MARRIAGE, WEDDINGS AND DIVORCE IN MALAYSIA

MARRIAGE IN MALAYSIA

Malaysian usually marry members of their own ethnic group: Malays marry Malays, Chinese marry Chinese and Indians marry Indians. Each group has their own marriage and wedding customs. According to law passed to avoid "religious-related" marriage problems foreigners are required to get written permission from their embassy before they can get married.

Women need the consent of a male guardian to marry and couples are married by registering with a religious official, usually an imam. The engagement and wedding process involves a lot of gift exchanging between the families of the bride and groom.

According to the Malaysian Government: The administration of marriage for the Muslims is handled by the respective Religious Affairs Department under the State Governments. Marriage in Islam is guided by the Syariah Laws. Apart from fulfilling the syariah requirements, there are certain administrative procedures the intended couples have to adhere to before they can get married. Non-Muslims can obtain information on legal or religious matrimonial procedures and requirements from the National Registration Department. If the marriage is to take place outside Malaysia, the relevant Malaysian Mission needs to be consulted. Malaysians wishing to marry non-citizens should consult the Malaysian Immigration authority. [Source: Malaysian Government]

Marriage Procedures for Muslims: A Muslim couple need to follow some prcedures before they can wed. The intended couple needs to follow the marriage administrative procedures according to Islamic Laws as well as undergo a marriage course at any centre certified by the State Religious Affairs Department. An application for marriage needs to be forwarded to the authority concerned. There should also be confirmation by the relevant authority regarding the marital status of the couple.

Malaysia insists a non-Muslim marrying a Muslim must take their faith. A non-Muslim must convert from his/ her religion to Islam in order for him/ her to marry a Muslim. He/ she must refer to the State Religious Department or seek help from an Imam at the nearest mosque in the area. After which, the same marriage procedures for Muslims apply.

Islamic Marriage Customs

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.

See article on Muslim Marriage and Weddings factsanddetails.com

Malay Marriage Customs

Malays have traditionally engaged in both love marriages and arranged marriages. In many families, a young man would tell his mother and another family member if he fancied a girl. If the parents approved the selection they would make secret inquiries to find out if the girl was available. This was usually done by relatives such as an aunt who meets with the girl’s family to find out more information. If the girl is available and she is open to getting married plans are made for an engagement ceremony.

The proposal and the acceptance of the proposal is done with the help of family representatives known as syarak. When this is dome, the engagement is announced by a headman or respected community leader at the local mosque during Friday prayers. During the engagement ceremony, gifts are given by the young man’s family, the duration of the engagement is arranged and a date is set for sending engagement presents.

The engagement presents from the boy are delivered to the girl’s family’s house along with a ring. The value of the ring is announced at the ring ceremony which is attended by both families and the exchange of presents takes place. Sometimes the bride price is delivered at this time. Sometimes it is delivered at another time agreed upon by the young man’s and girl’s families. In many Malay marriages there is both a brideprice and a dowry.

People in the village or community are informed of the wedding date by close relatives of the bride. Traditional presents are given to the girl’s family from the young man’s family. These include clothing and money wrapped in pieces of folded cloth, flowers, cosmetics, a betel box, yellow rice, decorated eggs, and fruit.

Unmarried Muslim Couples in Malaysia Evicted from Government Housing

In August 2010, Associated Press reported: “Malaysia's Islamic authorities are evicting unmarried Muslim civil servants from government-owned housing if they are caught with their partners alone in a private place, it was reported today. Several Muslims have been evicted from their homes in government quarters under a campaign launched early this year to rid the country's administrative capital Putrajaya of activities deemed immoral under Malaysian Islamic laws, the New Straits Times said. [Source: AP, August 22, 2010 ^*^]

“Che Mat Che Ali, director of the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department, said the measure was introduced under the campaign Toward Zero Immoral Activities in Putrajaya 2010. "It may seem harsh but we want the people of Putrajaya to know that we take this matter seriously," he was quoted as saying. ^*^

“He said those caught by Islamic morality police were hauled up in court and then asked to move out. Muslims are subject to morality laws, such as forbidding them to drink alcohol in public, enforced by Islamic authorities and courts. The country's large Christian, Buddhist and Hindu communities are not subject to such laws. ^*^

110-year-old Man Malaysian Finds 82-Year-Old Wife

In January 2011, The Telegraph reported:” Ahmad Mohamad Isa, who has 20 grandchildren and 40 great-grandchildren, told Malay-language newspaper Utusan Malaysia earlier this week that he wanted company and a wife to take care of him. The report grabbed the attention of 82-year-old Sanah Ahmad, a widow of 30 years and mother of nine, who said she was willing to do so and had asked her children to contact Ahmad’s family to make arrangements. “It doesn’t matter who she is, as long as she can cook for me,” Ahmad told the paper Sunday. “It is lonely to live alone and I am afraid to sleep alone. If I have a wife she can take care of me,” the centenarian, who has five previous marriages and suffers mild hearing and vision problems, said. Mrs Sanah told the paper that she was attracted to Ahmad as he bears a striking resemblance to her late husband and both men shared the same name. [Source: The Telegraph, January 2, 2011]

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.

See article on Muslim Marriage and Weddings factsanddetails.com

Muslim Wedding

Muslim weddings are often held before Ramadan They can last for four to seven days and usually feature traditional music and often dancing. Guests are expected to dress in their finest clothes. Not all Muslim cultures have wedding celebrations because once a marriage contract is signed, the couple is regarded as married.

When there is a wedding ceremony it is generally not performed in a mosque because most Islamic marriages are effected by a civil contract and men and women are supposed to be separated in a mosque. Instead the ceremony and celebration afterwards are usually is held in a wedding salon, the house of the groom or the bride or one of their relatives or in the streets or a courtyard. The guests are usually neighbors and extended family members. Foreigners are often invited.

Preparations are made for the wedding festivities after consent for the marriage is obtained from the father. Often the festivities take place in three stages. First there is the bridal shower, where friends of the bride get together to dress the bride and put colored dyes on each other. Sometimes there is a simultaneous party for the groom at another place. Next is the official marriage ceremony held at the bride's house, with a reading from the Koran. The last is a reception in honor of the new couple at the groom's residence.

Many of the activities that surround a wedding are exclusively for women: singing ribald songs, cooking and preparing dishes, apply henna patterns to various parts of the body. A day or so before the official wedding ceremony there is a woman-only pre-marriage ceremony called lailat al henna , in which the hands and feet of bride and sometimes her guests are decorated with elaborate henna designs. The reddish-colored designs wear off after a couple of weeks.

Muslim Wedding Ceremony

The marriage ceremony has traditionally been done in private, overseen by a mullah and attended only by two Muslim witnesses or close family members. Before the ceremony the groom formally informs the father of the bride of his intention to marry his daughter and asks for permission. A mullah is learned Muslim man trained in Muslim law.

The formal betrothal, the khitbah , starts with prayers praising Allah and asking for His forgiveness and protection and including the words: “God is God and Mohammed is His messenger.” The bride and groom often face each other with their hands clasped, sometimes with a white cloth held over their head which signifies their purity and chastity. As the couple stand together a friend or relative of the groom makes a statement of the groom’s intent which is acknowledged and approved by a representative from the bride’s family.

The mullah asks the groom, “Have you chosen this young woman for your wife?” The groom responds, “I have. “You have heard?---the mullahs asks the witnesses. “We have heard,” they reply. The process is repeated for the bride. She is expected to answer in a soft, demure voice. She also says something like: “I offer you myself in marriage in accordance with the instructions of the Holy Koran and the Holy Prophet, peace and blessing be upon Him.”

Traditionally, when the witnesses are asked if they have heard they say no and the bride must say “I have” very loudly. The couple pledges their honesty, sincerity, obedience and faith. The mullah then blesses the couple and prayers are recited as the father of the bride formally accepts the groom as his son-in-law.

Traditional Malay Wedding

The first part of the traditional Malay wedding is a henna party in which the bride displays her wedding dress and has her hands stained with henna. The bride then “sits in state,” called besangin, and people come by admire the bride and her dress. The custom is modeled after royal Hindu-style weddings.

The groom, dressed in his wedding clothes and accompanied by men playing tambourines, shows up at the bride’s house. The grooms performs a berinai ceremony. Then other members of the family perform the same ceremony. The couple sits together in state to be admired by everyone. In some places the couple are given handfuls of rice , which they feed to each other.

The formal wedding ceremony is performed by an imam or a close relative of the bride. A payment of cash or presents is given to the bride. The bride and groom are formally pronounced husband and wife.

A wedding feast is usually held at the house of the family of the bride. The groom usually arrives with a large entourage. If the bride price hasn’t yet been paid, it is paid now, As the groom’s party approaches the house they are sprinkled with rosewater, yellow rice and flowers. The groom is invited to sit with the bride on a sofa. Gift from the groom’s party are expected by the representatives of the bride’s family,

Child Marriages in Malaysia

S. Indramalar wrote in The Star: “ Child marriages are shockingly prevalent in Malaysia where the legal age of marriage for Non-Muslims is 18. However, marriages are allowed for those between 16 and 18 with written consent from the chief minister. For Muslims, the legal age of marriage for males is 18 and females, 16. With the permission of the Syariah Court, however, Muslims can marry at any age. Some couples are married according to customary rites, and do not register their marriages. [Source: S. Indramalar, The Star, October 11, 2012 >>>]

“There are two kinds of child marriages in Malaysia; marriage between an underaged boy and girl, and marriage between a girl and an older man. For a long time, child marriage was thought to be a non-issue in Malaysia. However, recent cases highlighted in the media have raised concern. In October 2010, 14-year-old Siti Maryam Mahmod wedded 23-year-old teacher Abdul Manan Othman and the couple later participated in a mass wedding reception organised by the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (Jawi). >>>

“Earlier the same year, there was public outcry over the marriage of two girls aged 10 and 11 to men in their 40s in Kelantan. The 11-year-old was found days later abandoned and in a state of shock. Most recently, there was a YouTube video posting of Syafiq, a16-year-old boy and his 14-year-old bride Yana. The video looked professionally shot and the wedding was festive. In the comments section, the response was positive, with many applauding Syafiq for acting “responsibly” by getting married. >>>

According to Saira Shameem, the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA, Malaysia) programme advisor, the issue of child marriages is significant in Malaysia and should be addressed immediately. According to UNFPA, 1.4 percent of all married women in Malaysia in 2011 were aged between 15 and 19, which amounts to 82,000 girls. “In an economically stable country like Malaysia where women are educated and employed in high level jobs and where girls make up 60 percent of the students in tertiary education institutions, this should not be happening. But it does and our study reveals that many of these marriages happen under duress. Many of the subjects interviewed revealed that it wasn’t their choice to get married so young and that given a choice, they would get married when they were 20 or 21,” Saira says. >>>

“There are many reasons why child marriages happen - for economic survival (young girls are seen as a burden and the family marry her off to both ease their burden and secure her future), to “protect” daughters from unwanted sexual attention and to ensure she does not have pre-marital sex, cultural norms derived from traditional practices and religious beliefs. In Malaysia, the reasons often cited for marrying off young daughters is to ensure they do not get involved in illicit relationships, and to ease the family’s economic burden. >>>

Girls Forced to Marry at a Young Age in Malaysia

Child marriages in Malaysia are often seen as a way to curb promiscuity and to ease the family’s financial burden.S. Indramalar wrote in The Star: “Pushpa went out for motorcycle rides with her boyfriend, and didn’t think all that much of taking gifts from him. But her parents were unhappy she was running around with a boy, and forced them to marry because they didn’t want her to be labelled as promiscuous. She was only 14 then, and had to stop schooling. “We were friends. We’d never had sex … but he would take me out on his motorcycle after school and buy me presents. My parents heard about our friendship and they were very angry as they thought I had behaved ‘badly’. They forced us to get married. I didn’t want to get married. I wanted to live at home with my brother and sisters,” says Pushpa who is now 18 and pregnant with her second child. By the time she was 16, she had suffered a miscarriage and given birth to her daughter. [Source: S. Indramalar, The Star, October 11, 2012 >>>]

“The marriage was never a happy one, says Pushpa. Her 28-year-old husband was angry and resentful at being forced to marry her and hardly talked to her. There was no physical abuse but he “wasn’t very nice” to her anymore. “He goes out all the time, gets drunk and then come home and demand that I have sex with him. He gets angry each time I talk about going back to school,” she recounts. “I miss my friends. Now, I stay at home and cook and clean look after my daughter. I live with my husband’s parents and his sisters but I have no friends. They (his sisters) go to school and go out with friends but I … don’t do anything,” says Pushpa, who now lives in Jinjang, Kuala Lumpur after her village in Petaling Jaya was torn down for the development of condominiums. Because she was under the legal age of marriage at the time, Pushpa’s marriage wasn’t registered: the couple merely had a religious ceremony to mark their union.” >>>

Girls Forced to Marry Older Men in Malaysia

S. Indramalar wrote in The Star: “Khatijah (not her real name)was forced to marry a widower when she was 15. “I came home from school one day, and my mother and my aunts told me that they had found a husband for me. He was much older than me but they said he was a good man and would take care of me. I didn’t understand what was happening and why I had to marry this man. Although I said I didn’t want to get married, they said I had to,” recounts the 16-year-old teenager from Pahang who wed less than a year ago. [Source: S. Indramalar, The Star, October 11, 2012 >>>]

Khatijah’s husband is a 36-year-old widower; a well-respected figure in his village who was looking for a new, young bride. “I don’t want to be pregnant. I don’t want to be married. I want to work and move to KL. Bencilah (I hate it),” says Khatijah who now looks after her two step children, aged seven and nine. >>>

“We are not allowed to drive until we are 17, to vote until we are 21. So how can girls get married, have sex and bear children at 16? or 15? What do they know about the responsibilities or implications of being married, let alone sex and getting pregnant. And then there are the health risks … why would we expose out children to such risks if the effects are so devastating?” says Suriani Kempe, Sisters in Islam’s Programme Manager for Advocacy, Legal Services and Public Education. >>>

Divorce in Malaysia

Malaysia has a high divorce rate. Divorces are fairly common and easy to get and often initialed by the man with a simple verbal pronouncement. All one has to do is repeatedly say "talaq", which under Islamic law means a couple is divorced. Divorce cases, future care of the kids, distribution of properties and matrimonial obligations are finalized through the Civil Court or through the Syariah Court (for Muslims) . In July 2003, it became legal to divorce someone with a recorded telephone message. For reasons that are not clear, the divorce rate is particularly high in Islamic states like Kelantan.

In April 2008, a Malaysian man divorced his two wives in three minutes, saying they had "collectively decided" to end their marriages to him and he had "never expected" such an outcome. AFP reported: “Roslan Ngah divorced his wives in an Islamic court in conservative northern Terengganu state The New Straits Times reported. Mr Roslan married his first wife in 1986 and his second in 1995. He married a third time in 2001 but divorced shortly afterwards. [Source: AFP, April 2, 2008]

The 44-year-old businessman told the newspaper that his wives, a housewife and a nurse who lived in the same house, had both wanted to divorce him. "(My first and second wives) are like good friends but I never imagined that both of them had collectively decided to divorce me," he said. "I admit that my relationship with them had been strained over the past few months but I never expected our marriages to end in this manner." Asked if he would marry again, Mr Roslan, who had a total of eight children with all three women, said: "I will not put off marriage indefinitely, God willing." Earlier, local reporters had dismissed messages about the pending divorce as an April Fool's Day hoax but realised it was real when they turned up at the courtroom. [Source: AFP, April 2, 2008] Malaysian Muslim Woman Forcibly Separated from Hindu Husband and Six Children

In May 2007, Ian MacKinnon wrote in The Guardian, “A Muslim woman forcibly separated from her Hindu husband by Malaysia's Islamic authorities after 21 years of happy marriage wept inconsolably yesterday after a judge endorsed her decision to hand custody of six of her seven children to her former spouse. In an unprecedented move for Malaysia — where Islamic religious laws are strictly enforced — the children, aged four to 14, will be raised as Hindus despite being born to a Muslim mother. Last month Selangor state's Islamic authorities took Raimah Bibi Noordin, 39, and her children away for "rehabilitation" and religious counselling after belatedly declaring that her marriage was illegal. [Source: Ian MacKinnon, The Guardian, Friday May 4, 2007]

The couple cannot live together because the husband did not convert to Islam as required by law for their marriage to be legal. In a country where 60 percent of the population is Muslim, the law also stipulates that the children must be brought up to observe Islam. Anyone born into a Muslim family cannot legally convert. But Mrs Raimah Bibi's husband, Marimuthu Periasamy, 43, applied for custody of the ethnic Indian couple's children after they and his wife were removed to a Malay Muslim village. He said he feared his children would be brainwashed.

In the emotional high court hearing west of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, Mrs Raimah Bibi, who wore traditional floor-length Malay garb with a Muslim headscarf, agreed to give up her children voluntarily to end the standoff. "I agree to hand over the custody of my children to my husband to be raised as Hindus," she said, before bursting into tears.

The couple were married according to Hindu traditions and brought up their children in the Hindu faith. Mr Marimuthu claimed his wife had been adopted by an ethnic Indian Muslim family but that she was a practising Hindu and her old identity card categorised her as an Indian Hindu. But when she applied for a new identity card this year, the government listed her as a Muslim, he said. However, an affidavit read to the court earlier Mrs Raimah Bibi contradicted her husband's testimony. "I have had discussions with my husband ... with regard to the predicament facing us," it said. "And I state that I was born a Muslim and wish to continue professing the Islamic faith."

A Malaysian government legal adviser, Zauyah Be Loth Khan, said that Selangor's Islamic affairs department had raised no objections to the children being raised as Hindus, adding that Mrs Raimah Bibi would have the right to visit at any time . Despite the eventual outcome, the case highlights growing disquiet about the legal rights of non-Muslims in Malaysia, even though religious freedom is enshrined under the constitution. Lim Kit Siang, an opposition leader, said. "For this to happen to a couple that has lived together for 21 years as a result of a religious conflict is not good for our international image."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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