We disapprove of adultery but it happens quite a lot

Disapproving of infidelity will not alone stop it from taking place in the Arab world, argues Sarah Khamis

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It is fair to say that we officially disapprove of infidelity. This is a Muslim country and adultery is considered the tenth greatest sin in Islam. But disapproval of something does not mean that it doesn’t happen. In fact, one of the chief complaints I received on social media about an earlier piece I wrote on rising levels of divorce in this country was that adultery was not cited as a significant reason.

“Most couples I know who are divorced is because of adultery, I’m surprised that wasn’t mentioned in the article,” was one Facebook comment.

“Men still looking for other woman (2nd or 3rd wife), affairs or sex partners,” was another.

“Facts missing (in your piece),” tweeted a third, “high men infidelity rate.”

Most of the social media responses that mentioned adultery were from Emirati women, prompting three questions: is it true that extramarital affairs are one of the main reasons for rising levels of divorce? And if so, are more Emirati men being unfaithful to their wives? Or is it that more women are unwilling to put up with such behaviour from their husbands?

Marriage counsellors privately admit that infidelity is one of the main reasons that couples are divorcing today. According to one counsellor, who asked not to be named, roughly half of all her cases end in divorce on grounds of infidelity. The problem is that in the past, men married and remarried quite easily because Islam allows four wives at any one time. But now, many women don’t accept this and refuse to be one of many wives. They consider this to be infidelity and an insult, explained the counsellor, and ask for a divorce. If there is a divorce, it may lead some men into relationships with multiple women.

The counsellor’s insights seemed to indicate that those social media responses to my article were right and adultery really was an important reason for rising divorce rates.

The issue needs to be looked at in the light of great social and technological change. In 2010, an article in the American University in Cairo publication Arab Media & Society noted: “In a conformist society like Egypt, opposite sexes generally interact and mingle only within the limited confines of socially acceptable norms. However, with the growing use of mobile phone messaging, as well as the attraction of anonymous web chat rooms and electronic social networking websites like Facebook, the once customary barriers dividing men and women are eroding.” The article quoted government figures that roughly 40 per cent of Egyptian internet users admitted “to having at least one ‘deceitful’ cyber relationship”.

The same thing is happening in other parts of the region. Easy access to the internet, mobile chat and social media have made the world much smaller and exposed us to different cultures. Many men and women want to imitate the western world and have intimate relationships outside marriage or sex before marriage.

In our culture, the popular image of a “real man” is still that of someone who does what he wants and is not afraid of his wife. So peer pressure can push married men into having girlfriends.

But what drives women to commit adultery? Here, like in other parts of the world, it can sometimes be out of anger at her husband’s unfaithfulness. Sometimes, it is triggered by an oppressive marriage.

The Arab world as a whole disapproves of adultery more than most cultures. Consider the findings of a mid-1990s International Social Survey Programme, a cross-national collaboration on topics important for social science research. It looked at 24 industrialised countries and reported that 80 per cent of Americans considered infidelity to be always wrong. So did conservative Catholic populations like the Philippines (88 per cent) and Ireland (80 per cent). Israel recorded 73 per cent, while Australia returned a figure of 59 per cent.

In our country, I think, even today, disapproval would run at nearly 100 per cent. But as we started by saying, disapproval of something does not mean that it doesn’t happen.

Sarah Khamis is The National’s social media editor


On Twitter: @SarahKhamisUAE