Marital traditions in the Islamic world

Marriage first, love later?

The number of arranged marriages in the Middle East and North Africa is decreasing. Matrimony between cousins is still widespread, but matches of this kind now account for at most a quarter of all weddings. A growing number of young people find their partners without mediation; marriage for love is their ideal. By Martina Sabra

She has a good university degree, works as a well-paid manager, owns a car: Kenza (all names have been changed) is a 32-year-old Moroccan and proud of her career and financial independence. Although she could have bought her own apartment long ago, she still lives with her parents. "I get on brilliantly with my mom and dad," she explains. "I see no reason to move out until I marry."

Kenza has recently become engaged. She and her fiance met at a seminar and became closer chatting on Facebook. "We talked a lot and then we clicked – outside Facebook," the young woman says with a smile.

Kenza has fulfilled her dream of a romantic love match, but conventions still matter. Her husband is Muslim, of course. She could not marry a non-Muslim under Moroccan law; there is no system of civil marriage. To get engaged, Kenza needed her parents′ consent. The families observed the traditional introduction rituals: there were reciprocal visits by mothers and aunts and discreet checks on the prospective in-laws′ reputation. Whatever Kenza′s parents thought of their daughter marrying for love, they did want to make sure the candidate had the right educational background, financial prospects and good manners.

The approval of her parents, especially her father, means a lot to Kenza. Thanks to a reform of family law in 2004, Moroccan women are allowed to marry without the written consent of their fathers or other male guardians. "I approve of this law because, after all, I′m a grown woman and can stand up for myself. But I could not imagine marrying someone my parents objected to," Kenza says.

Blending modernity with tradition

Kenza′s attitude is a refreshing mix of modern and traditional views and values. It contrasts with many stereotyped perceptions in the West (El Feki: "Sex and the Citadel", 2013). The role of women and the way gender relations are organised have been moulding the West′s and the Arab region′s perceptions of each other since the 19th century. Arabs developed a sense of moral superiority from what they saw as the depravity of western women, whose desire for emancipation undermines family values. Europeans, in turn, feel superior too. They are prone to declare the entire Arab region to be backward and obsess about wearing veils and the suppression of Muslim women.

Cover of Shereen El Feki′s "Sex and the Citadel" (published by Pantheon)
Shereen El Feki′s book breaks taboos: Shereen El Feki spent five years talking to men and women in Arab countries, especially those in Egypt, about sexuality and sexual matters. El Feki provides her readers with a critical, yet overwhelmingly optimistic overall picture, one which certainly undermines the widespread western image of Islam as prudish and uptight, supplyng surprising new insights on an evolving Arab world

Both perceptions are socially constructed and they have been shaping collective perceptions for a long time. The western view of societies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is currently being marked by media reports on sexual violence against women perpetrated by the terrorist militia IS and by forced marriages. According to UNICEF, the number of married women under 18 has indeed gone up among the Syrian refugees in Jordan. The share is now 30 %, while it was only 13 % in Syria before the war. This trend is a result of strife and displacement. Families believe their daughters are safer with husbands. Traditional social networks and control mechanisms do not work in refugee camps and the situation of people on the run is mostly precarious. To protect the honour of a daughter and the family, girls are married off fast once they reach puberty.

It deserves emphasis that teenage marriage rates among Syrian refugees are not typical of Arab countries, even though western media focus on these figures. Stereotyped views, moreover, are reinforced by spectacular cases such as that of Amina Filali, a 16-year-old Moroccan rape victim who committed suicide after a court decided she should marry the man who raped her. Individual cases like this fuel the prejudice that child marriage is the norm in the Arab region and all Arab men treat their wives as prisoners or slaves. That perception is extremely exaggerated.

Religious justification for child marriage

It is true, however, that a patriarchal mentality and discriminatory legislation limit the freedom and options of women and girls in nearly every Arab country – with the exception of Tunisia. Strictly conservative Muslim scholars contend that women and men become adults when they reach sexual maturity in the physical sense (menstruation or ejaculation) and thus also have the mental maturity for marriage. This pronouncement provides the theological and ideological justification for girls as young as nine to be married in Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, three especially conservative countries.

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