations exposes the hollowness of the idea that prohibition eliminates the desire for promiscuity. In the case of Saudis, misyar marriages demonstrate that sexual promiscuity or the desire for “no strings attached” relationships has been far from stamped out. Instead, legal loopholes, under the sanction of faith, have been found to justify un-sated desires.
Finally, there are the tangible human costs of such legal loopholes that cater to male libidos and further subjugate women into destructive choices. In 2008, Saudi Arabia had nearly 200,000 widows most of whom received no support from their blood relatives. The requirement that they produce mahrams to provide them with permission to work and travel often forced them into misyar marriages for the sole purpose of obtaining livelihoods or permission to travel.
Relegated to periphery of society due to the personal tragedies, these women are victimized first by the widespread social denial of their inferiority and second by a legal fiction that uses their misery as a means for providing sexual gratification through a version of marriage that denies what few rights they would be provided with otherwise.
Rafia Zakaria is a contributing writer to Altmuslimah