Bahrain: Temporary marriages over email and text messaging

WUNRN via IPS News
Internet and mobile phones have spawned a new kind of marriage in the Gulf.
Young couples are saying "I do" via email and text messages in the presence of two witnesses - a practice, which like the older informal marriages of Mut'a' and Misyar, has no legal approval.
Muta'a or pleasure in Arabic is a 14-centuries-old marriage custom that is common among Shiites. Misyar, which can be traced to some 10 years ago, is prevalent among Sunni Arabs.

In a Misyar marriage, which is official with the couple signing a marriage document that has no legal validity, the woman has to verbally agree to surrender some or all her marital rights like having children, living with her husband or being financially supported by him.

"All these types of marriages, old or new, are basically for sexual relations since marriage as an institution is for the creation of a family and strong social bonding," says Saba Al Asfoor, activist and member of the Bahrain Women Association for Human Development. "In our men-oriented society, (it is) women who bear the consequences, not their partners," she told IPS.

In Saba's opinion women agree to Muta'a and Misyar, which have religious sanctity, because of their particular circumstances. "Many women accept the sexual exploitation to be able to deal with financial problems or take care of needy families," she says. "Rich women agree to such a marriage to avoid being called spinsters, which is a demeaning word in this part of the world."

She believes the strong hold of patriarchy here leaves women with no choices. "We cannot hold the woman as the only person responsible for such marriages," she says. "It is society that gives men powers over women, and discriminates against women's rights."

The Bahrain Women Association has experience in dealing with women victims of temporary marriages, who, for instance, were married to foreigners and their children are stateless. Laws here do not allow a woman to give her child citizenship rights.

"We cannot stop those marriages, but the Association is trying to enhance awareness among women of their right to lead dignified and discrimination-free lives. It is also dedicated to giving them a helping hand," says Saba. Shiite scholar, Shaikh Mohsen Al Asfoor who is a judge in the High Cassation Court of Bahrain, the highest court, defends the religious sanctity given to Muta’a, which he says was prevalent in the early years of Islam when men were in the army and had to travel far away from their homes.

"There is nothing wrong or harmful with Muta’a if it would be implemented according to Islamic principles, as this type of marriages is useful in many cases," he said in an interview with IPS.

With most marriages arranged by family members, it could be useful for couples who are engaged and want to get to know each other without committing a sin, he says. Also, Islam permits women travelling alone to enter a temporary marriage. In his long experience as a judge, he knows of only four cases of Muta'a where women have suffered, he says.

"Islam forbids minor and immature women from being involved in Muta’a to protect them from entering harmful relations," Shaikh Mohsen adds.

However, Najma Rustom, an orthodox Shiite, says religious scholars need to clarify the conditions of temporary marriages for women. "Ordinary people don’t know there are restrictions, so they end up getting married for fun because it is allowed in Islam," she told IPS.

Temporary marriages can also be risky from the point of view of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS, warns Dr Sumaya Al Jowder, head of the National Sexually Transmitted Diseases Programme. She thinks Muta'a marriages are particularly risky. "Misyar is an official (not legal) marriage, couples have to conduct a pre-marriage test to get married, while Muta’a is unofficial and could be done verbally without the signing of documents, so a medical test is not a requirement," she told IPS.

Two cases of HIV/AIDS reported last year in Bahrain involved a man and woman, both in separate Muta'a arrangements. "We are not involved in telling scholars what is right or not, just that we care about the health of the public, so compulsory pre-marriage tests should be imposed on temporary marriages … and there is need for greater awareness about safe sex among young couples," says Dr Sumaya.

Former legislator and Sunni Scholar, Shaikh Ali Muttar, criticised Misyar marriages for exploiting women and depriving them of their rights to lead normal married lives.

"Some men take advantage of older women who want to get married by agreeing to a marriage with conditions, such as not providing them with money to run the house or only visiting them for a couple of hours every day," he told IPS. He said that Islam doesn't approve the maltreatment of women.

Shaikh Mattar was also very scathing about "temporary marriages" that rich Gulf students entered into while studying abroad. "Many of these men go for what they call travel marriages, in which they cut all relations with their wives and children after going back to their own countries."

Nasima, a successful teacher, lives with the pain of a Misyar marriage that failed. She married her already married childhood sweetheart after accepting his condition that only a few close relatives and friends can be told of their wedding. She also agreed to see him for only a few hours a day. "Everything was fine until his wife came to know and he divorced me to please her," she told IPS.

Temporary marriages only harm women, emotionally and physically, she cries. Young women in chat rooms beware!

By Suad Hamada

6 August 2009

Source: WUNRN via IPS News