x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Tradition of secret marriages revived in changing times

The empowerment of women in GCC countries has had a negative effect on marriages.

The empowerment of women in academia and professional life has been one of the great success stories of recent development in the Gulf. But even as women have gained their rightful place in society, changing gender dynamics have affected key social institutions - including marriage.

Investments in women's education, career and professional development and social progress have found fertile ground in the UAE and its Gulf neighbours. Reflecting the countries' political will, initiatives geared toward women's empowerment have produced remarkably swift results. In fact, more women than men are graduating with university degrees across the GCC.

While the figures representing womens' progress are a source of pride, they hint at some worrying trends. Taking Qatar as a case study, a startling statistic has emerged in the small peninsula, published by Qatar's Permanent Population Committee. Almost 70 per cent of Qatari marriages end in divorce, according to statistics published in 2009.

Part of the explanation is that the gender imbalance in higher educations leads to intellectual incompatibility between GCC men and women. In Qatar's case, the highest level of education of the majority of married Qatari men was at high school level. Meanwhile, the Qatari women they married had generally obtained university degrees.

Differences in academic levels throw off the scales in a relationship, especially in a paternal society. According to the scholar Frances Hasso: "The high proportion of Emirati women who are college-educated [are] less inclined to marry young Emirati men schooled in relatively patriarchal conceptualisations of family and marriage." And if a woman's academic qualifications exceed those of her husband, she is probably less likely to stay in an unhappy marriage as a last resort.

Through education and professional empowerment, financial freedom follows. With more options beyond marriage, couples may be less incentivised to make troubled marriages work.

Social expectations for men are also high in the GCC, where grooms bear the responsibility of extremely high wedding costs. Let us not forget the expectations that follow A Thousand and One Nights-style weddings. The typical GCC bride's checklist after the fairy tale wedding includes a lavish home, luxury car, chauffeur, housekeeper and first-class holidays to escape the oppressive summer heat. Those demands compound over the years when children come into the picture, with their nannies, chauffeured cars, private schools and entertainment.

Quickly but quietly, this unapologetic phenomenon has crept up on GCC society. In order to cope, an early-Islamic marriage contract has re-emerged as an antidote. Misyar marriage, described by scholars as an "ambulant marriage", is better known on the street as a temporary marriage contract. Unlike a traditional marriage, misyar is a secret contract where husband and wife live separately, agreeing not to have children. The financial obligations are agreed upon by signing the contract, limiting the husband's liability after the fact.

Needless to say, misyar is a controversial issue. It is attacked by women's rights activists and defended by some Islamic scholars such as Qatar's Sheikh Yousef al Qaradawi and the UAE's Sheikh Dr Ahmed al Kubaisi. Trying to look at this contentious topic objectively, it fills a void of modernisation. Caught between two eras, people in the GCC have found secret solace in misyar marriage. It is a convenient way of melding modern desires with traditional morals and expectations. As an unannounced arrangement, it offers the security of marriage while drawing a border around personal lifestyle.

Perhaps what is most striking is not just the fact the misyar marriage has re-emerged, but the fact that many women are accepting it. Like any contract, both parties enter an agreement because they perceive the benefits outweighing the losses. It may be argued that women entering into the clandestine agreement do so for financial purposes, which would be most obvious when looking at women from disadvantaged backgrounds who marry affluent Gulf men.

One needs to look further, however, when considering Gulf women who enter into the arrangement. Only then does the social function of misyar marriage become clearer. Socially, misyar may be a way for women to avoid spinsterhood, exercise personal freedoms such as working, driving or travelling, all the while entertaining romance in a morally legitimised setting.

While respecting the individual freedom of two consenting adults who enter into the contract, there are external consequences of the marriage that must be recognised. Reports of 400 abandoned Egyptian children born in misyar marriages are living proof of such consequences. Preserving the sanctity of society, misyar serves a temporary function, but it will not last long once our society reaches a balance.

That is what it is all about: balance. Steadying the scales between men and women's roles and expectations will stabilise these phenomena. The fast pace of development in our region has taken us by storm. Just as our ancestors have done so skilfully, we will adapt with the changes.

In the meantime, education and transparency are vital to our health as a society. Recognising and recording the instances and consequences of misyar and other arrangements is critical to our progress as a community.


Tofol al Nasr is a Qatari academic