A proposal Saudis can't refuse
It may be the world's most puritanical kingdom but there are still legal ways to have sex on the side
Saudi Arabia's conservative society stands divided on the issue of misyar, a no-strings marriage of convenience that has become increasingly popular in the kingdom.
Misyar is a form of marriage that allows couples to live separately but come together for sexual relations. For the women who accept it – spinsters, divorcees and widows – it's a something-is- better-than- nothing option, though they waive almost all the rights that a normal Muslim marriage entitles them to. For men it offers an opportunity for a bit of fun on the side, in secret, and at a huge discount.
Reasons for popularity of misyar include the high cost of marriage – the dowry, several dinners, parties, decoration of a flat or a villa and the honeymoon. All this may set back the groom by several hundred thousand riyals. Misyar for cash-strapped men is a boon.
Hamdan, a Saudi colleague of mine back in Jeddah – distraught and depressed after the break-up of his first marriage – entered into a succession of misyar marriages. None lasted for more than six months. He confided that he had hoped to find a compatible partner for a permanent relationship but it didn't work out. He also said that misyar wives are crafty and inclined to extract money and gifts. In his words: misyar marriages are not cost-effective. The colleague is now married again – in a normal marriage – and hopes to live happily ever after.
Thanks to Bluetooth technology, friendly websites and an abundance of furnished apartments in major cities like Riyadh and Jeddah, there are tales of misyar wives who have clandestinely entered into more than one misyar contract. These enlightened ladies say misyar husbands never tell their full-time wives about their relationships so why can't misyar wives have similar arrangements? Clerics view this as a dangerous trend.
Website ads for misyar marriages often reveal the immaturity and desperation of those looking for partners:
• Young man, 21, excellent monthly income, seeks marriage as soon as possible to single girls up to 70 kgs, living in Jeddah.
• Saudi clerk, 38, from a well-known family, seeks pretty, white, delicate, businesswoman or clerk for misyar marriage. With Allah's help, if things work out, the marriage will be official.
• Accountant, 30, seeks misyar marriage with Saudi woman. Age, experience, number of children, widow or single or divorced unimportant. What is important is her ability to satisfy the needs of a man who desires things permitted by religion (halal).
Misyar is popular in the kingdom because in a society where extramarital and premarital sex is a cardinal sin it legitimizes sexual relations outside the framework of conventional marriage. It was legalised through a fatwa (religious edict) issued by late Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz, then the chief mufti of Saudi Arabia . 'Urfi (unofficial marriage) in Egypt and muta'h (temporary marriage) in Iran are variations on the same idea.
The Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights says misyar is an insult to both men and women and a sanction for the trafficking of women. Clerical opinions vary.
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based Egyptian scholar, says:
Misyar should be viewed as a form of legal relationship between man and woman regardless of any description attached to it ... But I do have to make it clear that the aforementioned statement does not make me a protagonist of misyar marriage ... There is no doubt that such marriage may be somehow socially unacceptable, but there is a big difference between what is Islamically valid and what is socially acceptable.
Emirates-based scholar Sheikh Ahmad al-Kubaisi says that while misyar marriage is correct Islamically, it also compromises some values. Al-Kubaisi believes that misyar can solve the high rate of spinsterhood in the Arab countries:
The only difference (with a normal marriage) is that the woman abandons voluntarily her right to housing and support money. There is nothing wrong in relinquishing one's own rights.
In 2006, after years of deliberation and a fair degree of dissent, the Mecca-based Muslim World League's constituent body, the Islamic Jurisprudence Council ruled that misyar marriage was legal. Samirah, a Saudi media personality (not her real name) described the decision as unfortunate. She thought the jurists had a difficult problem to resolve but this wasn't the best way out. Rula Dashti, head of the Kuwaiti Economic Society describes misyar as an arrangement that destroys the fundamentals of family. Ghada Jamshir, a Bahraini activist who lobbies for reduction of clerical influence in family affairs, thinks liberals should object to misyar marriages.
To misyar or not to misyar? Saudi society is certainly confused on this issue, as is apparent from the following conversation reported in a Saudi newspaper:
Years ago, I overheard one of my son's friends talking about marriage and girls and he asked: 'Why buy a cow when milk is free?' They were talking about loose girls and there not being any need for marriage with them around," said a university professor.
With misyar marriage, haven't we just legalized the 'why-buy-the- milk-when- the-cow-is- free' syndrome? And we are supposed to be civilized?
In Islam all acts – including misyar – are judged and will be judged on the merit of motives and intentions.