New business, marriage brokerage
Marriage broker Fahd Suleiman makes the kind of offer that unleashes
fury among women and arouses intrigue in men in austere Saudi Arabia, where
sex outside marriage is high on a long list of taboos. His fax offers men
trapped in unhappy marriages an easy and safe escape -- ``zawaaj al-misyaar,''
or a ``marriage in passing.''
Callers who dial the five telephone numbers in Saudi Arabia listed
on the fax get through to a taped message from a woman with an alluring
voice telling them to punch in a secret code to learn more. ``My dear brother,''
says the fax. ``May God help you find a wife (in passing) to compensate
you for your troubled life. Know that the broker charges these prices.
Five thousand riyals for a virgin. Three thousand riyals for a non-virgin.''
Islamic sharia law allows a man to have up to four wives at any one
time on condition that they are given equal treatment -- from identical
homes to conjugal visits. But under an al-misyaar contract, which falls
under the sharia law umbrella that rules Saudi Arabia, the man benefits
from fewer financial commitments, is not obliged to live with his wife
and he sets the conditions for marriage. ``He can pass by at any time,
in the morning, afternoon or evening. And he does not have to stay over,''
Sheikh Mohammed Mu'bi, a cleric, told Reuters.
MARRIAGES IN PASSING INCENSE FEMALE CRITICS
Such conditions have enraged
female critics of al-misyaar and triggered a war of words in the pages
of Saudi newspapers. ``This is just like having a legalised mistress,''
said Intisaar al-Ageel, a female columnist who has lambasted al-misyaar
pacts as an insult to the institution of marriage. ``This is terrible.
They are deceiving women. It's like a man buying cows and sheep or watermelons,''
she said by telephone from her home in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah.
Soon after she published her opinions, al-Ageel was bombarded with hate-mail
and insulting faxes. ``You cannot believe what I went through. They sent
me faxes saying 'you are an old woman' and 'we heard you had plastic surgery
and you don't read the Koran'. They are out of their minds. I can be very
tough when I believe in something,'' she said. Apparently, al-Ageel was
not tough enough. Newspapers stopped printing her stories. She has yet
to gain official permission to publish a book in the kingdom that compiles
her anti-misyaar editorials -- even though they have already been published
in newspapers. As the days of easy oil money in Saudi Arabia have waned
and supporting more than one family has become prohibitively expensive
for men, al-misyaar pacts have become more popular. There are no signs
that the country is becoming any less conservative. Women are banned from
driving and unmarried couples who mix in public risk angering the mutawaeen,
stern-faced religious police armed with thin wooden canes.
APPEAL FOR DIVORCEES, SPINSTERS AND WIDOWS
While outspoken critics
like al-Ageel blast the al-misyaar pact, it has a certain appeal for divorcees,
spinsters and widows who find an ordinary marriage hard to come by or simply
don't want a full-fledged commitment. Advocates say the pact offers a practical
solution for a man who grows attracted to a woman but wants satisfaction
within the confines of Islamic law in one of the most conservative countries
in the Moslem world. Islamic law imposes the death sentence on adulterers,
but the crime is very hard to prove. In Saudi Arabia, extra-marital affairs
are usually punishable by flogging. ``In the West, if a man gets attached
to a woman he can have a girlfriend. But this is forbidden in our traditional
society. This type of marriage solves the problem,'' Abdullah Abu al-Samh,
a writer who entered the editorial battle, said.
CLERICS JOIN THE CONTROVERSY
The issue became so controversial that
the fiery editorials virtually disappeared from the state-controlled press.
``The government got nervous,'' said one columnist. ``It was making too
much social noise.'' As tales of marriage brokers luring thousands of Saudis
spread in the kingdom, clerics warned that the al-misyaar arrangement was
being abused. Sheikh Mohammad Mu'bi said the pact was attractive to some
women with a ticking biological clock, for instance, who were unable to
land conventional marriages. ``Some women do this because it's the only
way they can have a baby,'' he said. ``We are not attacking the practice
itself, but its negative sides. Some men do this just out of lust. Others
do it just to marry for one month or even one week and then they never
go back.'' Those types of scenarios did not seem to scare one woman, who
goes by the name Mona, away from an al-misyaar marriage. After escaping
an arranged marriage with her first husband, and failing at another relationship,
she settled for al-misyaar with a married man who has three children. ``He
said the condition for our marriage was that his wife would not know,''
said Mona. ``I am happier now. We travel together and he visits twice a
week. But I would like to see more of him,'' she added. ($1-3.75 Saudi
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