The case of a Western bride : mixed marriages

This sequel to the page on marriage customs tries to make a few suggestions about some precautions to take before marrying an Arab. It doesn't try to be complete, I hope it isn't discouraging anybody, but there's no getting around it, the culture is very different from that in the west and you will need to make a great many adjustments. For the marriage to work, your husband and also his family will need to make a great many as well. Congratulations! and Good luck!

I should like to make it quite clear that the more educated and "Westernised" the family of the bridegroom (not necessarily the bridegroom himself), the fewer troubles a new bride is likely to experience.

So, you are badly bitten, you are determined to marry the man of your heart and live happily ever after, never mind that he is an Arab!

Splendid, I am rooting for you, and this in spite of the many failures of marriages between Westerners and Arabs. I doubt if one in a hundred makes it to a year, and surely less than one in ten thousand makes it to ten years.

But however carried away you are, take a few minutes to look at hard reality before you are forced to do so the hard way. Start by getting hold of a copy of the Koran and reading chapter 4 on "The women". When they were written down, these clauses were considered highly advanced and enlightened, and annoyed a great many of the men.

They have not changed since the seventh century. You might like to think about this a little bit.

Never mind, of course your husband won't pull them on you! But a few precautions might be in order. Start by considering the marriage contract. This is a time when it would be well worth paying a lawyer to look out for your interests. If it seems like a needless expense, remember that insurance is only expensive BEFORE the fire. If you have a friend speaking and reading fluent Arabic and who is entirely on your side, then you can do without the lawyer. Otherwise you are risking trouble!

Be quite sure that you are granted complete freedom of movement both in the country and outside. In theory anyway, if you leave (to take a plane for instance) and don't have your husband's permission, he could call on the police to bring you home! He might not do this, the police might very probably find good reasons not to do it, but this would be his right if it wasn't cancelled by a clause in the contract.

Be sure that any property you possess is safeguarded; if you invest in any company run by your husband or his family, then make certain that your rights are assured. If you work in such a company your salary should be paid regularly TO YOU and not handed over to both of you in dribs and drabs. Open a bank account in your own name, preferably before the marriage. I know a case where the wife worked and collected what was a very good salary for Jordan; she happily agreed to a joint bank account, before discovering that she needed her husband's counter signature to collect a penny of her own money. He, of course, had no need of hers, and was reluctant to allow her more than very token pocket money. ("Why do you need a dinar to go to my mother's? The bus fare is 80 piasters") After the marriage she also needed his signature to be able to open an account in her own name - which he refused! If you are wondering, this marriage also ended in divorce. So see that this is written down as well somewhere! Keep a bank account in your own name, even if you only leave a very token sum in it.

Even if you don't put this in the contract, it is a good idea to have an understanding between you and your husband on the way that you are going to dress. You might or might not want to wear hijab - don't be dictated to on this subject. But don't go too far either; in the general interest of peace in the family, be careful that what you wear is acceptable to your mother in law!

Many (not all) Arab men consider that it is no business of their wives what women they frequent outside the home. I have even known cases where they confidently bring women (tourists or others) into the house, sleep with them there, and expect their wives to accept this. A few Arab wives are not bothered by this - even fewer could do anything about it if they were!

So slide a clause into the contract saying that no women shall be brought into the conjugal home without your consent! Of course this covers your mother in law as well.... Alternatively or also: a clause saying that he cannot take a second wife without your agreeing would put him in the wrong if he decided to do this!

It is also possible to request a clause giving you the right to divorce your husband if you so choose. He might or might not accept this!

Children : this is a very thorny subject, and it is most unlikely that a husband would ever agree in advance to allow his wife to have legal charge of any children in the case of divorce. Indeed, even if you did manage to make it a clause of the contract, there is a good chance that the courts would annul it if appealed to. (This is considered a subject of general concern, unlike the other issues which are strictly between the two of you. The courts would hold that the interests of the children were involved.) I have no solution to offer, except to warn you about it as a potential problem, and one that has caused a very great deal of distress to women in the past.

Religion : you expect to have problems here, and you and your husband have discussed it together thoroughly. But two things : firstly, a great many Arab men get more pious as they get older. What they laugh off at 30 assumes what you might think an exaggerated importance when he is 45. And secondly, the more your in-laws like you, the more they are going to try to persuade you to become a Moslem ("We don't want you to go to hell!"). Personally, when faced with this, I claim that God is merciful and will find me a tiny corner in another of his houses. This won't do for you, they will immediately point out that in that case you won't be with your husband! Islam isn't a bad religion at all, but I would hesitate to advise you to convert just to make your life easier, and in fact few Imams would accept such a conversion. Again I have no simple solution, but I do want to warn you that it is more complicated than it seems at first!

Remember that it is not so much the larger problems that cause a mixed marriage to break down. You are ready for difficulties about religion, about dress, about women being de facto second citizens. Are you ready for your in-laws to treat your house as their own, to wander in and out at any time, to borrow whatever they happen to need and to forget (quite genuinely) to bring it back? Are you ready for your husband to spend evening after evening with his friends, supposing that you are perfectly happy to talk with their wives? or just to sit and talk with other men and smoke narguila for hours, with no provision for your amusement at all? Would you be indignant if he threw a fit because you hadn't cleaned his shoes, as well as washing and ironing his shirts? Would you be worried sick/furious if he decides to spend an evening out somewhere without warning you? All of these are "normal" and everyday happenings in Arab family life, and no Arab, man or woman, would consider even commenting on them. But enough of these pinpricks and you might easily start to wonder if the happy minutes were worth the hours of boredom of being by yourself or with other women all the time.

And remember that if you constantly refuse invitations, they are likely to taper off. Not (necessarily) because your company isn't wanted, but because your new family doesn't want to put you in what they would consider the embarrassing position of refusing. Sometimes Arab good manners need understanding! But two refusals is skirting the thin edge of rudeness, so don't do it, however bored you are! Taking up something like knitting or embroidery allows you to occupy your mind without seeming discourteous when others are talking. Indeed, you are likely to find that an immediate interest is taken in what you are doing.

One thing that you might perhaps bear in mind : your marriage will only be valid in your own country when you have declared it to your consulate. Most consulates allow several months for this - three or six months is typical. It is perhaps a good idea to delay your declaration for a short while at least, to give yourself a chance to settle in. If no declaration is made, then you are not married outside (for instance) Jordan, and in case of trouble you can just walk away, with no need of any particular formality.

A happy mixed marriage requires enormous tolerance and adjustment on both sides, but the greater pressure is on the one who is living in a foreign country. And, the rules about visas being what they are, this is almost always the woman. Unless your husband and his family make what seems to them to be 90% of the effort you will almost certainly have a great deal of difficulty in adjusting. I wish you luck, an outside job would help a lot, but it will take very great determination on your part to make your marriage work.

If you can manage it, and if you have found a good husband, you will feel cherished and looked after in a way that is rare in the West today. Your children will have a father who shows them his love, and who insists on spending much of his free time with them. In other words, at the end, you will have a good bargain, and it will have been worth all the patience and the compromises. Good luck!

So how did you get into this?

So many women write to me and ask advice about this question of falling in love with Arab men - and how can I answer them? Here are some of the questions most often asked and an attempt at some replies.

Is he after my money ? is he just looking for "a way out" of his own country?

Possibly, in both cases. In the first, either make quite sure that he realises that you don't have any (he probably won't believe you, after all, where do you get the money to travel like this??) or make quite sure that he realises that you are going to tie it up under your own name.

The second is perhaps less likely, since most people know that visa rules demand at least a couple of years of marriage before any permit for immigration is granted.

But remember that both money and a foreign nationality are part of your attraction, just as much as, but not necessarily more than your beauty, kind heart and charm - not to mention your talents in bed. All are important; money and the possibility of a "new life" are almost certainly not enough in themselves to make him want to marry you.

I am (much) older than him, does it matter? What will his family think?

Arab culture finds a relationship between a young man and an older woman normal. The young man brings his virility and dynamism to the partnership and the woman brings calm, common sense and stability - often financial stability. There is certainly no disapproval from any of his friends or from his family. However, remember that if you are past the age of having children, it will tacitly be understood, on their side at least, that at some time in the future he will be marrying again. Take this into account right now, and consider what your reaction will be in that case. Are you willing to invest ten years or so if you are going to lose everything later on? Remember that you will PROBABLY be given the option of continuing as senior wife....

He has managed to get a visa to immigrate to my own country, so things should be much easier there.

Um, yes, possibly. But remember what I said higher up about the pressure coming on the one who is living in a foreign country. You will need to make at least as many compromises as you would have needed from him if you were living in his country, if not the same ones. It will be very important to him to be able to get a job and at least make a shot at supporting you. Without this he will be risking losing his self respect, and you should be understanding about this.

Remember that this is part of the unspoken deal in an Arab marriage : he supports his wife and provides for her, and in return she will give him respect, a comfortable home and at least a token obedience. If he is feeling that he isn't carrying out his end, he will finish by wondering how you are feeling about it and if you are still respecting him. Think about this a bit.

I don't speak Arabic. How am I going to be able to get on with his relations?

Well, my dear, you must learn! At least enough to be able to talk and understand a little even if it is pidgin Arabic. You don't need to be able to read and write, certainly not at the beginning. And if you show good will, and take pains to make friends with his female relatives of approximately your own age, you will quickly feel rewarded by their friendship. But don't try NOT learning; all allowances will be made at the beginning, but after a certain time, this leads to general disapproval and even a certain contempt ("there's no point in trying to talk to her, she doesn't understand anything"). It's no use saying that "his brothers all speak English", or even "his sisters". If you can't take a minimal part in family occasions and get togethers then you will be left out, and it will be your own fault!

I don't know anything about Arab cookery, but I am quite good at cooking at home. Won't that do?

See answer above. No, in general your own kind of cooking WON'T do, most certainly not when you are entertaining his friends and family. When you are alone then it depends on him. In my experience, men do not like changing their food habits. An occasional "exotic" meal (spaghetti bolognese? steak and French fries?) might go off OK, but for everyday - no! You will realise this for yourself almost immediately if you try it!

[These last two points might seem completely trivial compared with the earlier ones. They aren't. These are exactly the sort of things that can finish by making life the next thing to unbearable.]

I have a very good Arab friend, we are just friends, nothing more....

Yeah! But remember that to an Arab a simple friendship between a man and a woman is just a jumping off point. Unless you are closely linked to another man and one of his good friends at that, sooner or later that friendship is likely to turn into something else. If it does, be very careful. Decide to fall in love if you want to, that's fine, but don't get more or less brainwashed into thinking that you are in love just because he says that he loves you. This is a classic trap and too many women fall into it anywhere, not just with Arab men!


There are a great many books around dealing with women in the Arab world, and you should certainly look at some of them. Ones that I can suggest are the books by Elizabeth Fernea, one of the authorities. Her book "Guests of the Sheikh" is most interesting as well as being one of the most entertaining. She has also written more factual books. Annie Caulfield's "Kingdom of the Film Stars" gives rather a rosy picture of a love affair in Jordan, but virtually no practical information.

A book that you shouldn't miss is a story of that rare occasion : a happy marriage! "Married to a Bedouin", by Marguerite van Geldermalsen is published by Virago Press in Australia and Britain, and is available through Amazon UK.  It describes the extraordinary willingness to adapt shown by Marguerite, and the extraordinary patience shown by her husband. The result was twenty years of happiness until Mohammed's death.

A website you should most certainly consult is which has much interesting material. It is not entirely appropriate to the situation I have chiefly met and address here: a Western woman meeting a Jordanian and deciding to marry and to settle in Jordan. Most of the marriages discussed there are with Arabs already living and working in the Western world. But there is a lot of relevant advice and information.


Back to "Meet the people"   -   HOME 

Arab marriage customs


Ruth Caswell 2003