MARRIAGE IN ASIA

MARRIAGE IN ASIA

For Westerners, marriage choices tend to be based on individual notions of love or romance, or at least that is how we see it. But in much of China, marriage is, first and foremost, about family and community. In most of Asia, marriage is widespread and illegitimacy almost unknown. Divorce, though rising in some countries, remains comparatively rare. In contrast, half of marriages in some Western countries end in divorce, and half of all children are born outside wedlock. [Source: The Economist; Brook Larmer, New York Times, May 3, 2010]

Asians have traditionally regarded marriages as a bonding of families rather than individuals. People are not seen in the Christian view as individual children of God but rather as members of family. These ideas are at least partly rooted in ancestor worship and Confucianism.

Marriages are not religious events in Buddhism. Sometimes monks are invited so the couple and their relatives can obtain religious merit. The event is sanctioned by the community and relatives and often oriented as much to show respect for parents as sanction the union between a man and woman.

Arranged marriages are common. These days arranged marriages are yielding to Western-style "love matches" among the young middle classes. Traditional marriage patterns have also been altered by the increased number of working women and women seeking careers.

Polygamy was one common place in Asia. Arab sheikhs and eastern potentates often sired 500 children or more.

Changing Marriage Patterns in Asia

In 2011 The Economist reported: “Marriage is changing fast in East, South-East and South Asia, even though each region has different traditions. The changes are different from those that took place in the West in the second half of the 20th century... What's happening in Asia is a flight from marriage.[Source: The Economist, August 20, 2011]

“Marriage rates are falling partly because people are postponing getting hitched. Marriage ages have risen all over the world, but the increase is particularly marked in Asia. People there now marry even later than they do in the West. The mean age of marriage in the richest places---Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong---has risen sharply in the past few decades, to reach 29-30 for women and 31-33 for men. [Ibid]

“A lot of Asians are not marrying later. They are not marrying at all. Almost a third of Japanese women in their early 30s are unmarried; probably half of those will always be. Over one-fifth of Taiwanese women in their late 30s are single; most will never marry. In some places, rates of non-marriage are especially striking: in Bangkok, 20 percent of 40-44-year old women are not married; in Tokyo, 21 percent; among university graduates of that age in Singapore, 27 percent. So far, the trend has not affected Asia's two giants, China and India. But it is likely to, as the economic factors that have driven it elsewhere in Asia sweep through those two countries as well; and its consequences will be exacerbated by the sex-selective abortion practised for a generation there. By 2050, there will be 60 million more men of marriageable age than women in China and India. [Ibid]

”Women are retreating from marriage as they go into the workplace. That's partly because, for a woman, being both employed and married is tough in Asia. Women there are the primary caregivers for husbands, children and, often, for ageing parents; and even when in full-time employment, they are expected to continue to play this role. This is true elsewhere in the world, but the burden that Asian women carry is particularly heavy. Japanese women, who typically work 40 hours a week in the office, then do, on average, another 30 hours of housework. Their husbands, on average, do three hours. And Asian women who give up work to look after children find it hard to return when the offspring are grown. Not surprisingly, Asian women have an unusually pessimistic view of marriage. According to a survey carried out this year, many fewer Japanese women felt positive about their marriage than did Japanese men, or American women or men. [Ibid]

”At the same time as employment makes marriage tougher for women, it offers them an alternative. More women are financially independent, so more of them can pursue a single life that may appeal more than the drudgery of a traditional marriage. More education has also contributed to the decline of marriage, because Asian women with the most education have always been the most reluctant to wed---and there are now many more highly educated women.” [Ibid]

Costs of Few Asian Marriages and What Can Be Done About It

According to The Economist, “The flight from marriage in Asia is thus the result of the greater freedom that women enjoy these days, which is to be celebrated. But it is also creating social problems. Compared with the West, Asian countries have invested less in pensions and other forms of social protection, on the assumption that the family will look after ageing or ill relatives. That can no longer be taken for granted. The decline of marriage is also contributing to the collapse in the birth rate. Fertility in East Asia has fallen from 5.3 children per woman in the late 1960s to 1.6 now. In countries with the lowest marriage rates, the fertility rate is nearer 1.0. That is beginning to cause huge demographic problems, as populations age with startling speed. And there are other, less obvious issues. Marriage socialises men: it is associated with lower levels of testosterone and less criminal behaviour. Less marriage might mean more crime. [Source: The Economist, August 20, 2011]

”Can marriage be revived in Asia? Maybe, if expectations of those roles of both sexes change; but shifting traditional attitudes is hard. Governments cannot legislate away popular prejudices. They can, though, encourage change. Relaxing divorce laws might, paradoxically, boost marriage. Women who now steer clear of wedlock might be more willing to tie the knot if they know it can be untied---not just because they can get out of the marriage if it doesn't work, but also because their freedom to leave might keep their husbands on their toes. Family law should give divorced women a more generous share of the couple's assets. Governments should also legislate to get employers to offer both maternal and paternal leave, and provide or subsidise child care. If taking on such expenses helped promote family life, it might reduce the burden on the state of looking after the old. [Ibid]

”Asian governments have long taken the view that the superiority of their family life was one of their big advantages over the West. That confidence is no longer warranted. They need to wake up to the huge social changes happening in their countries and think about how to cope with the consequences. “ [Ibid]

Traditional Chinese Marriages

In the late imperial era there were four kinds of marriages: 1) major marriages between a young man and women, involving the payment of a bride-price and a dowry paid by both the groom and bride’s family; 2) minor marriages, in which girls were betrothed at a young age and brought up as a “daughter” in her future husband’s family; 3) uxorilocal marriage, in which a man was transferred to a young woman’s household; and 4) delayed-transfer, in which a woman remained in her family after marriage until her first child was born

In the minor marriages, the girl was forced to have sex with her foster brother when they became teenagers. This custom was mainly done in the south as a way to avoid costly bride-price and dowry payments. Uxorilocal marriage was a way of provided a son for a family that didn’t have any. Delayed transfer marriages were practiced mainly in Guangdong, where the custom was widely practiced by ethic minorities living there.

Confucian customs emphasized moral purity. According to Confucian teaching a woman was supposed to only get married once in her lifetime. Young widows who refused to marry again were often memorialized with their names inscribed on the walls of a temple. Confucius said that individuals with the same name could not marry.

In China there is a tradition of a man making a gift to woman’s family in exchange for marriage. In traditional marriages, the bride’s spouse was chosen by her father. The marriage process began with an exchange of letters between the father of the groom and the father of the bride, followed by an exchange of presents such as golden chopsticks, food and animals.

Arranged Marriages and Matchmakers in China

Traditionally, families had more say in regard to a marriage than the man and woman who were getting married. In the old days, young men and women that liked one another were not allowed to meet freely together. Young people who put their wishes for a mate above the wishes of their parents were considered immoral.

Marriages have traditionally been regarded as unions between families with matches being made by elders who met to discuss the character of potential mates and decide whether or not a they should get married. Marriages that are arranged to varying degrees are still common and traditional considerations still plays a part in deciding who marries whom. One matchmaker told the Los Angeles Times, “Marriage is for the parents, the society and future generations. It’s not about happiness or love.”

Up until a century ago marriage registry forms required the seal of an “introducer.” In the old days, arranged marriages among the upper classes were intended to firm up a family's social position and status and extend the family's social network. Rich men could have as many wives as they could afford. Many marriages were worked out when the bride and groom were still children. Occasionally this occurred before they were born if two families were intent on forming a union.

A traditional Chinese marriage was often set up by a matchmaker hired by the parents when potential bride and groom reached marriageable age. In their search, the matchmakers took various things into consideration: education, family background, and a kind of fortunetelling based on year, date and time of birth. One saying that dates back to the 7th century B.C. goes: “How do you split firewood? Without an ax it can’t be done. How do you go about finding a wife? Without a go-between it can’t be done.”

In a marriage arranged by a matchmaker, the matchmaker hosts a tea where the young couple meet for the first time. The young woman serves tea to the young man and his relatives. If the man likes the woman he can propose marriage by offering her an embroidered red bag on the saucer in which the cup or tea was served. If the woman accepts the saucer she accepts the proposal and the couple is engaged.

Arranged Marriages in Japan

Parents looking for a wife for their son Japanese have traditional regarded marriages as a bonding of families rather than individuals, and this is especially the case with Miai kekon (arranged marriages).

Prospective partners are chosen on the basis of education level, family position, and compatibility determined by Chinese astrology and numerology. The search, research and introduction were traditionally made by nakodas (honored go-betweens, usually older, respected married couples).

In the 1950s, about 70 percent of all marriages were arranged. In 1973, the figure was only 37 percent. Today only around 10 percent are. Arranged marriages today are worked out by professional matchmakers, nakodas, fortune tellers and detectives that specialize in marriage partners.

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was married in 1978 to the 21-year-old daughter of the chairman of a major drug company. Their first date lasted an afternoon and an evening and Koizumi proposed the next day. Four months later they were married. The meeting was arranged by then-Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda and the wedding dates were set to meet his schedule. Koizumi’s wife later told the Asahi Shimbun "I did not known know anything about him...I had heard he had a large stack of photographs of prospective brides, so I thought it was a real honor just to be chosen by him." Koizumi was divorced in 1982 when his wife was six months pregnant.

In the old days families of the prospective partners met to size up each other and pursued the marriages like trade partners working out a business deal. If the couple liked each other and the union of their families was regarded as advantageous the couple dated until their engagement was formally announced and betrothal gifts were formally exchanged.

Today, prospective couples get together at arranged meetings with chaperons after they have been selected for one another. It is not unusual for a women to attend 50 such meetings before finding the right man. Couples that have three or four formal meetings and still like each other after that often end up getting married.

Marriage in Thailand

Polygamy used to be practiced in Thailand but it is not really any more. In a 2001 Time sex survey 78 percent of males and 82 percent of females said that monogamy was important to them and 32 percent of males and 25 percent of females said it was important to marry a virgin.

Love marriages rather than arranged marriages and Western-style dating is the norm in urban Thailand. in rural areas the custom of arranged marriages persists. A typical marriage is preceded by a courting period that can last from several weeks to several years. Couples often meet at school, work, festivals or family gatherings. Parents make an efforts to get to known their child’s boyfriends or girlfriends to judge their character. Parental consent and the payment of a brideprice are generally needed before a wedding can take place.

Marriages have traditionally been regarded as unions of families. In many cases, a senior relative from the groom’s family formally asks bride’s parents for her hand in marriage. If the bride’s family agrees, the brideprice and the wedding date are fixed. Sometimes, if the brideprice is too high, the couple secretly sleep together at the bride’s home and the parents are forced to approve the marriage to avoid losing face.

Some single rural men in Japan are choosing wives based on pictures from catalogs of poor women in the Philippines, Thailand, Korea, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China and even Brazil and Peru. The men usually travel to the home country of the women, who invariable can't speak Japanese,

Traditional Marriage Customs in Thailand

Buddhist have never been big on marriage and wedding ceremonies. In the past a man who wanted to marry a young women moved in with her family and worked for her family for a period of around two years. If if all went well he was given permission t marry the young woman. Even today, in many cases, only wealthy and middle class families have weddings. Other couples simply live together until they are considered married.

During the two-year “bride service,” the young man usually lived in a separate dwelling and attended a local monastery and served there as a monk for at least a few months. When his monk service was finished the man was regarded as morally prepared for marriage. Often, after that the young man began building a house for himself and his bride that would be furnished by his father-in-law.

The time and date of a wedding has traditionally been set by an astrologer or fortuneteller. Auspicious months include the ninth month because it is associated with wealth and progress and even lunar months with the exception the 10th and 12th months. On the evening before the wedding the couple is purified by an even number of monks who sprinkle holy water on the couple while sutras are chanted.

After marriage, a couple usually lives with the bride’s family, or sometimes the groom’s family for a period of time before they can afford their own house. In recent years as housing has become more expensive the trend has been for couples to stay with their parents longer rather than shorter periods of times.

Hindu Marriage

According to the Hindu scholar Dr. Krishna Nath Chatterjuee, “The purpose of the Hindu marriage is to have sexual relations, continuity of race, and discharging of religion, and social duties...In terms of the Hindu stages of life, marriage is the key to the second stage, that of the householder.” See Religion.

Hindus believe that marriage is a "holy, indissoluble union of families as well as individuals." A Hindu marriage ceremony signifies the occupation of a new house. This tradition date back to Aryan era hundred of years before Christ. Producing a son is one of the primary aims of a marriage.

Rama and Sita, the hero and heroine of the epic Ramayana, are considered the ideal married couple. Sita remained faithful to Rama even though she was separated from him for many years. Unmarried girls perform prayer rituals, called vrata, that involve fasting on a weekly basis, taking an early morning bath and picking certain flowers and leaves and pouring water over Shiva and chanting, "May I have a husband like Rama/ May I have a father-in-law like Dasharatha/ May I have a mother-in-law like Kaushalya/May I have a brother-in-law like Lakshmana/ May I be a wife like Sita.”

Marriage is regarded as necessity to continue the family line. Any man or woman who is not married or doesn’t have children is regarded as incomplete. Children are also necessary to conduct rites for family members who have died. Marriages have traditionally taken place when the couple is very young. Girls are expected to be virgins when they get married. In India, it is common for a dowry (bride-wealth) to be paid to the bride’s family.

The Indian writer and scholar Chitra Divakaruni wrote in Atlantic, "Marriage is a serious and pragmatic commitment in the traditional Indian context involving significant financial transactions and requiring the blessing of parents and grandparents.” A Tamil poet one wrote: “With a good wife, what is lacking? Lacking the wife, what is good?”

Kanya is word used to describe virginity. It is equated with purity, an important element of Hinduism. A woman can only marry if she is pure. A divorced or widowed woman is no longer pure. She is polluted. If she ,married she would pollute the man she is married to. Parents who present a pure daughter to marriage earn great merit.

Arranged Marriages in India and South Asia

It is estimated that 80 percent of all marriages in South Asia are arranged by the bride and groom's parents. Many future spouses have never meet each other before they are introduced by their parents. Even so arranged marriages have a very high success rate. There are fewer divorces with arranged marriages than with love marriages.

The wedding is regarded as the beginning of a relationship rather than the culmination of one. Couples look forward to the future as an opportunity for their relationship to grow and love to develop. Partners are not expected to be great lovers and soul mates but rather people who are reliable and complementary. Parents are often regarded as better judges of character, common interests and comparability than the prospective partners themselves.

Marriages have traditionally been arranged by parents of the same caste in different villages between young people who have never met. In the old days parents had more say over their children's future spouse than their children did. Once a couple decided that they wanted to get married they were not allowed to date or meet each other between the engagement and the wedding day. Even today romance plays little part in selected a mate, and many young people say they are opposed to courtship and they trust their parent’s judgment rather than their own when it comes to selecting a mate. [Source: Molly Moore, Washington Post]

The days when arranged marriages involved parents decreeing who would marry whom and then haggling over the dowry are largely gone among the middle class. Even though there is little dating or courting initiated by the prospective mates they have the power to accept or reject the choices made for them.

Sentiments About Arranged Marriages in South Asia

Explaining why he entered a marriage arranged by his mother, one Indian-born, American-educated Rajput man living in New York, told the New York Times, "I had mixed feelings with the concept. I didn't think I would necessarily go through with it. But my reservations got pushed to the side when I met her. I had an incredible feeling that this was the right thing to do."

Explaining why she would entered an arranged marriage Indian-born, American-educated Shalmali Pal wrote in Newsweek, "In the end I'm just lazy. Marrying an Indian means a lot less explaining...Marriages strike me as stressful enough...Fitting in to a family with ties that are several time zones away could be to much to ask."

One young Indian-American man told Newsday, "My parents are the two people in the world who know me best, both my strengths and weaknesses. Why wouldn't I want their input in the most important decision in my life."

One woman told The Times, “Marriage is a lottery, whether it is a love marriage or arranged. All you can do is get a “sense” of what the person is like and a gut feeling for whether you want to give it a try or not. I met my husband alone only once and agreed to marry him. I trusted my parents.”

Choosing an Arranged Marriage Partner in South Asia

Indians are very practical about marriage and the union of bride and groom is often seen as a merger of business and family. Caste, income levels, education and astrology are all taken into consideration. Astrology is given a lot of weight. Indians believe mismatched stars can cause a lifetime of trouble.

The arranged marriage process usually begins when word is sent out that a family is looking for a rishta (union or alliance). Uncles, aunts, grandparents and family friends are often as active as parents in the search for a mate. Chitra Divakaruni wrote in Newsday, family members "consult extensively with the bride or groom to be and find out what they would like in a partner...Then, keeping in mind their offsprings; interests, temperament and family background, they sound out feelers into the community.” Height is an important consideration. Sometimes as important as income.

Indian women regard men who are charted accountants, managers and company secretaries to be good catches. The status of software engineers rises and falls with the tech economy. One astrologer told Newsweek, "The father of the bride considers the bridegroom's education and earning potential, the mother considered the groom's manners, the groom ponders the bride's beauty and charming personality---and the relatives just want to enjoy a nice dinner."

Newspaper Marriage Notices in South Asia

The pages of the major urban Sunday newspapers are filled with filled with hundreds of matrimonial advertisements used by young men and women, and their parents, to search for the prefect mate. Parents are usually the ones that take out the ads and respond to them.

The matrimonial listings in The Times of India are organized according to caste, language and religion, with special categories for "Doctors," "Working Girls," and "Defence" (army families). They also have their own special nomenclature. "Homey" means a good housemaker; an "innocent divorcee" is someone from an unconsummated marriage. "Wheatish" is a skin color, " doshas" are weak star positions. "Caste no bar" means that caste is not a concern although in reality it usually is.

A Catholic education is so prized that "convent educated" is listed in matrimonial ads as a virtue highly sought after by well-to-do families. Women over 25 are considered over the hill. Admitting that a woman is that old is accompanied by assertion that she looks younger than her age or has been spending her time getting educated.

Some typical arranged marriage ads: "Parents of extremely beautiful, very fair, homey, talented Hindu Khatri girl, 21, MA fine arts, invite correspondence from smart, highly educated officer or professional status businessman from highly placed family. Only cultured, respected, educated and well placed families need correspond." [Source: Molly Moore, Washington Post]

Fair handsome sincere Punjabi Brahman Bank Manager seeks well educated employed partner having strong family values. Issueless widower having curable accidental burn marks on forearms but no concessions offered." [Source: Molly Moore, Washington Post]

Really beautiful very slim tall BE/ME (Comp/Electronic) MCA girl from reputed Hindi family...for Vaish (Madheiya), very fair handsome boy 29/180/65 M. Tech Software Eng. in USA on H-1 visa coming India next month. Early marriage. [Source: Chitra Divakaruni, Atlantic Monthly, March 2000]

Over the years the ads have changed quite a bit. A typical 1970s ad might have said “Brahma girl, 21, homely, knows cooking, sewing, knitting. Cheerful personality.” Ones today feature young ladies with an MSc., MBA and a position at a respected multinational firm looking for "software professionals, doctors, MBAs with six-figure salaries” with "modern with a traditional touch," and "dowry seekers excused" [meaning not wanted]. [Source: Amit Pasricha, The Times, October 3, 2004; Chitra Divakaruni, Atlantic Monthly, March 2000]

Arranged Meetings in South Asia

Sometimes there are hundreds of answers to ads run in newspapers and families carefully sift through them and select maybe 25 or 30 of them for quickie meetings. “Once they locate likely prospects, they create a venue (often a party at a common friend's home) for the young couple to meet informally." Sometimes they meet at a local restaurant or Internet café.

The meeting are often set up by an uncle or aunt at their house and lasts less than half an hour. Often the meetings seem more like an audition or a job interview than a social occasion. Sometimes a suitor shows up with a large entourage of family members. These meeting usually begins with interviews of the potential suitors by the parents The young woman pours tea and offers sweets while the prospective lifelong partners make awkward conversation. Sometimes the families sit together and chat while the potential suitors simply eye each. If they like what they see a meeting is arranged for them alone.

There are also arranged bride viewings. Sometimes prospective grooms and brides are chosen at gatherings with thousands of families at an indoor stadium. Young men and women line up on other side of the stadium and introduce themselves in front of a microphone one by one. After that mates are selected right there on the shot, usually by the parents.

Meeting Someone in an Arranged Meetings

After a potential mate is selected a meeting is arranged. A young man who met his future wife after meeting 15 women told the Washington Post she was "a balance of everything I wanted---education, family, background, looks and personality...Love? The attraction was there. In a semi-arranged marriage there is no question of love."

Often the young woman will pick the first man she feels at least semi-comfortable talking to. A young woman told the Washington Post her future husband after 30 potential suitors he was “the first one I had a descent conversation with...We had things in common....He was honest, which was nice...I thought, “OK, this could work.”

Some meeting are like nightmares from hell: One woman told the Times, “We had one guy coming with an army of relatives. He was working in Dubai and wore tight nylon trousers and a gold chain. His hair was oily. I wasn’t in the least interested. I rushed in the kitchen where the maid was getting a big spread ready. I told here serve only half because I wanted him out of here real fast,”

"If the 'couple' like each other, they are encouraged to meet again---on their own or with groups of friends---so they may get to know each other. The final decision---to marry or to look further---is theirs to make." A typical married couple has a formal first meeting and then go once together to a movie and once on boat ride in lake, after which time a decision is made and meetings are held with families for approval of the wedding. The whole process from first meeting to wedding takes about seven or eight months.

Muslim Marriage

In the Muslim world, marriage is regarded as a religious duty and generally carried out in accordance with religious laws and customs rather than secular ones. Men have authority over women and are expected to be a provider and a “protector of women.” Muslim schools of law stress that “equality” of marriage or that the bride and groom be of similar rank and position.

The Judeao-Christian-Islamic traditional places great significance on marriage and give it high symbolic value. Marriage is not meant to be taken lightly and breaking up a marriage is regarded as something that must be avoided at all costs. By contrast in some societies (mostly small isolated communities) men and women simply live together, and no great fanfare, is made about their union.

In the Koran Allah told men: "And of His signs is this: he created for you helpmates from yourselves that ye may find rest in them, and he ordained between you love and mercy." Mohammed went on to say: "Do not marry only for the sake of beauty; may be the beauty becomes the cause of moral degradation. Do not marry even for the sake of wealth; maybe the wealth becomes the reason of insubordination. Marry on the grounds of religious devotion."

On marriage, the Koran says: “They are your garments/ And you are their garments,” which according to Nadira Artyk, an Uzbekistan-born women’s rights journalist,” implies closeness, mutuality and equality.”

Under Islamic law a marriage cannot be validated without the consent of both the bride and groom; a bride needs permission of her father or male relative to get married; and the bride and groom are supposed to know each other's families and social and economic background before they are allowed to get married.

In many Muslim societies, a father or male guardian has the right to declare the marriage of a woman null and void. In some Muslim countries, fathers have wedding certificates annulled because their daughters eloped with their boyfriend without the father's consent and the annulments have been upheld in court.

Polygamy in Islam

Based on Muslim law, which turn is based on the Koran and the Hadiths, Muslim men can have four wives but women are allowed to have only one husband. It is widely believed that polygamy was tolerated for social reasons: so that poor women could find someone to take care of them. The Koran was written at a time when many women lost their husbands in wars, tribal clashes and for other reasons.

Before Islam, women could have several husbands. If one fell out of favor she spurned him by facing her tent doorway away from him. Until recently some Arab sheikhs and eastern potentates often sired 500 children or more.

Polygamy is not nearly as widespread as it once was and is rare among educated people. In some Muslim countries, a man seeking to marry another wife needs approval from a local court and consent of his other wives. Approval is usually granted within minutes if the man can prove he has the means to support more than one family. In some places women can be force into polygamy.

Polygamy, Mohammed and the Koran

The passage in the Koran that is used to justify polygamy goes: “If ye fear that ye may not justly by the orphans, then marry of the women who are lawful to you in twos, threes and fours.” Muslim scholars are careful to point that "two and three and four" women means a man can have a maximum of four wives not nine of them. Mohammed once met a man with ten wives and instructed him to keep four and divorce the other six. The prophet also instructed a man married to a pair of sisters that he had to divorce one of them. According to Muslim law, a man can have as many slave concubines as he likes.

Mohammed had 11 wives. Most of them were older. He married many of them for political reasons, mostly to forge ties with other tribes, and endorsed the polygamy as way of supporting widows. The Prophet set very high standards for husbands with multiple wives. He insisted that each wife was be treated equally and required that a husband divide his time among them equally, spending the night with each one the same number of nights. Generally, only men who were relatively wealthy could afford to take care of multiple wives and large families.

In old days polygamy was not only regarded as permissible but was regarded as desirable because it was way of making sure that all women and children had a male to take care of them. Those opposed to polygamy say the old reasons for endorsing polygamy no longer apply in the modern work and achieving the Muslim law requirements that all women in a polygamous marriage be treated equally is impossible to achieve. Muslim law also states that a man may take female slaves as concubines and children born to them are free and have a right to inheritance.

Muslim Men and Polygamy

Explaining the rational behind polygamy one Egyptian man told the Los Angeles Times, “The Arab is not faithful to one wife, never. He has many relations.” Polygamy allows his philandering to be legal. If a groom looks nervous some Muslim men say: “It’s his first wedding. The second, third, and forth marriages are much easier.”

An Iranian man living in London with three wives and 12 children echoed this sentiment. He told The Time of London: “Polygamy is a very natural thing. Men are born like this. It is in man’s nature to take more than one wife.” He said he decided to take his second wife after feeling guilt over having an affair. “I think that 95 percent of divorces occur because the man has a woman somewhere else. Men have that type of mentality.”

“I’m living in good harmony,” the Iranian man said. “We live together very well, the women have no jealousy. They understand Islam and I have to respect their feelings. They know I have enough love for all of them.”

In August 2007, the United Arab Emirates newspaper Emirates Today ran a story about 60-year-old , one-legged man who had 78 children and said his goal was to have 100 by the time he turned 68 in 2015. The newspaper ran picture of the man, Daad Mohammed Murad Abdul, surrounded by his children with oldest 36 and the youngest 20 days. Two of his three wives at the time were pregnant. At that point in time he had had 15 wives overall, divorcing some as he went along to saty within the four limit, and had two more lined up to reach his goal.

Muslim Women and Polygamy

In polygamist families, the first wife has traditionally been the senior wife, ordering the others around. The others treat her like a mother. At least to observers on the outside there is often surprisingly little jealousy between the women. The first’s wife’s position can be undermined if her husband prefers one of the other wives much more. Some women live with the fear that when they get older their husbands will dump them in favor of a younger wife.

The first wife is often caught be surprise by her husband's desire to take a second wife. She is often in a position of weakness as she needs her husband's permission for a divorce and child support. Some first wives live alone with their children after the second wife moves in with the husband. The first wife can be punished very severely, even by death, if she takes a lover or husband.

Arab men have traditionally said that their wives appreciated have another wives around to help with cooking, housecleaning and child-rearing duties. Many women have also said they like the arrangement because it means they have less work to do.

Muslim Dowry and Bride Price

Dowry and bride prices have traditionally been part of the Muslim marriage arrangements. The Koran states: “If the intention of a husband is not to pay the dowry, the marriage is void.” This is generally taken to mean that the groom or his family must pay a bride price. The Muslim law schools generally list a relatively small amount as a minimum, and require only a portion to be paid at the time of the wedding with balance paid when the husband dies or divorces her.

Dowry and bride price customs vary somewhat from group to group and place to place. In most Middle Eastern countries, a bride price known as mehir (or mahr ) is negotiated by the families of the bride and groom a few weeks before the wedding and after the fathers have given their consent. The mehir is regarded as security for the wife if something happens to her husband. The terms are spelled out in the marriage contract.

The bride price is often given to the bride not her family and is expected to be considerable value, say, a year’s salary. If a groom or his family can’t pay the sum the mehir can be treated like a deferred loan that the woman can claim any time she chooses to. In some Muslim cultures, the family of the bride has to provide the husband or his family with a dowry. This arrangement is generally based on local customs and traditions rather than Islam.

Muslim Marriage Contract

Marriage contracts are another fixture of Muslim marriage arrangements. They are sort of like pre-nuptial agreements and are generally regarded as vehicle to guarantee certain rights to the wife. In addition to specifying a bride price, the contract can be used by a wife to spell out her expectations and demands from the marriage. She can insist on working outside the home and keeping her finances separate from husband’s. She can also establish the terms for a divorce and reserve the right not to clean the house or cook.

Azizah al-Hibri, a professor of law at the the University of Richmond told the New Yorker the concept of a marriage contract “goes back to early days of Islam, when it was understood that women entered marriage equally, unlike previous regimes, in which she was chattel.”

Marriage contracts are worked out by bride’s family and the groom’s family. The bride often has no say in the matter and must follow the wishes of her father guardian. Muslim marriage contracts are usually signed with the consent of the bride or groom but sometimes it is done without their consent even though they are bound by Islamic law to abide by it. A marriage involving a woman with the participation of male next of kin is regarded as invalid.

The marriage contract can be signed a few weeks before the wedding takes place or on the day of the wedding celebration. Usually it signed by the groom or his father and two representatives each from the bride’s and groom’s family in the presence of an imam. The bride’s father usually also signs it. In some places the contract is delivered to the bride at another location, where she signs it and repeats three times before witnesses that she has agreed to marry the groom to indicate that she is not forced into the marriage against her will.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2012

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