By Asma Al-Mohattwari
In a region where sexual activity outside of marriage is heavily policed by society, high dowry costs contribute to increasing sexual relations outside of marriage.
In Yemen, but also the region more broadly, a dowry includes the cost of gold to be gifted to the bride. It is more than a present – it’s a safety net. Marriage has always been an economic burden for many Yemenis, the majority of whom subside on less than USD 2 a day.
Since the uprising that started two years ago, even comfortable middle-class Yemenis are feeling the economic crunch. For Yemen’s poor and working class, the task of marrying your children off is often too costly to manage. While customs and traditions encourage early marriages – nearly 40 percent of Yemeni women are married before age 18, men in particular are putting marriage off until their 30s and 40s.
There is more to a Yemeni wedding than renting a venue and buying a cake. Even for Yemen’s poorest, an amount of gold is expected to go to the bride prior to the wedding party. Twenty-year old Safa Al-ra’ai married 10 months ago. She said the most important part of the wedding was the dowry, not because she valued gold more than her marriage, but because a low dowry implies the bride herself is less-worthy. “No bride wants to worth less than the other girls,” Al-ra’ai said.
Her then-fiancé struggled hard to raise the funds, which amounted to YR 1.2 million, or about USD 5,600. Despite working many hours, he was unable to raise the money and resorted to selling his vehicle. Al-ra’ai said the high dowry was important, because it demonstrates that he must really care and want to be with her. The more a man struggles, the more he will appreciate what he worked hard for, she said. Additionally, too low a dowry price and man with a little more disposable income could easily take on another wife, said Al-ra’ai.
University student Amal Ahmed opposes high dowries because it results in the postponement of marriage for many. Rich or poor, every bride expects gold as part of her dowry. What differs is the amount and specific type of jewelry one will choose. Some women choose a modest bracelet, earrings and necklace, but the highrollers walk away with the ultimate possession, a golden belt. The golden belts cost thousands of dollars and can be seen at weddings, chews, births and other fitting occasions. If a diamond says I love you, a belt of gold to wrap around your waist screams it.
Al-Komaim Center Jewelry store worker Mohammed Ali said some belts cost YR 1 million and more. About 40 percent of brides shopping for their dowry jewelry buy one, estimated Ali.
While some are postponing marriage because of affordability, others worry about more than just the dowry price. Supporting a family is an economic burden too heavy to bear, some say. 30 year-old Ali was engaged for three years when he had to break off the engagement because he only had YR 700 thousand. His fiancé’s father wanted 2 million. Ali has a full-time job but said that he cannot even think about a wife and children. “I’m better off than so many other Yemeni youth, I have a job and an income, but I still can’t afford the requested salary.” Emad Al-Jawzi was astonished to learn that the engagement alone cost YR 300-400 thousand and that he not only needed to provide a gift to the young woman, but her mother and grandmother as well. “I’m not marrying her grandmother, why must I buy her a gift too?”
Wadea Al-Shibani said that the dowry difficulty is prevalent amongst most Arab youth. He believes the consequence of the custom, the putting off of marriage, makes dowries un-Islamic. It is the opposite of what Islam has called for, said Al-Shibani. Islam describes marriage as the fulfillment of half the religion. When Ali Sharaf, the father of three boys, decided it was time to marry off one of his sons, he sold part of land to pay for it. “In order to have a nice wedding party and to pay the dowry, I sold the land because I don’t want people to think he’s not worthy of a good wedding and bride.” Sharaf says his sons are lucky; not all boys even have living fathers, let alone ones with property than can be sold to raise the money for a wedding.
Psychologist Ebtsam Zaid believes that harassment and sexual assault have increased because marriage is being postponed. Some love-struck couples, without the means to marry, have found creative ways around a future father-in-law’s high dowry demand. Zaid tells the story of Ahlam, a young a woman who ran away with her broke lover. With his family’s honor on the line, the father consented to the marriage dowry-free. Zaid says the father, by requesting a high dowry, put himself in that situation. He says the consequences for non-marriage are increasingly grim.
A specter is haunting Yemen – the specter of spinsterhood. “The number of unmarried women has reached an all-time high of 30 percent.”