Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Gold Paves Road to Love

When money is short, men find it hard to provide the homes, furnishings, and cash families traditionally require before allowing their daughters to marry.
By Muhammad Fawzi

Basim Alwan, 25, an English student at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University, had high hopes of marrying his girlfriend of four years, the daughter of a rich merchant.

Before attending college he'd worked as a mason, a trade he learned from his father, but not one that would enable him to earn enough to support his bride in the manner her family would expect.

Traditionally, families require grooms to provide homes, furnishings, and the "muakhar" – a sort of prepaid alimony – before a marriage can be approved. And the higher the bride's social class, the greater the price that is demanded.

Alwan hoped that his new job as a translator, earning him a relatively respectable 200 US dollars a month, would persuade his girlfriend's family to bless their marriage.

But they insisted that he buy her a 200 square metre apartment, which now costs around 40,000 dollars, plus a car for about 4,000 dollars. In addition, the father wanted a five million dinar (3,500 dollar) “advance” to buy his daughter jewellery and furniture, as well as a 10 million dinar “deposit” which would serve as compensation in case of divorce.

When Alwan said he couldn't pay, the woman's father told him, "If you don't, then the marriage is off." Alwan brought in sheikhs from his tribe to plead his case, but the father stood firm.

"I can't do anything, because I can't buy any of that. I am helpless," said Alwan.

Instead, Alwan married a distant cousin from his own social class. His mother sold her own gold jewellery to buy a ring, a necklace, and a basic set of bedroom furniture, which was all his new fiancee's family required.

Although he never sees his first girlfriend any more, Alwan says he is still in love with her.

When times are hard, engagements often end and weddings are cancelled.

"Relationships between men and women don't last," explained Zaynab Hameed, 22, a female student at the institute of technical administration, whose two-year relationship with a 24-year old classmate has just ended. "Boyfriends are always looking for some reason to break off the engagement without telling [their girlfriends] that they are poor."

Riyadh al-Taee, 23, accused his fiancée Shayma Hussein of not loving him and of having a relationship with another man, rather than admit that he was too poor to marry her.

"I cry every day over Riyadh," said Hussein, who says that she would gladly bear the costs of the wedding.

But Taee's position is that, "My honour would not permit me to marry at my girlfriend's expense."

Ahmed Riyadh, 33, who survives on odd jobs and street vending, gave up any hope of marriage 10 years ago. His 65-year old father, who sells foodstuffs in west Baghdad's al-Bayaa market, helps his son out from time to time, but says he “could never give him enough to get married".

Instead of marrying, Riyadh goes to brothels, paying 3,000 dinars, about two dollars, a time. "I can't marry because I don't have a lot of money, so I pay a little to the [prostitutes]," he says.

Muhammad Fawzi is a trainee journalist with IWPR in Baghdad.