Dowry or no dowry that is the question…
Libya is a predominantly Muslim Arab country, so in addition to its own traditions it has acquired many of the cultural aspects of Arab tribes and Islam.
Islam was a pioneer in women’s rights, and among them is the right to chose her own mate and have a marriage contract. Regardless of the variety of customs in Muslim countries, the woman will receive from her husband upon their marriage a ‘mahr’ or dowry.
‘And give unto the women, (whom ye marry) free gift of their marriage portions; but if they of their own accord remit unto you a part thereof, then ye are welcome to absorb it (in your wealth)’ (Quran 4:4, 90).
The marriage contract stipulates a dowry which the man pays to the woman , which could be of any value agreed upon even symbolic. It is a gift an expression of his love and appreciation. It is hers exclusively to use as she wants. Please note the difference from the European dowry which becomes the property of the father or the African ‘bride price’ given to parents to compensate the ‘loss’ of their daughter.
Fourty years ago, a Libyan woman’s dowry was not a specific amount, each man brought presents according to his ability. However, after the oil boom where Libya was catapulted from the poorest country in the world to one of the leading oil exporters, people changed and became greedy, the larger dowry signified higher status suddenly and consequently similarly to the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia the dowries rocketed and marrying became a marathon track.
You see Arab men, but particularly Muslim men are required to provide for their home. So that means that the Libyan man has to get the house and whatever is in it and pay a dowry and upkeep his wife. I cannot pinpoint exactly the point in time when the dowry turned from negotiable to a fixed list of items which not everyone could afford as it costs a fortune. Sometimes the price of the items on the list would be sufficient to buy a car or even a humble house. In the 80s and 90s things really became overstated, but you could not back off as families were copying each other. If my neighbour has asked for something for example, her cousin would also want the same thing. In the long run this has compounded a marriage problem, men were marrying later as they needed to secure all the items on the list and women as a result were also marrying later.
In a society where you are supposed to be chaste (both men and women) and come to your wedding night a virgin (especially men), I’m sure you are aware that this is a recipe for problems.
Libyan weddings are very costly as they used to last for seven days and you had to feed the guests: slaughtering sheep, cooking for a minimum of 200 people on a daily basis, including your whole extended family and tribespeople. I mean it is a great tradition, but it somehow got shifted along the way, becoming a twentieth century add -on to an amalgam of Islamic, Arab and North African culture.
A problem many Leila’s face now is do they wish to forsake this dowry which has become larger and larger over the decades and establish a home but have no guarantees in life or wait till Qays is capable of providing all these material trappings? (note Qays and Leila are Arab Romeo and Juliette) but then there is also no guarantee, as apart for sexual frustration for years, the lady concerned may seem old and men could be such ‘bastards’ in this regard as to dump their fiancée for a younger woman.
Well one of my friends’ sister had been dating a guy for seven years, the guy was not one to play with her feelings and he officially asked for her hand. Her father who had other plans refused him five times on grounds that he was absolutely unsuitable for her. She was adamant and the guy must be praised for his persistence to be honest he never gave up on her. At the sixth attempt her father accepted seeing that it was better he does as his daughter was refusing other men anyway, and he has no right to force her to marry anyone of his choice – he can suggest but he cannot force if the girl sticks to her guns because the ma’zoun ( marriage civil servant and religious clerck) has to actually hear her say personally that she is marrying freely.
Anyway this girl is absolutely happy and there comes the day where the men from her fiancé’s family are sitting in the guest room with the men from her family discussing marriage arrangements, contract and dowry. A marriage contract in Islam is an excellent ‘weapon’ for the woman she can use it to have all the rights she wants including the one where she has the right to divorce him. This is her chance to make her stand in writing and it must be abided for. That is why I insist that Islam was a pioneer in women’s right 1400 years ago at a time when there was no civil law and nothing to protect the women whether in Europe or in Arabia.
So our heroine and let’s call her A., is madly in love, about to get her wish to be united under one roof with the object of her desires M.and she does not want anything to hamper this felicity. M. is a recent graduate .
A. thus barges into the middle of the conference where about twenty men are sitting, and shouts loudly “please don’t ask anything from M., I don’t want gold or jewelry or anything, no dowry and no conditions in the marriage contract”. Apart from stunning the elders and the men, she has made a grave breach of protocol as she should have made her wishes known to her father prior to this meeting.
In the name of love A. has relinquished her full rights.
Let us not dwell on the opinion of the men in M.’s family about her or on her family’s embarrassment. The wedding took place it was a beautiful affair, and A. gave birth to a son about 9 months later.
Is that the end of the story? You ‘re thinking why is Libyanviolet bothering us with these stupid details?
They say that the ‘intestines in our stomach fight’ ( when your tummy is rumbling), so as in every family there are bound to be misunderstandings and arguments between couples, it is a normal process which is usually treated by communication, talking , negotiating and compromise. So my guess is that one day the arguments got a little bit out of hand and voices were raised and to A.’s dismal and utter shock M. told her “ if you were not cheap your family would not have agreed to marry you without a dowry”.
That sentence was like a slap in the face, a dagger in the heart and went against all the sacrifices she made for this man whom she thought loved her, who did everything he could to marry her, and yet at the first sign of misunderstanding he reverted back to the chauvinistic ways. Insulting her because she had given up her rights for his love and to give him a head start in married life Because she has dared to break social established taboos for his sake, A. was hurt in her womanly pride she could not look at herself in the mirror and packed her belongings, took her kid and went back home. A. was hoping he will realize his mistake and how much he hurt her and come to apologize. But that never happened; he was able to divorce her easily and ‘cheaply’ because she had no conditions in her marriage contract. And he remarried another woman in the home they had built together with their mutual jobs, because she was stupid to believe in the sanctity of love and that his and her money was one and the same thing. It never is, that’s why God in the first place grants the Muslim woman the right not to use any penny from her privately owned money into the marriage pot. Look at how many divorces go ugly here and in the west for material reasons?
Do you want to know what happened next? I’ll leave you a little bit in suspense till the next post.
But I wished to discuss the morale of the story here.
Exaggerated dowries are neither Islamic nor traditional. It’s like the engagement ring that you buy when you wish to propose to your sweetheart, some buy a tiny mounted stone and some buy an egg sized rock while others make do with a plastic wedding band.
So A. did not want her husband to live in debt in order to bring presents as beautiful or as expensive as what was the norm in her environment, and that is her right, but in order to act like a non materialistic modern girl she has also chosen not to set any conditions and no rights. This marriage contracts is both a civil and a religious contract, in Islam they are both. So she has to take him to court if she wants any child alimony or whatever- it is not automatic. She has left herself literally powerless, and she only has herself to blame even in front of her family because she was the one who had defied her culture and got herself into a marriage with no parachute. In our culture she has ‘cheapened’ herself and offended the elders. Although no contract provisions can guarantee love and care, still it can make a person think twice before stabbing you in the back; at least you get out of the marriage with your respect intact because your partner will have to approach the matter with wisdom.
If she wanted to make things easier financially with him, she could have done so in a more intelligent way. There are two parts to a dowry, one is pre-wedding and the other is post- divorce. You can stipulate that your dowry with be ‘so and so’ before the wedding and write that it is not be taken in cash , so basically he does not have to pay it, and then the post- divorce one is the one which is payable upon divorce by the man. That is where the game is played. You can also not ask for all the gold etc… which was fashionable then but maybe only a part of it and write it down; everything can be put in contract or by word of honour in front of witnesses. You can stipulate that you wish to further your education, work, ask to be the only wife or even be an astronaut as long as the man signs it he is legally bound. But you never leave your contract empty because that is a recipe for disaster.
This story has taught me that even if a girl is head over heels in love, her Libyan suitor will have to bring her all that has become the norm in dowries if he can afford it, and also she should include very specific instructions in the marriage contract. In this way even if he loves her he will appreciate her more because he has invested a lot of himself in the relationship and not just emotionally and because we are ‘monkeys’ and copycats he can brag about the presents he brought her.
He does not loose as a man, because if she asks for divorce then she must return the valuables and relinquish her post-divorce settlement dowry while if he divorces her he must let her keep everything as that is her right.
Final word, do not fly in the face of some traditions because these have evolved for a purpose and knowing the mentality of the people; they work in regulating our society.
What would you do ?