Marriage customs in Arab society

You can read about an actual marriage in "Come to the Wedding", but what is behind all the singing, dancing and flower throwing? Here is a rough description of what else happens in a marriage - before it and also after it.

I am of course talking specifically about Jordan here, but these customs are pretty general all over the Middle East.

the marriage contract the wedding married life divorce
the case of a western bride (on separate page)

The contract :

Before any marriage at all can take place in an Arab society a marriage contract must be signed. This can be a virtual formality, or it can be the subject of fierce negotiations, often spread out over months. Briefly what is specified in a typical contract is : what the bridegroom will contribute, what the bride will contribute and what happens in the case of a divorce.

The bridegroom :

It is taken for granted that he will provide "the house" or whatever lodging has been decided on. Frequently the bride will have had a word to say about this. The husband will pay for (and own) the house, he will be expected to furnish and equip it and to support his wife and feed and clothe her. These are seldom mentioned in a contract, they are part of "givens".

The first point that can cause argument is of course money. The custom of "bride prices" has not yet died out. It is a sum of money paid to the father or senior male relative of the bride, and it is for him in the first place to set a sum. The more "precious" the bride, the more beautiful, the more intelligent etc, the higher the price is likely to be.

A friend of mine in Syria ran into this problem. He had found a girl he wanted to marry; she was attending University and one of the clauses in the contract was that he was to allow her to continue until she graduated. He had no problem with this, but the girl's father then demanded an "inflated" bride price since the girl would be highly educated and qualified. My friend said, "yes, but who is paying for her education ? Me! I am providing her food, clothes and books and putting up with the inconvenience of her attending classes. Why is he asking for all this money for himself as well?" The marriage did not take place.

This situation is increasingly rare. During the last ten years of attending marriages in Wadi Mousa I have never heard of a bride price being requested. I am less sure of Syria, but I have not actually heard of one there in the marriages I have heard discussed. A demand for an "outrageous" bride price incidentally, is generally disapproved of, "women are not like sheep or goats...."

After the bride price, we come to the "dowry". This is usually given to the bride for her personal use in the form of gold jewellery. It can also take the form of land, property or simply of money. In most cases the bridegroom states the sum that he wishes to pay and the bride's family accepts or begins negotiating. However, modern times being what they are, it is frequent that the bride and her fiancé go shopping for the gold and settle things together like this. Again, if the bridegroom is sincerely attached to his future wife, he will usually be very generous indeed, and offer her far more than her father would have dared to ask for. It must be remembered that this dowry, whatever it consists of, is ALWAYS the personal property of the wife, and her husband has no right of disposal of it.

You may be wondering how much is a lot or a little. This is very difficult to say, since of course "a lot" or "a little" varies so much according to the financial circumstances. A poor family will be willing to pay perhaps a hundred dinars or so in gold, a medium family will go up to five or six hundred. But a man who has the money tends to put out a maximum here, possibly reckoning that the money stays in the family after all, and gifts of a thousand dinars, perhaps much more, are usual in a middlingly prosperous society. A rich family will start at ten thousand dinars or so. Do not be surprised at all the gold displayed in jewellers' shops! A wife, after all, is probably the most important purchase that a man will ever make!

The last "money" clause in the contract concerns the "divorce price" or the money that a woman will receive in the case of a divorce. This sum is often much less than you would suppose : the expectation is that a divorced woman will return to the house of a male relative who will "provide" for her. (It is still not generally socially acceptable for a woman to live alone, whether she is single, divorced or widowed.) The "divorce money" is not considered to be much more than pocket money. The bridegroom will also provide "maintenance money" but seldom more than twenty, thirty or perhaps forty dinars a month. This last is considered to be a large sum, but the courts will see that it is paid if this is the sum agreed on in the contract.

The "divorce price" is usually set by the woman. It can be for an outrageous sum; the husband who accepts this is considered "a fool" by most people. One woman I know asked for thirty five thousand dinars. The marriage was in trouble fairly quickly for various reasons - but the man was stuck! If he asked for a divorce he had to pay this sum which he was nowhere near to possessing. Almost the only way he could have avoided paying it would have been the proven adultery of his wife. This was considered a lesson, by all of the village, and nobody would accept such a demand since then.

A more usual "divorce price" in rural Jordan today would be somewhere between three and five thousand dinars.

The bride :

She is not usually expected to bring very much to a marriage, except of course her beauty, elegance, charm, virtue and her talent for cooking and home making! However it is customary for her to contribute to the home furnishings, usually what we call "soft furnishing" : mattresses, blankets, carpets, cushions, curtains and so on. The amount spent on these can be an item in the contract, but more often this is left to the discretion of her family. In this as in other cases, more can usually be had when counting on people's generosity and desire to make a good show in front of the neighbours, than when spelling things out in black and white. Obviously this depends on the bridegroom's knowledge of his future wife's family!

In general, the poorer the families involved, the more difficult the financial negotiations are likely to be. Three mattresses demanded by the bridegroom can be considered excessive. "We can only pay for two mattresses and six cushions, and especially when we remember that you are only paying two hundred dinars". And so on.

Every bride is well advised to draw up a list, agreed and countersigned by both families, of all the objects she brings with her. They remain HER property and her husband does not have the right to dispose of them in any way without her consent. It is very seldom indeed, even nowadays, that this list is omitted. I was told of a case, only twenty or so years ago, when the list was not drawn up, and the woman's husband sold all her things in her absence and used the money for a bride price for a second wife!

Extra clauses can however be inserted on the request of the bride, usually concerning her education as mentioned above, or her right to take a job after the marriage. In this case, it is seldom necessary to specify that her salary is her personal property, and it is for her to decide how to spend it - this is invariably taken for granted by all parties concerned. She will usually spend her money on small (or large) luxuries, perhaps family holidays or excursions, her personal needs like makeup or perfume, clothes for the children etc. One of my friends saved for nearly a year to buy an fully automatic washing machine - the best purchase she had ever made, she said. Her husband's salary would not have stretched to it.

The Wedding

It should be remembered that no marriage exists officially until it has been consummated. In theory anyway, right up to that point, the participants can change their minds. The traditional Arab consummation of a marriage is seldom practised today, the "Western practice" has taken over.

But it is very likely that in some circles the "old way" is still used. In the middle of the celebrations the bride and groom retire to a private room, sometimes taking along witnesses (usually the two mothers). There, the bridegroom breaks the hymen of the bride with a finger wrapped in a handkerchief. If for whatever reason he fails to do this, or doesn't like to do it, then it is usual for the bride's mother to do it for him. The handkerchief is then taken outside and the bloodstains on it displayed to the guests, to the accompaniment of renewed cheers. Usually the now married couple will come along to receive congratulations!

Sexual relations between the couple will take place later as and when they please, this is nobody's business but their own.

As I said, nowadays this practice is seldom followed, the marriage is considered consummated at the couple's convenience and no proof is required!

Married life

Once married, a wife is the "guardian of her husband's honour". And it is his duty to guard the guardian. Men will do this in various ways. But however devoted a man might be to his wife, his is the last word in the case of a real disagreement.

The concept of the relationship generally is "taking care of each other". The wife will "take care" of her husband in the home, she will prepare his food, wash his clothes and keep the home tidy and clean. Outside, the husband will "take care" of his wife, standing between her and the world. He will escort her when she wishes to go somewhere, find a seat for her when they are waiting, procure refreshment when she wishes it, carry parcels when they are heavy, find taxis, open doors for her.... [These are in fact the duties of the male escort of any woman. He might be father, brother, son, or just a helpful friend - and it can be very appreciable indeed, believe me!] It is not usually the custom for a woman to travel anywhere alone.

The other side of the equation is that often a woman's liberty to move around alone is curtailed. Almost no wife will decide to go somewhere without at least informing her husband. Many will "ask permission" to go. A husband has the right to know where his wife is at all times.

He has other rights. A strict husband might forbid his wife to leave the house without him, he might decide what clothes she can wear, he can even prevent her from receiving any visits from her family. I have heard of a husband who told his wife in front of guests, that her dress was dirty and she should go and change it immediately. Most wives would react to this, at least in private later, but she still has no choice but to obey. Even a wife who has considerable influence or ascendancy over her husband - and there are many - must still give in if he puts his foot down about something. Few husbands will take too great an advantage of this, they like peace in the home as much as Western men! But after a major quarrel, anything might said. A wife can win every point in the row, and still be forced in the end to obey any commands like these.

I am not trying to say that this is a usual state of affairs in any household, far from it. As I have said elsewhere, nobody who has heard an Arab woman express her opinion of her husband tracking mud onto a newly cleaned floor would call her submissive. Indeed, relations between husbands and wives generally are much as they are in the West. But what I have described above is possible at any time.

This is not really troublesome to most Arab women. They have after all been brought up to know this, they have seen their mothers more often happy than not, and as daughters and sisters they are accustomed to the vagaries of fathers and brothers. But it is something that Western women who try to adopt an Arab style of life find very hard to accept.

In general, as time goes on and the couple becomes more used to each other, any limits set on the woman by her husband will loosen and become less strict. They both know what the other expects and just how much they can demand. One thing that will seldom change to any degree is that the woman will spend most of her time in the house. It is her husband or later on her sons who will do the shopping or any outside errands. This explains what often surprises people new to the Middle East : that so few women are to be seen in the street.

This custom can also stretch to ensuring that ALWAYS a woman is in the house, in case she is needed for whatever reason. This can be the husband's sister or mother or a grown up daughter, but it is considered normal that if the husband (or his brother or his father) arrives unexpectedly, perhaps bringing guests, somebody should be there to provide whatever is needed.

Second wives : this is very rare nowadays. When it happens, it is usually because (for instance) the first wife cannot have children, or have any more children. It is also possible that the first marriage took place when the participants were very young - this is increasingly rare but it does happen: dare I say that it is still common among the Bedouin? In that case, after a few years the couple might realise how completely incompatible they are, and a second wife is an alternative to a divorce.

The first wife will react in various ways. Some are quite genuinely welcoming of the newcomer, consider her as a sister and a precious help and company in the house. Others of course might resent her fiercely, and this can lead to considerable trouble, often to a divorce. The husband can help a lot if he is very careful to make no difference in his treatment of the two women, spending an equal amount of time with each of them, and showing no favouritism in any way. This is strictly enjoined in the Koran, but is not always observed.

The consent of the first wife is not necessary to his marriage with a second wife, but the law usually requires that a first wife be informed of the new marriage. Her refusal to accept the second marriage can be a reason for divorce.

Divorce

If things go really wrong, he can take her back to her parents, for a short or a longer period. However much she might protest, she can do nothing but obey. Of course, she might decide to go back to her parents of her own accord!

If the parents cannot patch things up, then a divorce will eventually be pronounced. Although the actual procedure might be simple, the tractations are at least as complicated as in the West, possibly worse. Any divorce must have the confirmation of the courts; financial arrangements are made, taking into account the both the provisions made in the contract and the needs of modern life. Children will always be given to the father to bring up, but a wife can insist on certain rights here as well, and providing she manages to keep on reasonably good terms with her husband she might have the care of them.

Her right to remarry is conserved, the prospects of this vary according to the society she lives in. A rural society like Wadi Mousa tends to frown on divorced women, the Bedouin would treat her more like any other woman who is free to marry. Incidentally the Koran enjoins former husbands not to try to prevent divorced spouses from remarrying - indeed they can be called on to find her a new husband if she wishes one!

Widows

A widow has several options open to her, according to her age and her situation. She must still live at least officially "in the care" of a man. This is more often than not one of her sons, either the eldest, or perhaps the one whose wife she gets on with best! She can also decide to live with one of her brothers, or even her father. As I said, this does depend on her age.

On the death of her husband, a widow is expected to "remain in the house" for four months and one week, to be quite sure that she isn't pregnant. (This is also the case for divorcees, incidentally.) In the case of an older woman this is treated with a certain laxity, but she will certainly not participate in any social events during this period. At the end of it, no further mourning period is expected of her, and she is free to remarry if she wishes, with no objection to be raised by (for instance) her late husband's family. If he dies when still young, and more to the point when his children are still young, the widow and orphans will be provided for by his family. If she has no children, then almost always she will return to her father's house where she will be treated like an unmarried daughter.

She can do this in any case, even if she has children, if for some reason she doesn't want to remain with her husband's family. However their obligation to support her remains, unless she formally renounces it (this can happen!)

 


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©Ruth Caswell 2003