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Bedouin-Arab Families

Marriage And Divorce

Marriage for Bedouins has both religious and social significance. From an Islamic perspective, marriage legalizes sexual relations and provides the framework for procreation. From a social perspective, it brings together not only the bride and groom but also their nuclear families and hamail.

Parents or parent substitutes arrange most marriages, sometimes without prior consultation with the prospective spouses or over their objections. Since Islam encourages early marriage and childbearing, marriages may be arranged when the future bride and groom are in their early teens and, sometimes, when they are still children. There is no dating or courtship. A girl or young woman suspected of contact with a boy will be physically punished and have her freedom of movement and communication severely curtailed (Mass and Al-Krenawi 1994).

Romantic love is regarded as a feeble basis for marriage. Muslims believe that love should grow out of marriage (Denny 1985). The main factors considered in the selection of a mate are the character, reputation, and economic and social status of the prospective in-laws, followed by the character and reputation of the spouses-to-be. Preference is usually given to relatives. First-degree relatives receive first choice of a prospective bride, followed by other members of the hamula and tribe. Hence, many Bedouin marriages are endogamous.

In some cases, exchange marriages (badal) are made. These are marriages in which two men marry one another's sisters. Among the purposes of such marriages is to obtain a mate for a boy or girl with poor marital prospects. Often at least one of the parties in such unions agrees to it out of family pressure or a sense of duty.

The boy's family initiates marriage. It may be arranged directly by the families themselves or through mediators (Hana 1984; Moors 1995). In Islam, marriage is effected through a legal contract, which stipulates, among other things, the amount of the mahr, the dower, that the groom's family must pay. In Bedouin-Arab families, the mahr is given to the bride's guardian, usually her father, to purchase clothing and jewelry for her to start her married life. The jewelry serves as economic security for the wife in case of mishap. The mahr consists of a sum paid before the marriage and a larger sum to be paid only if the husband initiates a divorce. The latter sum is meant to discourage him from casting off his wife lightly (Moors 1995). The sum of the mahr varies with the families' blood relations and is lower for relatives than for outsiders.

Polygamy, which is permitted by the Qur'an (4:3), is practiced by a certain percentage of Bedouin-Arabs. Reasons for polygamy include pressure to take part in an exchange marriage; the illness or infertility of the wife, or her failure to bear sons or to meet her husband's sexual needs (Al-Krenawi 1998b). Among some Bedouin, polygamy confers prestige as a sign of wealth and prowess (Abu-Lughod 1986). Traditionally, polygamy served as a way to enlarge the family labor pool and also as a way of providing the protection of marriage for women when there was a shortage of men (Al-Krenawi 1998b). Its negative consequences include the unequal distribution of resources among rival households, and jealousy and acrimony among the co-wives and among the children of different wives (Al-Krenawi 1998b; Al-Krenawi and Lightman 2000).

Divorce is stigmatized and rare in Bedouin society. Unhappily married women are deterred from seeking divorce because the father is entitled to custody, whatever the child's age, and by the poor prospects of remarriage for divorcees, other than to an older man or as a second, third, or fourth wife in a polygamous household (Al-Krenawi 1998a, 1998b).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsBedouin-Arab Families - Marriage And Divorce, Family Dynamics In Bedouin-arab Society, Interpersonal Dynamics, The Impact Of Societal Change