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

Traditional Weddings Bring Heartache

Women who wed according to traditional custom are left with few rights.
By Dina Munther
Nahla Osman, a 33-year-old Iraqi school teacher, says that if the clocks could be turned back 15 years, she wouldn’t have gone through with a marriage ceremony she believed at the time made the groom her legal husband.



She went through an urfi marriage - one which follows traditional custom in being presided over by a mullah or cleric, but which is not considered a legal marriage because it is not registered in court.



Osman said her husband, who already had a wife and three children, persuaded her that getting married this way would create a legal marriage and that he would later register it at court after he had arranged his affairs.



Fifteen years later her marriage is still considered illegal in the eyes of the law. It gives her nothing “except torture and heartache”, she said, adding that she had no children because her husband already had them by his first wife and didn’t want more.



"I really regret it,” she wept. “If I could go back in time, I wouldn't have done this to myself and my family.”



Urfi marriages are often carried out in secret, without normal wedding rituals such as an engagement or the man having to buy jewellery and other gifts for his bride and her family.



Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein’s regime, the deteriorating economic situation in Iraq has given fresh impetus to these “customary” weddings. Providing an opportunity for sexual relations outside of a legal marriage, they are popular among college students and men who want to have affairs.



It seems that whatever the reason for such marriages, trouble often follows. In one such case, a former major general in Saddam’s army shot and killed the young man who married his daughter in an urfi marriage and, after failing to persuade him to divorce her.



Attorney Sufyan Abbas said that in an urfi marriage the woman has no rights except for alimony in the case of break-up. The husband also automatically gets custody of the children if the marriage is ended.



“If the urfi marriage is not registered in the court, then the woman virtually has no rights, and so the women suffer,” said Abbas.



There are cases though when men agree to protect the rights of their spouse.



One newspaper editor admitted that he entered into an urfi marriage with a colleague he’d had an affair with – but said he told her he would guarantee her rights as if it were a legal marriage.



Sheikh Adnan al-Rubai’e, a cleric, said that any marriage that does not fulfill the requirements of having witnesses, consent by the parents, a dowry and other criteria is considered invalid.



But he said an urfi marriage could become a legal one if the couple go to court and confess their relationship.



Both parties to the wedding have, however, to sign the court registration papers and, too often, the man refuses.



Dina Munther al-Mumeyez is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.