Throughout my life, I have heard many stories about women who were married at the age of 15 or who were forcefully married. One of my school friends even married someone she had never met and was only allowed to see one black-and-white picture of him (I still don’t know to this day why there were no colors in that picture).
These stories are by no means strange to me as a woman, but I never knew what the other party, i.e. men, thought.
Then, I happened to be for the first time with a group of young men who were complaining about the social injustice to which they were subjected. This was right after a protest in front of parliament, which called for a strategy to address the Qat issue. The young men decided that all four of us would eat lunch in a restaurant, knowing that I was the only woman among them. One of the young men lived in a Gulf state and had come to Yemen on a visit in order to get engaged. This young man told us how his parents had chosen the girl he was to marry. He did not see his future bride and when he asked to, his parents said that this was forbidden and made him a weird offer instead.
The offer was for him to see her 11-year-old sister who – as he was told – resembled the older sister he was about to marry except for the fact that the older sister was much more beautiful. They thus talked to him about his future bride, who was to become his partner in life, as though they were talking about some merchandise, which the buyer – i.e. the husband – was to buy “blindly” without being entitled to check its quality.
Our friend went on to say that he did go and see the bride’s sister whom, he said, was really beautiful, and he let his mind run loose trying to imagine how his bride would look knowing that she was supposed to be even more beautiful. I was eyeing him as he spoke with a look of surprise, albeit not because of the story as I knew that many people get married without previously seeing their spouse; rather, I was surprised by the fact that he was offered to see her sister, that he did go and see her and that he talked about it as though this was hardly surprising, especially since my interlocutor was an educated young man.
Our expatriate friend finished talking and another friend, who lived in Yemen, started telling his story. This young man was extremely sensible and one of the most promising young men I have met in Yemen. He said that he was also suffering because of the marriage issue, as he wanted to choose his own bride based on prior knowledge and love. However, he was no university graduate as his circumstances did not allow him to continue high school, hence the fact that he had no chance to meet with any girl. As the years went by, his parents were annoyed by his being late to marry, as it is unusual for a man to still be single in Yemen at the age of 25 knowing that he was unmarried at 30. His parents got scared, so his father decided to force him to get engaged to his friend’s daughter, saying that he would get angry at him if he did not agree.
In Yemen, parents are extremely revered and their anger, which is linked to Allah’s wrath, is feared. Accordingly, the young man agreed to get engaged. Our friend in this case is luckier than our expatriate friend as he is allowed to talk to his fiancée over the phone. However, he said he did not feel attracted to her in any way.
Married life in Yemen seems, therefore, more of a deal than a partnership and married life, as the husband pays a certain price and takes home the wife he bought with it though he often knows nothing about her. She is merely a merchandise he took from her father’s house in order to cater to his wishes and raise his children. I am not generalizing here as some do get to know their spouses before marriage. Yet these are not the majority, as blind marriages remain the norm.
As is often the case after a certain period of time in such blind marriages, the husband meets and falls in love with a female colleague and marries her, as religious law allows him to have two, three or even four wives. The woman is thus left with unsatisfying options. On the one hand, she can get a divorce and endure society’s unfair judgment on divorcées with the ensuing suspicions cast on her reputation and the possibility of her parents banning her from going out. On the other hand, she can stay with her husband and endure the idea of him being around only three days a week because a new partner has entered this deal.
This article was first published in Alarabiya