Traditional 'temporary marriages' are now a permanent problem

Once promoted as a solution to the "spinsterhood problem", misyar may end up doing society more harm than good.

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Recently I wrote an article about spinsterhood in Arab Gulf nations. The article touched on how "anoosa" - women remaining single - was viewed as a growing problem linked to excessive marriage costs, and an increasing number of Gulf men marrying foreign women.

Several initiatives have attempted to address this issue, from marriage funds supporting local men marrying local women, to restrictions and disincentives aimed at trying to reduce the number of Gulf men marrying foreigners.

However, with such complex social issues, sometimes apparent solutions usher in their own new problems. In extreme cases, panaceas become plagues.

One of the more controversial proposals advocated to address the anoosa issue, particularly in Saudi Arabia, has been the reintroduction of an old practice known as zawaaj al misyar. The term is often translated as "the visitor's marriage" and has been historically associated with merchants.

Whatever the term's exact origins, the misyar marriage is essentially founded on the understanding that the husband has no financial obligations towards his wife beyond the "mahar", or bridal gift. He also doesn't need to provide accommodation or even cohabitate; he simply visits her at his convenience. Misyar brides often remain in their parents' home.

One interpretation of misyar is that it provides men with the benefits of marriage without any of the responsibilities. Misyar marriages, like conventional Islamic marriages, require the presence of a guardian, two witnesses and mutual consent.

Perhaps understandably, the misyar marriage tends to be a low-key affair, neither publicly nor lavishly celebrated, as is typical with conventional Gulf weddings. Official data on the topic are hard to come by, but anecdotal reports suggest the majority of misyar marriages are contracted by married men seeking additional wives.

So why would any woman opt for such an arrangement? One of the main reasons given is the threat of "terminal spinsterhood", and also the difficulty some Gulf women experience attempting to remarry after divorce or widowhood. In short, misyar is considered when the prospects for a conventional marriage appear minimal to non-existent.

For this reason, misyar is generally viewed as a last resort. One Saudi blogger suggests some women enter into misyar with a misguided romantic notion that they will win the heart of their new spouse, who, once smitten, will publicly declare his affection and treat her with the full rights of a conventionally married wife.

In recent years, particularly in Saudi Arabia, there has been a huge proliferation of websites offering misyar matrimonial services. Some feel this has led to an increase in misyar marriages, and also abuse of the practice. What was a well intentioned solution, aiming to facilitate marriage between individuals experiencing real-world difficulties, has become for some an opportunity for exploitation.

Islamic scholars have long disagreed on the status of misyar marriage, with highly respected and prominent individuals on both sides of the debate. However, even those who declare it permissible generally see it as a detestable practice: legal, but not moral, some suggest.

Arguments against misyar generally focus on the familial and social consequences, particularly on the children of such unions, who will potentially grow up in fatherless households.

Again, hard data are not available, but the regional media suggest divorce rates as high as 80 per cent for misyar marriages. Most reports, however, say nothing about the duration. So, is misyar being abused as a form of temporary marriage?

Once promoted as a solution to the "spinsterhood problem", misyar now looks as though it may end up doing society more harm than good, especially if the practice is allowed to become widely abused. In the worst-case scenario, men who might have once chosen to marry conventionally will begin to opt for misyar: all of the rights with few of the responsibilities.

Granted, in such a scenario there would be fewer "spinsters", but only at the cost of women denying themselves their full rights as wives, children growing up in fatherless homes and significantly elevated rates of divorce.

Justin Thomas is an assistant psychology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi

On Twitter: @jaytee156