Traditionally, the ideal marriage was tribal, related families encouraging their offspring to marry cousins or other relatives in order to increase and strengthen the tribe, or occasionally to marry into another tribe in order to heal rifts between families. Another reason for such marriages was that families knew the background of the partner.
As is the case in some Latin countries, young couples in the region are allowed to meet under the watchful eye of a chaperon. In some of the stricter Gulf societies, however, the marriage is arranged without any part of the female partner’s body (including her face) having been seen by the prospective groom, who must rely on the reports of his female relatives as to his wife’s appearance.
The marriage contract (aqd al-qirah)
There are three main elements in an Arab marriage. First, the groom must discuss and agree the dowry (mahr) with the bride’s father. This might include gold, jewellery and clothing and is usually of considerable value. After the dowry settlement comes the actual marriage contract, which is conducted by a legal or religious representative. The bride is asked in the absence of the prospective groom if she agrees to the marriage and this question is then put to the groom. After agreement, the groom joins hands with his future father-in-law and, with two witnesses present, the marriage becomes official. However, there’s another stage before the couple actually meet as man and wife: the wedding party. Celebrations are segregated, with the women in one section of the house and the men in another. Finally, on the last night of celebrations, the couple meet, accompanied by all their friends, and eventually leave on their honeymoon. On their return, they either set up home with the groom’s parents and become members of the extended family or – as is increasingly the case – set up home by themselves.
According to Sharia law, a Muslim man may have four wives, provided that he can look after them materially and treats them equally. This practice is now dying out, however, not only because only a few can afford it, but also because women are becoming more independent and assertive and many refuse to accept it. In fact, a Muslim woman can insert a clause in the marriage contract that restricts her husband from marrying another woman for as long as the contract is valid. The wife also retains her own name after marriage. Although gender roles have always been clearly defined in the Islamic world, with the man as ‘provider’ and the woman as ‘nurturer’, both man and wife are increasingly going out to work, although this is much less common in Saudi Arabia, where there are restrictions on women working, except in culturally ‘acceptable’ occupations such as medicine and teaching. However, many Saudi men are reluctant to marry doctors and nurses, who have been exposed to male bodies.
A man can divorce his wife simply by saying ‘I divorce you’ three times. This is called talaq (that is, the formula of repudiation). He can rescind the divorce if this was done in the heat of the moment, but only if the wife agrees (and only on three occasions!). On the other hand, even if a wife has good reason to seek a divorce (e.g. if her husband has been unfaithful, abused or deserted her, or engaged in criminal activity), she must go to a court for the case to be heard. This right of her is called khula. The husband must maintain a divorced wife and any children from the marriage if the wife is unable to support herself. He can claim custody of any sons when they reach the age of ten. A female divorcee usually returns to her family, and few remarry.
Although a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim man unless he converts to Islam, the reverse isn’t the case. However, non-Muslim women are often pressurised into converting, and there have been many cases of foreign women marrying Arabs and then discovering that the local culture and lifestyle are unacceptably restrictive. It should also be noted that, in the event of the breakdown of such a union, the children are usually kept by the husband in his home country.
Marriage for expats
Expatriate workers can usually be married in the Gulf, provided that they meet the civil and religious requirements of their home country. Embassy and consulate staff sometimes perform civil marriage ceremonies, again provided that certain requirements are met. Religious ceremonies can be arranged, but only in countries that allow churches or similar non-Muslim places of worship. This isn’t the case in Saudi Arabia. If people of different nationalities marry, the authorities sometimes scrutinise the circumstances (i.e. the couple must present a certificate proving that they are free to get wed) to ensure that marriages of convenience aren’t taking place in order to circumvent immigration requirements.