Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hostage Mahr

"Thirty thousand dollars?" Jaber looked at Mr. Aslam, the father of the girl he loved, in aghast. "That's how much you want for Mahr?"

"Correction." Mr. Aslam adjusted his glasses and continued calmly. "It's what we want for Nafeesa."

"I cannot come up with that sort of money." All thoughts about romantic evenings Jaber was going to spend with his new wife seemed to evaporate instantly. "It's ridiculous!"

"No, no!" Mr. Aslam tried to reassure him. "You don't have to come up with the money. It's just - on paper - God forbid, in case you divorce - which", he quickly added, "I know is impossible to think now. But, one must always plan for the worst. As father of the bride it is my sad duty to do so."

"What if we never divorce?" Jaber was slightly happier now.

"Oh then," Mr. Aslam beamed. "You never have to pay that money!"

* * *

This is, I find, a particular scenario played across the South Asian Muslim community. I call this the Hostage Mahr situation.

After your parents (or relatives) have managed to find someone that is suitable for you (instead of the usual candidates that you can mentally picture on a desi Jerry Springer show), after you have talked to her and discovered that while she prays she also listens to music, after you find that both of you have a few shared interests, and while she cooks she also likes Cantonese Chow Mein, and both are excited at the prospect of a honeymoon in Europe, it's still not over. We have the Mahr to deal with.

Briefly speaking, Mahr is a gift given to the bride by the groom, mandated in Islam as a binding part of the marriage contract. The fairly recent concept of a 'pre-nup', as it's known here in the West, is old story to Muslims. Almost every Muslim marriage has a pre-nup, also known as the 'nikah-naama'. In various places in the Quran (4:4, 4:21, 4:24, 2:237), Allah talks of the Mahr as a faridah - fixed, decided, obligatory. Allah also describes the Mahr as a token of friendship, as a gift - something the husband gives out of love to his wife which becomes completely hers, even if the marriage fails.

Yet Mr. Aslam (a fictional name here) thinks if he arranges a huge deferred Mahr for Nafeesa, Jaber will never divorce her as immediately he would have to come up with that huge amount of money. If any Muslim girl is planning to hold her husband to a similar hostage Mahr, let me blow this theory apart completely.

  • Payment of Mahr is a condition of the marriage. If a husband refuses to pay the Mahr, the wife can ask him for a divorce. If they are already breaking up, why would the husband care?
  • Mahr is a gift paid due to the act of marriage. The husband can argue this money ($30K in our example) is a condition of divorce, not Mahr. So he owes no Mahr to her. Since the pre-nup describes it as Mahr, the pre-nup is legally null and void (you will need a good lawyer).
  • When the couple buys a car (which they eventually will have to), he can register the car (usually worth close to $30K) in her name ONLY. As long as he is responsible for the car payments (usually in our community the husband is), as soon as the car is paid off the hostage situation is removed (the brilliant desi male mind at work here). If he divorces her, he will lose the car, but what the heck.

    Now, my whole point of this post was to bring to light this un-Islamic practice masquerading as Islam. Islam does not specify a fixed amount for Mahr as conditions vary from place to place, era to era, and status in society of the bride and groom. Ladies should stipulate what they want for Mahr, and be practical about it. It should be small enough so that she gets it immediately from her husband (or soon after marriage), it does not place an undue burden on her husband. It should also be large enough so that, if need be, she can be on her own for atleast a couple of months. It should be paid to her, and not to her father.

    After all, if things have come to the point where a couple is considering divorce, Mr. Aslam's style of Mahr, unenforceable in Ontario, is unlikely to deter the husband, and provides zero security to the wife should her husband suddenly leave her or stop supporting her.

    Related Link: http://www.islamfortoday.com/ruqaiyyah07.htm

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  • 14 comments:

    AbulHasnaat said...

    thatz a nice one...
    Mr. Aslam is voooooooooooooooooooooooooou

    Zainub said...

    Excellent post, Mezbah. Muslims originating from the sub-continent seem to have this misconception that Mahar is payable to the bride/wife/woman only in case of divorce, when this is miles from the truth. Sunnat is actually that the husband/groom/man should pay the wife/bride/woman her mahar as soon as possible. I can't recall the exact reference, but I'm pretty certain the Prophet made one of his companions sell one of his possessions so that he could pay his wife her mahar.

    Another regrettable trend that accompanies Mahar here in the sub-continent is the bride's side insisting on setting the mahar at outrageously high proportions. I'll give you an example I've witnessed first hand. There is this person we know, he used to work at my place since I was three up until a couple of years ago, when he moved to a work elsewhere. He's from Maserhah, near the earth quake zone. When he got married, his wife's said fixed the mahar at Rs.50000 (that's twice as more then my mom's mahar). And he's never really earned more then Rs.100-150 a day, making it something like Rs.4000-5000 a month. How ever can you expect him to pay that much money to his wife?

    If you haven't already paid the mahar you cannot divorce some one, so such tactics are obviously aimed at making it impossible or very difficult for the man/husband/groom to divorce his wife/woman/bride. This practice however ignores the hadeeth (don't have exact reference now but I know this is a proper hadeeth) which implies that the nikah does not assume validity in the first place if the mahar is set at outrageously high values.

    Another trend, amongst the super rich is to keep the mahar at super high values as a sign of their social status, and basically a just another way to show off how filthy rich they are. All very sad and regrettable, worst bit is that I have generally had the feeling that women, for whom Allah and His Prophet has specifically laid this wonderful tradition, are more misinformed about the sunnah regarding it then men.

    Aisha said...

    GREAT POST!!!! I totally agree with you. For my wedding we did it because "what would people say" but nothing as ridiculous as that sum, and its funny because I ended up depositing it in our joint account. NOW I do think that in Pakistan or places wehere they dont have safeguards for divorced women such as alimony and child support perhaps MAHER is not a bad idea because they need something... but in the US its really not necessary.

    Anonymous said...

    mez,

    Great Post. Nice scripting to shed some light on the misguided meaning of "mahar".

    - Behbood

    Crimson Mouzi said...

    Salam!

    Oh I loved that third bullet point. I wonder if "real love" exists anymore.....
    Anyway.. I guess there is more to this "hostage mahr."

    This hostage mahr was more (correct me if I am wrong) prevalent in the "bosti-type" area. For example (I hate putting human beings in different scales or different levels in the society but we DO have some sort of socio-economic classes), I have seen a lot of marriages with huge mahr like 1 lakh taka which may sound small to you but it's a pretty big deal for the rickshawala. And the reason was same. Since in that level, you will see a lot of people just go like "amar jonno bhaat randhos nai, ek talaq, dui talaq, and tin talaq."
    And khalaas, that it is, they think. Being an uneducated woman, getting divorce in those slum area in Bangladesh is DEVASTATING for these women. So, even though NO ISLAM is involved in here, this huge amount of hostage mahr actually works pretty well for those rickshawala type people to keep their wives. I apologize for using such words, which make this socio-economic class in bangladesh sound so terrible. But face the reality, it is there.

    However, hearing something from a little more educated family is disheartening and simply sad. But a little more educated family or richer families also ask for high mahr because of social status. So, again to distinguis their class as a higher level than the "lower level" the girl has to have a high amount of mahr, so that her parents/family can brag about how their daughter got $50grand for mahr, of course it's only on paper. Because it's really about social status, not necessarily for absolving the groom of his responsibility. Where I totally disagree with such behavior of the bride side, I think no groom (educated ones at least) should EVER settle for such false agreement. This is a right of the bride, by Allah's 7ukum. So if the amount asked is too high for him, maybe he should walk away from this contract or ask them to negotiate, and this is a chance to educate these people instead of taking advantage of the situation and NEVER pay for it.

    Isheeta said...

    well, this was an extremely enlightening post... I didnt even know there was such a concept as mahr, i mean, it sounds the same as a dowry, but with added stupilations (aka stipulations.... i'm so clever with words, I KNOW I KNOW!) that you cant divorce her after that.
    either that, or i really need to get into some religious-isms

    Masti-boy said...

    The car idea is sellable !!

    mezba said...

    AbulHasnat: Thanks for the comments. What is voooooou?

    Zainub, Tea-biscuit: Thanks for the comments. Yes, it does seem that a high mahr is the direct result of two social ills:

    i)divorces for trivial reasons by some people,
    ii) false boasting to society at large.

    Mahr's most important function is to give women some property (or wealth) and a means to temporarily support themselves if their husband leaves them (or suddenly dies, etc).

    The Prophet did stress on any marriage on Mahr. There are numerous cases (such as some here - I just googled for 'mahr hadith' now, so no jokes about visiting zawaj.com!) where as soon as an engagement was announced between a bride and groom the Prophet would stress on the man to give his wife her Mahr.

    And it was always meant to be paid - so high mahrs that will be never paid to the wife is against Islam. Regarding high divorces for trivial reasons, there are other ways poor women can protect themselves, I will touch on that later in a post when I clarify my sources.

    Aisha: Thanks for the comments. Yup, once you get your Mahr it is yours to do as you see please. You can even give it back to husband.

    The important thing is for it to be a tangible amount the husband pays immediately to the wife. Also, no matter how rich the wife is or how poor the husband, it is obligatory on him to give the Mahr. If he dies without giving it, it's counted as a debt on his assets.

    Behbood, Masti: The scripting is real scene that happened to a friend of mine two years ago. That was when I came up with the car idea for fun. Although he later settled with his wife for a smaller reasonable Mahr, and are now living happily together. I guess because it was a love marriage (guy girl chose each other), father of girl was nervous about it.

    Isheeta: Dowry (in Indian sense) is paid by girl's family to guy's family. Mahr is paid by guy to girl. Technically. We, ofcourse, have managed to take a straight forward thing and muck it up.

    tea biscuit said...

    Salam,

    Whatever I said in my comment about the hostage mahr has NO place in Islam. However, when women CHOOSE to remain weak and powerless, I guess these guys will ALWAYS take advantage of their weakness. I used to be super involved with these women. My mother was kind enough to get imvovled to help out a LOT OF women and I happen to have been on the side cheerleading for her. And I have seen closely this lady (who was one of our "buaas"), who refused to get any education or anything of that sort. However, after marrying her off to guy of her choice, her husband beats her up every now and then for silly things, and she is pretty okay with that. But I remember quite a few instaces where her husband said stuff like "tin talaq dimu" and the only way to make him stop was to either threaten to take his ricksha back, which was given to him as a "joutuk" and ask for the mahr money. I know this is one of the worst cases I am talking about.

    As you have said few times that you grew up in other countries other than Bangladesh, I don't know how much you'd know about the situation in the country side of the country. Yes, women are oppressed there and of course some women like our "bua" also refuse to make things any better. However, these people are still humans and we need to come up with something to make sure they are not spending days and nights out in the streets.

    The scenario you have described in your post is particularly sad for it assumes a regular/normal/middle class family (that's how it read). But, for the people of the lower socio-economic class, we really need something harsh so that guys stop treating women worse than they would treat a dog in the street.

    Again, note that I am still saying there is NO ISLAM in these cases, whatsoever. You have to understand these women already get married for HUGE amount of dowry. So when you have a hostage mahr of similar amount, the woman is not getting anything but the guy is in fear of paying something and as a result he will NOT be "talaqing" every day for things like "gorom bhaat".

    I know there has got to be other ways to protect these women's rights and dignity. In my opinion, everything starts with education and by empowering women. But, that is not going to happen so soon. We as a nation are simply screwed up and it makes me wonder how on earth we still exist! In fact, how in the world we have about 150 million people in that sooooo screwed up place in beyond me!

    Anyway, enough digression! Sorry about that. I just wanted to make sure that people don't take any message like I am advocating this hostage mahr. However, for a particular type of people, it may be needed so that we don't have single mothers sleeping out in the streets of Bangladesh. Trust me, there is already enough of them.

    mezba said...

    True tea biscuit. You raise some very good points.

    After returning to Bdesh last year I was surprised at while how much Dhaka has changed, how little has changed for the rural communities. I am aware that for many poor women in Bangladesh they have no option but to ask for a high Mahr. And this because the imams there don't teach the men three things:

    1) triple talaq is invalid (by ruling of Ali (R) the 4th Caliph).

    2) talaq is an act seriously disliked by Allah SWT and trivial reason talaq is almost haram.

    3) why do divorced men get married so easily but society looks down on divorced women?

    I am aware the solutions are not easy so for them this type of Mahr could be useful. I mean, Mahr was to empower women and if this type of Mahr succeeds in empowering them, so thats ok. My post was more in regards to the expatriate desi community that is well-off and educated but still has this type of mentality.

    Cheers.

    Sumera said...

    You could this mahr down to a tee Mezba - hostage situation it can definitely turn into that!

    We're still trying to figure out what the purpose of the mahr is at > http://innerreflectionstranscribed.wordpress.com/2007/02/18/marriage-contract/

    Fatima said...

    actually the situation backfires on women in the way GCC family law works. suppose an abusive man is cruelly keeping his wife married to him by not conceding to a divorce, since unilateral male initiated divorce is viewed as his right and not her's. a woman who initiates divorce may be told by a judge "i will allow you to divorce only if you pay back the mahr." GCC dowries are quite high and it could be impossible for her to pay it back because it may have been spent on her wedding and the car and whatever because realistically husbands don't provide everything and leave a woman's earnings to her and her alone (i have never seen a situation in which a woman earns her own income and doesn't contribute to the household, rich or poor). anyhow, i digress. this woman is trapped in her marriage by her husband and by this grossly patriarchal interpretation of divorce and mahr.

    mezba said...

    Sumera: As I said to Isheeta, hehe, we took something simple and made it complicated, when Allah tells us clearly not to play games with His laws.

    Fatima: Wow I never thought of this situation that way. So women should ask low Mahrs for her own benefit eh?

    Sumera said...

    Its almost near impossible for women to divorce their husbands...certainly not as easy as they have it, by saying "talaq" at 3 different occasions. Job done. Talaq via text too!

    Women have to go through the courts before anyone even thinks she has any basis for divorce.

    I wonder why that is? I feel another blog entry coming on..