Exchange, or tradeoff, marriages provide a suitable solution to address the problem of high dowries and dire living conditions in Yemen. The idea sounds strange, more like a bartering of goods as in the past, except that goods are replaced by women in this case. Basically, whoever is unable to pay the dowry of the girl he wants marry has to offer his sister to be married to the bride’s brother. Both men thus avoid paying dowries, while the bridegroom’s sister is denied her right to choose her husband, or even her right to a dowry.
In an exchange marriage, if a man divorces his wife, her parents force her brother to divorce his own wife as well. The brother can refuse to do so, but in a country like Yemen, custom rather than law prevails.
Exchange marriages are common in Yemen, says Yemeni Human Rights Minister Huriya Mashhour, especially in rural areas, though there are no statistics on the prevalence of this form of union, which has been around for ages.
Yemen is known for marriage practices that disenfranchise women, especially its reputation as one of the child marriage capitals of the world. According to Human Rights Watch, “Yemeni government and United Nations data show that approximately 14 percent of girls in Yemen are married before age 15, and 52 percent are married before age 18. In some rural areas, girls as young as 8 are married.”
Many in Yemen get married without notifying any officials, as marriage is often limited to a contract signed in front of a sheikh in a mosque. Women are thus forced to enter wedlock without giving their consent and with no rights—slavery under a social and religious cloak.
Ahlam was married to Salem this way, and Salem had his own sister marry Ahlam’s brother. Problems arose between Salem and Ahlam as a crisis developed between her brother and his sister. Salem thus kicked her out of the house when her brother did the same with his own wife. Then Salem divorced Ahlam when his sister and her brother got divorced. Salem did not care the least about the fact that Ahlam had nothing to do with the problems between her brother and his wife, nor did he pay any attention to their children.
Salem told NOW, “I was happy with my wife and children, but when my sister got divorced, they asked me to divorce my wife. I proposed that each mother would have her own children but my stepbrother refused, saying that he wanted his children to remain with him. So I did the same and took my sons away from their mother.”
Salem advises “all young men to stay away from exchange marriages as they result in family ruin. An exchange marriage does not build a family; rather it builds a family for a while before destroying it.”
Yemen’s Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Endowments Sheikh Hassan al-Sheikh told NOW that “Exchange marriages are banned by religious law, and this is a consensus among all religious scholars. This marriage confiscates a woman’s rights as it deprives her of the right to choose [her husband] and deals with her as goods being exchanged for other goods. A woman may also have to hide her feelings for fear of having her conflicts affect the other woman.”
“Religious scholars are examining many cases [of this kind], and things have come to a point where these marriages, which contravene religious law, should be banned.”
This article is a translation of the original, which appeared on the NOW Arabic site on Thursday November 29, 2012