With great trepidation and a roar of religious mumbo jumbo, many Saudis are opting for a matrimonial loophole known as the misyar (or "visit") marriage, 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. Officials tell Arab News that seven of 10 contemporary marriage contracts in Saudi Arabia are misyar arrangements.
The popularity of the arrangement in a country top-heavy with spinsters and divorced women and men unable to afford the expense of maintaining a full-time bride has prompted Saudi religious authorities to observe a time-honored method for dealing with vice: renaming it virtue. This spring, the Institute of Islamic Religious Law sanctioned misyar marriages but stipulated that neither party can enter into the union with a secret intention of getting divorced. Even this caveat is belied by the wording of many misyar contracts. One version makes divorce automatic if the woman gets pregnant; another ends the union if the marriage is made public.
In a society that disguises hatred of women as concern for the well-being of the distaff, it's not surprising that much of the controversy over misyar marriage has centered on exploitation of women or concern for the children of these unions. But the dynamics of the practice create some intriguing questions about power relations and economic clout specifically, whether women may in many cases be driving misyar marriages. Although some of these unions appear to be kept-woman arrangements, a cleric tells the newspaper Al-Madina that the majority of misyar wives are professional women. Some opponents of the practice raise the specter of young gigolos reeling in wealthy old bags and "extorting" them.
But in Saudi Arabia, the most pressing concern is not about women's rights or even Islamic piety but something closer to the heart of the Gulf's Sunni majority: that misyar marriage seems like the kind of thing a Shiite would do. Shia Islam has allowed a similar practice known as mut'a ("pleasure") marriage for centuries except that the Shia version is somewhat less hypocritical, making no secret of the union's nature and allowing the contract to be dissolved without a divorce.