Marriage Costly : Arabs' Path to Altar No Walk in Park

Times Staff Writer

As floodlights illuminated the scene, the richly costumed couple slowly crossed a bridge over a pool redolent of exotic flowers. Zither music and the crash of cymbals filled the moonlit night, and mustachioed men with flaming swords brought up the rear of the procession.

Although it looked and sounded a lot like a theatrical production, it was a scene repeated on a nightly basis in cities, towns and villages throughout the Arab world over the last four months, though with varying degrees of opulence. It was an enactment of the region's most hallowed institution: marriage.

Judging by the blare of motorcades, late-night celebrations and occasional gunplay--Jordan reported 12 people killed and 112 wounded at weddings in the last three years--the act of getting married has lost little of its luster in this family-oriented society. According to one study, 45% of Arab women are married by the age of 19.

Favored for Nuptials

The summer months immediately after the holy fast of Ramadan are favored for nuptials, and hoteliers from Kuwait to Lebanon say they have been booked solid with festivities this year.

Still, although the institution is thriving in the Arab world, marriage is suffering more strains than ever before, even if many of the problems seem worlds apart from the marital difficulties common in the West.

"As an institution, marriage is undergoing drastic changes in the Arab world," said Sari Nassar, head of the sociology department at the University of Jordan, who has studied the Arab family.

In the past, Arab--usually meaning Muslim--marriages were generally arranged by the family, usually involved marrying relatives and, for men, were frequently polygamous. Under Islam, a man may have up to four wives under limited circumstances.

Polygamy Dying Out

Now, Nassar said, young people will no longer tolerate arranged marriages, they tend to marry people outside their immediate families and polygamy as an institution is rapidly dying out, although it lingers in such gulf countries as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

In addition, Arab families increasingly are grappling with the problems of divorce, and complaints are being raised throughout the Arab world about the huge costs of paying a dowry, which, in the Arab world, is paid by the bridegroom to the bride's family.

"The chaos that reigns at our weddings today indicates the suffering of a nation," one letter writer complained to the Jordanian newspaper Rai. "I appeal to all parents to have mercy on the young generation, which is on the verge of renouncing marriage because of increasing dowries and the inability to meet the rising costs of weddings."

The practice of paying a dowry, or mahr , has been common here for centuries, but inflation set in during the 1970s when men from the oil-rich Persian Gulf began offering astronomical sums to families in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

The newspaper Tishrin in socialist Syria recently reported a rush of complaints about dowries, which it described as a "degrading social trend." It quoted one prospective bridegroom as complaining that parents were haggling over the bride's price "as in the cattle market."

Asked by the paper if she would accept a marriage without a dowry, a young woman university graduate responded: "Am I worth less than my cousin who got 100,000 pounds for her wedding? How will I face my friends?" One hundred thousand Syrian pounds is equal to about $10,000.

While the dowry can run into the thousands of dollars, the wedding itself can be a barometer of the family's social standing. The actual wedding is brief--it involves signing a marriage contract at home--but the main ceremony comes in the party that follows.

The party is also paid for by the bridegroom's family, and an average bash at an Amman hotel runs to $30,000; that does not include such other expenses as invitations, which are usually sent out to 500 relatives and close friends with an accompanying gift such as a silver plate.

'Theme' Parties Popular

In Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other gulf states, weddings costing between $100,000 and $500,000 are not uncommon, with designers being flown in from Paris and London to convert homes for "theme" parties--Chinese pagodas, for instance.

Jordanian authorities have recently begun a crackdown on gunplay at weddings, a traditional form of celebration in rural areas, after newspapers published gruesome accounts of accidental killings. In Lebanon, entire neighborhoods take cover after weddings, when militiamen celebrate by firing weapons into the air.

The impact of economic factors on marriage is reflected in demographic data from Kuwait, which, in common with much of the Arab world, has suffered from the world decline in oil prices. Also, Kuwait experienced a stock market collapse in 1983 that all but crippled its economy.

According to Masoumah Mubarak, a political science professor at Kuwait University, there were 6,259 Kuwaiti marriages and 1,750 divorces in 1982. Last year, there were only 2,046 marriages but 1,782 divorces.

"I was absolutely astonished by such data," Mubarak said. "The major reason has got to be economic."

Desperate Women Unite

Marriage has so fallen out of favor in Kuwait that a local Islamic group has formed the Society for the Protection of Spinsters, a group of unmarried women who conduct house-to-house searches for husbands. The practice has caused an uproar in conservative Kuwait, because the women are calling on married as well as unattached men.

Another problem that has started to alarm authorities in the gulf region is the proliferation of marriages between local men and foreign women, usually Pakistani or Egyptian.

Oman banned the practice in February, and the United Arab Emirates is considering similar legislation.

Abdullah Amri, undersecretary of Oman's Interior Ministry, said the country's ruler, Sultan Kaboos ibn Said, ordered the ban to "preserve the culture of the country and the structure of the family."

According to Amri, there were 3,000 to 4,000 marriages with foreigners last year, although the country keeps no statistics on domestic marriages. Punishment under the new decree is left up to the minister of interior but could result in loss of citizenship.

In the United Arab Emirates, the government is considering a package of financial incentives such as loans for dowries as well as punishment to keep down the number of foreign marriages. Dowries of $50,000 are said to be common.

Mohammed Issa Suwaidi, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Social Affairs in Dubai, one of the UAE's component sheikdoms, said the measures were needed because of the rise in the number of unmarried women and and in the number of divorces. Both situations were attributed to the increase in foreign brides, many of whom are obtained by men from the Emirates by means of "mail-order" offices in India and Pakistan.

According to figures provided by the Arab League in Tunis, the divorce rate in the Emirates is one of the highest in the Arab world--4,013 divorces compared to 10,280 marriages in 1982, the last year for which figures are available.

In Bahrain, officials reported that nearly half of all marriages involving foreigners ended in divorce, while the overall divorce rate is about one for every five marriages counted.

Divorce in Muslim countries is still governed by Islamic law known as the Sharia. The terms of divorce, including the alimony payment, or muakher , are spelled out in the marriage contract.

In most cases, an Arab man can obtain a divorce merely by stating "I divorce thee" three times, while a woman seeking a divorce must obtain the consent of her husband or go to an Islamic court claiming her mate had committed such sins as drunkenness or impiety.

The family is still the central institution in Arab society, but, according to sociologists, it is playing a smaller role in arranging marriages.

In Jordan, authorities last month reported that 33% of all marriages were to first cousins. Such marriages, said Dr. Sami Khoury, the owner of a hospital in Amman, "are spreading in an unbelievable manner and causing numerous hereditary diseases."

But Sari Nasser, the Jordanian sociologist, believes that such statistics actually represent a decline from a few years ago, when he estimates that 80% of all marriages involved cousins.

"As a result of these changes, many problems are arising," Nasser said. "The family is relinquishing its traditional role of providing a husband for a daughter. Yet, Arab society does not allow for alternatives, like dating."

Polygamy is declining largely because of the expense, but it is also increasingly frowned upon by the well-educated classes in Arab society.

According to a recent study by Juliette Minces, a French sociologist, Tunisia, Algeria and Iraq have banned polygamy and Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon have limited the practice by allowing women to preclude it in marriage contracts.

In Saudi Arabia, which is governed by traditional law, the practice is allowed, and one religious authority recently issued an opinion stating that it is preferable to monogamy.

In Kuwait, one researcher said that polygamy "is much more common than five years ago."

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