Abdulaziz Saud

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.

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.

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.

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 riyals)

Saudhouse is best viewed using Microsoft IE explorer

Online Resources:
- Inhuman Rights

Saudi Sites:
- Saudi Embassy
- Sports in Arabia
- Arab Net

Misc. Sites:
- Arabia Online
- Arabic Newspapers