Middle East Media Research Institute has a fascinating roundup of the hubbub over misyar (or "visit") marriages, a form of clandestine matrimony in which the woman gives up any spousal rights and stays in her own residence, the man visits her for sex, and after a while the union is dissolved by a divorce. (The last part is optional and officially frowned upon.) MEMRI provides no statistics to back it up but says the practice is growing in popularity, fueled by the large number of divorced women and old maids in Saudi society, the economic pressures of the post-boom Gulf, and the ancient desire for consequence-free copulation. (One type of misyar contract makes divorce automatic if the woman gets pregnant, which not only reveals the he-man woman-hating bias of the culture but suggests birth control devices, and the expectation that they're being used, are widespread.)
The acceptance of the practice has been accompanied by the usual religious hair-splitting that allows every type of vice and transgression as long as it's properly defined. A fatwa from the Institute of Islamic Religious Law allowed misyar marriages but stipulated that neither party can enter into the union with even a secret intention of getting divorced. This seems to address the main concern with these types of marriages—not that they're unpious or bad for women or hypocritical, but that they too closely resemble the mut'a marriages popular among Shia Muslims. The more honest mut'a union is contracted for a specific period of time, and can be ended without a divorce.
Opponents of misyar marriages (and to a lesser extent, MEMRI) bring out the familiar arguments: that it's exploitative toward women, that it's harmful to the children who inevitably result, and so on. Among women polled in Jeddah, 81 percent were opposed to this type of marriage. The demographics suggest a big helping of desperation:
Saudi author Dr. Ibtisam Halwani, who researched the phenomenon and published a number of articles on the subject, found out the following about misyar marriages: Most of the women in these marriages are non-Saudis, and are from a certain few large cities; in some misyar marriages, the woman relinquishes only some of her rights; many marriage contracts are made not in the presence of the woman's guardian, but in the presence of a public official; some women in misyar marriages demand a divorce after a while so as to remarry and obtain a new dowry; many men set conditions for the woman, such as "if the knowledge of the marriage gets out, you are divorced," or "if you get pregnant, you are divorced"; many of the men divorce when it is even suspected that news of the marriage has reached the families; many students from out of town seek misyar marriage; and most misyar marriages end in divorce.
So is this a new stone in the misogynistic wall of Arab culture? On the principle that nunneries and whorehouses were the first places where women enjoyed anything like independence from men, I'm not so sure. "Young religious man, 29, working in the UAE, seeks misyar marriage with pretty, religious girl from a well-known tribe, age 14-19. I will pay her 1000 dirhams a month," reads one personal ad for a misyar candidate, clearly indicating that the kept woman will not be relinquishing all rights in this arrangement. (Where is the Saudi Rona Jaffe who will immortalize this rising class of doxies?)
It's also not always clear who's zoomin' who: One complaint about the practice is that young men are entering into misyar marriages with rich old bags in order to "extort" them. Imams have had to address the question of whether working women are getting exploited in the same way. That the 19 percent or so of women who support this type of marriage might see ways of getting their money's worth doesn't appear to have entered the conversation. In any event, dissolution of sexual codes is a pretty dependable preamble to social change, even when the forms are as crazy as this thing or the insane laws that governed Christian divorce in its early stages. We'll see.