Saudi Arabia and the Marriage Contract

When it comes to marriage to a Saudi, how many women, whether Saudi or non-Saudi pay a lot of attention to or read what is in the marriage contract?  I got to thinking about marriage contracts on reading this article in slate.com which indicates that the majority of Pakistani women, even those who are highly educated such as doctors and lawyers, fail or disregard to read their marriage contract.  Some of the women are even prohibited or strongly discouraged by their families to read the marriage contract believing it is starting the marriage on a foot of distrust instead of faith in the husband.  Yet the article also points out that many of the women found that rights they are entitled to under Islam were taken away from them by the words of the marriage contract.

One women’s rights activist, Rubina Sehgal, believes that a primary reason the women are not being more forward and insisting on seeing the marriage contract is “It has to do with their upbringing,” she said. “Women are brought up to believe that marriage implies submission and obedience and so, when it comes to the marriage contract, they just sign it. They forget at that time that they have the right to read it, vet it, and even suggest changes. At the time of tying the knot, a lot of importance is given to trust—trust your soon-to-be-husband, trust your parents.”

Speaking of my own personal experience, I paid little attention to the marriage contract.  The concept of a marriage contract was foreign to me as a Westerner.  My continued belief of marriage is “to love and to cherish; to trust and to honor; and to death do us part.”  I remember Abdullah kept asking me if I wanted anything included in the marriage contract and my reluctance to discuss it.

So I’d like to hear from those who married Saudis and Saudi women.  Was the marriage contract read?  Were there many negotiations?  Or as Rubina Sehgal suggests, more importance is given to trust rather than reading the fine lines of print?

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19 Responses

  1. I didn’t think a marriage contract could take away the woman’s rights . They can’t put in there that a man can’t marry another wife, so to me it would not be enforceable if it took away the woman’s right. And taking away support for a child? That is just stupid. I am glad that the US and many other countries enforce child support, and would no matter what teh woman and man signed before the marriage.

  2. Thanks for your comment Anisah. The marriage contract and what can or can not or is put into it can be open to so many interpretations as well as how some women (and families) view the contract too.

  3. This reminds me of the first time I heard of the term “prenuptial agreement” and had to look it up.

  4. The problem is that in a place like Saudi, from what I understand, there have been instances where the woman’s relatives have later invalidated the marriage, just taken her away from the man, because he wasn’t of the right social status. And legally speaking, nothing was done about it. How much more, then, is the contract ‘open to interpretation’, as American Bedu so delicately puts it. It sounds like even reading the contract and putting one’s conditions in there is far from a guarantee that your rights will be safeguarded.

  5. What are the features written down in a Saudi contract? An Indian Nikahnama – the marriage document doesn’t have much apart from the meher amount and the instalments in which it has to be paid.

  6. It is sad that many muslim ladies do not read the marriage contract. They should especially if she was not a Muslim before or plan to marry one without converting. It is important since it would spelt the rights of the spouses. It is imperative to always be on guard especially when you enter a divorce man or a Married man before entering the union.

    The marriage contract varies from country to country in the muslim world and also diferrent during historical times. Certain Ulamaks provide the inclusion of denying the man ‘s right to take in another wife becuse the Ulamak in question believe it is not an absolute right but a qualified one but again there is no uniformity. The wordings of the contract could then be worded to protect woman. I applaud Abdullah for asking you whether you wish to put anything in the contract to protect your interest. He is a fine gentleman but many are not thus i wish the ladies be more careful and not just follow your heart

  7. I think this is all over the spectrum. I think they can be very basic, like Daisy mentioned, or very complicated laying out sums to be paid to the wife upon divorce, monthly payments, custody issues, ect.

    Personally ours had nothing besides our names, amount of mahr, the name of the Islamic offical marrying us, and the witnesses.

  8. Some Western friends in Jordan seeking divorce have discovered they can’t until they repay their dowry, which they didn’t know about when they signed the contract.

    Women come into relationships naive and overly trusting.

  9. Marriage contracts in Saudi are very small (in the size of a small wallet) and basic, so we can’t fall in the same trap as this poor Pakistani lady has fallen in. It only has 4 pages (besides the cover pages). They include the following:
    Names
    Witnesses
    Date
    Place
    Name of Official
    Medical Check Info
    Reference Number
    Pages 1-2 of the marriage contract: http://www.alriyadh.com/2008/10/30/img/027867.jpg
    And then it has a couple of empty pages on which one could include the handwritten meher or conditions if any. The conditions have to be said aloud and both parties have to agree not only by signing but also by saying that they agree on the marriage with the written/mentioned conditions. Most contracts do not have any condition, but recently females have been adding a condition to their marriage contracts which says that the bride has the right to continue her education/employment.

  10. For my marriage to my Saudi husband I stipulated the following in our contract:

    1) My desire to study and continue my education for as long as I wish no matter my age.

    2) To never move me outside of Riyadh.

    3) If he takes another wife (which I’m not happy about but accept it’s possibility) he must provide me my own personal dwelling; ie I refuse to live with a co-wife.

    4) Mahar amount

    5) Divorce settlement amount

    I made very sure there was a translator with me to ensure I knew what was being discussed between my husband, the judge and witnesses. And I appreciated very much how the judge reviewed everything with me before my husband and the witnesses signed the contract.

    The only thing I didn’t like was that I did not actually “sign” my contract. They only took my finger prints which I thought was really odd for an official document.

    Also the courthouse in Riyadh was an absolute dreadful place. The women’s waiting area was dark, dirty and damp. It seemed very depressing, not exactly an uplifting place to await for your new spouse. The entire process took about two hours.

    After the contract was finished my husband took me to buy the customary jewelery set and then I returned home alone strangely enough. I had requested the walima to be later that week which allowed me to shop for the dress, etc. After the walima I joined my new husband in our new home. He had everything in the house prepared. And although I did not like a lot of the furnishings he had chosen it was very nice to see how much of an effort he put into it just for me. Oh and of course after that I quickly fell pregnant and we lived happily ever after! :)

    Seriously…overall I would say the process was pretty painless and at no certain time did I ever feel like I was in the dark about what was being discussed in the contract. Everything was clear and agreed upon and I would not have gone through with it had it been any other way.

    I recognize that my American nationality played a huge role in how smoothly things went. Other women I’m sure aren’t so lucky. I could see how easy it would be to coerce a vulnerable woman during the contract process.

    On an unrelated note…This actually has me worried for my daughter who after all is considered “saudi”. I pray my husband and I are around to help her through this process when she is ready for marriage. I have reason to fear if it were left up to her uncles they would not honor her wishes.

  11. Hi Carol,

    I just wanted to stop by and say I’ve discovered your blog recently and have been enjoying current and past posts. It feels all the more relevant as I’ve been living in KSA for over 6 years and I originate from a country you know well – Pakistan.

    I’m also sorry for your very recent loss and pray that Allah gives you strength, patience, good health and happiness.

    Warm regards,

    Sabaa

  12. Abu Sinan’s contract is the type that seems to be mostly followed here. There is no question of a post-divorce amount to be mentioned because in India the Meher payment is usually deferred till divorce and in case the marriage is successful, it is condoned by the wife at a late stage in life. We have already discussed this at length earlier.

    As for child custody and property division etc, that is decided by the court as and when required.

    95% of Indian Muslims are monogamous, so the provision of a co-wife’s residence is not necessary, nor is the medical check required by law.

    Continuation of education or not is decided at the stage of marriage negotiations and is not included in the contract.

    So I guess that’s why Indian contracts are much simpler than the Saudi ones.

  13. I believe that the necessity of the medical check in Saudi is due to a large part of the marriages between families (first and second cousins). This has been going on in some families for many generations and therefore there is a greater risk of (medical) incompatibilities) which can dissuade (or not) such a union. I guess that should be a topic for a separate post.

    Marriage contracts in my view should be a simple and straight-forward process but it seems that most of the world is no longer leading such simple lives. Who would have thought so many years ago that one would require a pre-nuptial agreement? Seems like that is becoming as common in the western world as the traditional marriage contract in the Eastern world.

    I feel though that the marriage contract stipulations are really only as good as the honor in the individual’s heart. I’m aware of too many circumstances in Saudi where there have been stipulations in a marriage contract but when it came time for those stipulations to be met there were a number of ways stipulations could instead be circumvented.

  14. In my case, the biggest help in sorting out what I wanted on the marriage came from a Hasidic friend who was also getting married at the time. The difference between a Jewish and a Muslim marriage contract is not something I know in detail, but her help was invaluable.

    The judge at the time made sure (not common in Yemen) that I understood the terms of agreement- especially the maher. I did sign my own contract to the surprise to the witnesses. A portion of the proceedings were conducted with just my husband and I so I could lift my niqab and the judge ascertain my husband was marrying the right woman. After that the male witnesses were allowed into the chamber and the rest of the formalities were conducted.

    Because my husband would be living in the US instead of my living in Yemen, all the documentation was translated and certified by the Ministry of Interior in Sanaa. Which helped tremendously later on for my husband’s paperwork in the US.

    I have asked muslim-american women in living in NY if they had in their possession a copy of their marriage contract. Sadly none to whom I spoke with even had a marriage contract, saying that they married in the US and the laws applied there would suffice. Unfortunately, in some US states the enforcement of the rights of husband and wife during a separation and/or subsequent divorce vary in intensity. A good lawyer, in these cases, is the best option to have chosen if the marriage breaks.

    But I do know of many women in Yemen who don’t have a marriage contract, not able to read or write who have found themselves back in their paternal or maternal home without a penny of sustenance with or without their children. A marriage contract would have gone a long way in halting some of the unforeseen consequences.

    Bedu, in Yemen if the man (a Yemeni) is marrying a foreigner the blood tests are mandated. But not if they are marrying a native. I am not sure of the cases of foreign males marrying Yemeni women- which I think is extremely low, if we go by cultural traditions.

  15. @Inal,

    Thanks so much for the detailed description of your process as well as requirements of Yemen.

    I’m sure for one who has not been exposed to an Islamic marriage it is difficult to comprehend the process, the ceremony and the contract. Similar when my husband got to go to one of my nephew’s weddings. It was his first experience at a Christian wedding ceremony and accompanying reception. The Islamic ceremony is so small and private whereas the wedding my husband attended, the bride and groom had six attendants plus the church was filled to capacity.

  16. I’m curious what Abdullah thought about that Christian wedding.

  17. He enjoyed it. He liked how everyone witnessed the bride and groom committing themselves to each other and then the prayers which were said blessing their future marriage. The only thing he did not understand and found unusual was that all the bridesmaids wore black (yeah….that was what the bride wanted).

  18. Having teenage daughters, the whole Islamic marriage process is, quite frankly, frightening to me. I am Muslim, but converted after my marriage, met my husband in college, and married for love. I had no idea about the Islamic marriage contract, but my husband, like Abdullah, explained everything to me and asked me if i would like to include any stipulations. Like you, i was reluctant, because it was very foreign to me – i simply stated that i wished respect for my religion. As we were both poor college students, the mahr was nominal, symbolic really. The idea of prospective mother-in-laws coming shopping for a wife, my daughters meeting someone a couple of times in our living room with no time to get to know each other, and negotiating a business-type contract is just something i can’t relate to because i never experienced it. As a Muslim, i do appreciate the important role that the family plays in a marriage, but I just pray that somehow the whole process will be more “natural” like mine was.

  19. Donna,

    Thanks for sharing. What I have observed among most of the bi-cultural couples that I know in Riyadh, their children have not had the typical arranged marriage. Maybe because they are a bi-cultural couple to begin with they are more open minded? What I have seen is that the children while not necessary being allowed to date, are allowed to meet and get to know one another. In fact, of most the bi-cultural couples that I do know, they already circulate as families (non-segregated) with other bi-cultural couples. Whether any marriages of children will be forthcoming as a result though, I do not know…

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