Urfi marriage: A dark path with a painful end [Archives:2006/1004/Reportage]

December 4 2006

Saddam Al-Ashmori
For the Yemen Times

An urfi marriage is one lacking an official contract or social knowledge wherein couples repeat the words, “We are married,” and pledge a commitment before God. While the concept of urfi marriages appears to be similar to other marriage forms in many Islamic countries, they aren't recognized.

In Islam, marriage must be announced with the couple's families and within their society, an important condition validating the marriage. In recent years, some – mostly students – have set their own conditions for marriage, fashioning the idea of consensual but unofficial or urfi marriages, which are done secretly without the couple's family or society's knowledge. Although rarely exercised in Arab countries, some have begun recognizing them.

Though unusual, urfi marriages do exist, particularly among high school and university students who say they love each other but don't resort to traditional marriage due to expensive dowries. Among those more inclined to this type of unconventional marriage are tourists from neighboring countries who exploit the poor economic conditions of young Yemeni girls. These tourists secretly marry for a short time and then leave the brides without notice.

There are different types of urfi marriage, such as temporary marriage, the so-called marriage of sacrifice and marriage for money's sake. Unfortunately, in all of these cases, the girl suffers the consequences, since Yemeni society by default blames her even if the man was in the wrong. Yemeni community strongly believes that, “A man is a man and he can do whatever he wants because mistakes won't affect his manhood.”

“Consensual marriages are recognized worldwide; however, Yemen and some Arab countries don't recognize such marriages because we're backward and blind to the world's development and its liberties,” said an 18-year-old girl, who entered into such a marriage, “I married a boy who used to park his car in front of our school. We started to build a relationship and later married.

“A year and half has elapsed since our marriage. I'm happy because I married him and didn't follow the wrong path like some girls do,” she noted.

Regarding how the marriage took place, she says, “When we agreed to marry, my husband brought four friends to witness it. He gave me some gifts and a small amount of money.

“My family and my friends know nothing about the marriage. I'm cautious in keeping the matter secret. I told one of my classmates about the marriage and she constantly was afraid until I convinced her to marry my husband's friend, so she did,” she explained.

As for the motive, she declares, “I loved him. The one who loves should make sacrifices for the sake of his lover.”

When asked what she'll do if a legal husband comes asking for her hand, she comments, “In this age, there are many solutions. I've saved a small amount of money to have a virginity-restoring operation when marriage nears.” The operation will reconstruct her hymen to give the appearance of virginity.

Tourist marriage is another nontraditional form wherein visitors from neighboring countries exploit Yemen's poor economic situation by tempting poor families with money in exchange for marrying their young girls. These marriages last as long as the tourist is in town, leaving catastrophe in their wake.

One 19-year-old recounted her tale, saying, “I used to see a young man with a luxurious car at the entrance to our zone. One day, he gave me a sack full of gifts and drinks.

“A few days later, he asked me to introduce him to my family, telling me he loved me from the first moment he laid eyes on me. He said he wanted to marry me and I approved. He asked my father for my hand, but my father rejected him because he didn't know the man,” the girl added.

“He later asked me to marry him in an urfi marriage to force the issue upon my family. I rejected the whole idea at first, but he was giving me presents I hadn't dreamt of, promising to give my father a huge amount of money if we married.

“We married in secret and, over the next two months, I skipped school to go with him to the hotel where he lived because that was the only way we could meet. He later asked me to tell my father about our marriage, promising to come the next day to announce our marriage and give my father money,” she continued.

She told her family, who unexpectedly surrendered to the reality. Thinking a happy end would come, her father became angry when the husband didn't come as promised.

“We went to the hotel to ask about him and they told us he had returned to his country. We tried to contact him; however, all of the contacts and addresses were false,” she recounted, “I was subject to beatings and insults from all of my family members. In vain, I tried to commit suicide many times but they would rush me to the hospital each time I made an attempt.

“I'm alienated from my family, my neighbors and my classmates. I live in great depression wishing he'd come back to correct his mistakes,” she concluded.

In an attempt to learn the role school plays in this respect, the headmistress of Omar bin Abdulaziz School comments, “urfi marriage is a dangerous phenomenon that's increasing in Yemen. What's more dangerous is its spread among female students. We've heard of such cases, but we don't have any evidence.

“There may be girls who are married consensually and this is a personal affair. Our responsibility lies within the school, but outside, the responsibility falls upon the family. They must know where their daughter goes and with whom. They must keep in contact with school administration to know everything about their daughters,” she noted.

“Some families don't know anything about their children and they don't watch them. Thus, a female student can seize upon such leniency. It's impossible for us to follow students outside of school. However, when we detect cases of urfi marriage, we contact the girl's family. We used to report small incidents to students' parents, particularly those whose conduct was inappropriate,” she adds.

Lack of religious awareness and absence of parental care are among the most prevalent causes of urfi marriage.

Teacher Abdulhabeeb says, “Lack of parental direction and absence of religious edification will make some students tend toward urfi marriages. We hadn't heard about such a phenomenon before. It came to us via degenerate television serials and movies. Parents should direct their sons to watch those channels that serve religion and morals, asking them to remain aloof from bad friends.”

He adds, “If such a case happened with my children, it would be a catastrophe.”

Influential bad friends are another reason for this increasing phenomenon. Social specialist Thiya Fatal notices that some poor girls are influenced by bad friends who try to attract their attention to the gifts their boyfriends give them. They convince the girls that it's ok to have a boyfriend and that he'll give gifts or whatever they want if they marry him secretly, to which many girls will agree.

Engineer Mohammed Al-Janad believes the spread of urfi marriages affects national morality and harms Islamic society. Additionally, they violate sharia law, as well being deceitful to fathers and daughters. He further declares that economic situations, increasing dowries and upward rates of poverty are among the many reasons leading to this phenomenon.

When asking religious scholars about the attitude of sharia law regarding these marriages, most avoid issuing a fatwa, saying the matter remains in sharia's womb.

For his part, scholar Salim Al-Shatri declares that any marriage without a marriage contract, two witnesses and the consent of the girl's parents is considered adultery. In an 'urifi marriage, a woman can't get a legal divorce because the government doesn't recognize the legality of such marriage in the first place.

urfi marriages are conducted by a Muslim cleric in the presence of two witnesses; however, they aren't officially registered nor are they financially binding upon the man. Couples married in this way often meet in secret and avoid the expense of renting an apartment.

urfi marriage can be disastrous for the wife. If the husband leaves her without granting her a divorce, she has no legal right to seek a divorce because urfi marriages are considered illegal. Urfi marriages in which a couple signs documents declaring themselves married are invalid. The couple must inform their families of the marriage.” Al-Shatri added.