More Emirati couples divorce before their wedding day
Meeting her future husband for the first time, Sara was too shy to look at him directly.
“At that time I was a girl and I felt shy to sit with my family and some guy. I only remember his feet. My head was down and I couldn’t look in his face, in his eyes,” she says. “All that I saw was his foot.”
In Sara’s family, it was unacceptable for an unrelated man and woman to spend time together before marriage. They spoke for the first time after the union was agreed. After that he phoned and visited her house regularly.
“He would come and he would sit and eat and talk to my brothers and watch TV and play the PlayStation – all of these silly things,” says Sara, an Emirati woman in her early twenties who did not want to give her real name. “I would sit with him like I was his sister.
“At that time I recognised that this was not what I wanted. This was not the right guy because his way of thinking was different than mine. He was not educated.”
Their marriage agreement ended two months after the contract was signed, and long before the wedding parties that would have sealed them as man and wife.
Yet while the marriage was never consummated, Sara is classed as a divorced women.
For Sara and other Emirati newlyweds like her, the honeymoon is over before it even begins.
Divorce statistics paint a bleak picture. Among Emirati couples in Dubai it increased by a third from 2010 to 2012, according to Dubai Courts. A 2008 study by the Sharjah Supreme Council for Family Affairs found 47 per cent of Emirati divorces happened in the first three years of marriage.
But the figures do not tell the full story. Not every divorce is necessarily a failed relationship or a broken family. A growing number of divorces happen before the wedding ceremony, during the period after the wedding contract has been signed and before the wedding night.
Just how many is hard to say, because official figures do not distinguish between these and other divorces.
Known as the “milcha period” between the signing of the marriage and the wedding party, this time can last weeks, but sometimes months or even years. And with divorce rates rising, so does the number of those who decide their new partner is not Mr or Mrs Right during the time before the marriage is consummated.
Courtship for Emirati couples usually does not begin until the engagement, or more often, until after the marriage contract, or milcha is signed. Only then can couples start to spend time together, chaperoned by relatives, talk on the phone and get to know each other.
Women seeking divorces before the wedding night often feel that the relationship will sour in future, despite risk of stigmatisation and financial loss. If a woman has the strength to request a divorce before the wedding party, her chances of remarriage are much higher because there has been no physical side to the relationship.
“In my casual conversations with young Emiratis about divorce, tales of couples who sought divorce even before the official wedding party were common, with many problems arising after disagreements concerning details related to the wedding party,” says Nicole Bromfield, an assistant professor in the department of social work at United Arab Emirates University, in an upcoming paper on Emirati divorce.
“Older Emiratis I spoke to informally repeated similar stories and some felt that the younger Emirati generation was overindulged and frivolous over serious life matters, which allowed them to find it acceptable to seek divorce over relatively small disagreements.
“Yet despite tales of divorce over seemingly trivial matters among younger Emiratis, divorce is a serious issue, especially for the bride.”
The expectation of lavish weddings is often attributed as the cause of divorce before marriage, but many women seek divorce because of concerns over long-term compatibility.
Financial problems, different education levels and controlling spouses were all cited in academic studies and interviews for this article as reasons to seek divorce before the wedding.
Also changing is the perception of divorce. Women’s greater financial independence gives them more confidence to say no to a husband they feel is unsuitable.
“Now there’s a chance for women to go to university, to work anywhere, so that gives the women in the UAE a chance to be more independent,” says Dr Fakir Al Gharaibeh, an associate professor of social work and social policy at Sharjah University. “The stigma of the divorce is not a big deal like before.”
He identified the desire to know more about the spouse as one of the main causes for divorce during a study of 1,742 Emirati women, sponsored by the Marriage Fund and released last year.
Dr Bromfield listed it as one of five factors for divorce in her study, which included 10 in-depth interviews with Emirati women. Two had divorced before the wedding party.
Women have the right to set terms of the marriage contract, such as the pursuit of education, but may be reluctant to do so if the groom is a virtual stranger.
“Sometimes a woman may feel pressured by her family not to ask for certain allowances in the marriage contract as it may be seen as being too demanding and independent,” says Dr Bromfield. “Several respondents mentioned that they should have asked for terms in the marriage contract but were too afraid of criticism to voice their opinions.”
Even when conditions are discussed, husbands can change their views. Sara’s husband, who had a grade 9 education, was initially supportive of her education but discouraged her from driving and completing her bachelor’s degree as the wedding approached.
Early divorcees said remarriage was easier when the first marriage was unconsummated. Even so, they described divorce as traumatic, with physical and psychological consequences.
After a marriage contract is signed, hundreds of guests are invited to the wedding, set at a later date. If it is cancelled, the community demands answers.
“I was preparing myself for the wedding but I didn’t feel like I’m the bride,” says an Abu Dhabi woman who divorced three weeks before her wedding. “Everything was ready. My dress, my home, everything. Only I was not ready.
“People kept asking me and asking him what happened. I didn’t want to tell everyone about him and my life. The full truth I can’t say to anyone. I didn’t want to say bad things about him in front of family.”
She divorced two years after signing the marriage contract. She suffered hair loss from stress during this time and only told her family something was wrong after she fainted from shock and stress.
“I still try to cope with it,” she says. “I’m not completely recovered. I’m not ready for another relationship now and when I see someone get married I feel afraid. I feel that they will suffer.”
Family counsellors typically advise that young couples need to work harder to make marriages work.
Despite the divorce rate, women continue to support arranged marriages because newlyweds receive family support, may already have a strong relationship with in-laws, and know more about the groom’s background.
Instead, divorcees advise women to make enquiries themselves and talk to prospective husbands before marriage, rather than rely entirely on family.
“I wasn’t allowed to talk to him before the milcha [contract],” says Sara. “If I was allowed to talk to him before the milcha, if I had talked to him once or twice I swear I would have known him and I would not have married him.
“It’s not shameful. I have to know him before I marry him because this is the man I will spend the rest of my life with.”
One suggestion is that learning to communicate with the opposite gender could make for better marriages.
“Young Emirati men and women have little chance to communicate with each other and thus do not have experience in learning how to navigate communication with each other,” notes Dr Bromfield in her study. “However, some families are allowing young betrothed couples to communicate via text message, telephone and/or email so that they may learn more about each other before the marriage.”
Dr Bromfield agrees that love marriages are not a solution here. Instead, she suggests delaying marriage could decrease the divorce rate because spouses would have a greater understanding of commitment.
The average age at which women in Abu Dhabi marry rose from 24.6 years in 2001 to 25.9 years in 2012.
“I feel it’s better to know each other but I knew him before the wedding and I was shocked,” says the Abu Dhabi divorcee. “Everyone says he’s nice and he’s the best one for you and I thought that too but what I saw was different.
“He’s lying about everything, so how I can continue this relationship? He was not a gentlemen. If I had stayed with him I would have continued the relationship and we would have had a divorce.
“I hated this man. What kind of a chance was there?”
Updated: January 26, 2014 04:00 AM