Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Informal Marriages Surge in Algeria

Informal marriages in Algeria
Students at the Carroubier university, Algiers, Algeria. Photo Gamma-Rapho Agence Photographique / Hollandse Hoogte

Influenced by Wahhabi preachers, informal al-misyar marriages have entered Algerian society.

Nikah al-misyar is popular in Saudi society under Wahhabism, a fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam that emerged about 250 years ago from the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. In 2006, a 50 per cent increase in al-misyar marriages was reported in Saudi Arabia after the issuance of a fatwa (religious edict) giving the alliance sanctity.

In Algeria prior to 1984, marriage, divorce, custody and alimony were regulated by the Civil Code. In 1984, a group of judges presented a Family Code to former President Chadli Bendjedid. It was inspired entirely by Sharia law, which the judges believed was underrepresented within the Algerian legal system. This new code caught civil society by surprise and sparked a wave of protests.

NGOs and women’s rights movements such as 20 Years Barakat (i.e. 20 years is enough), which perceive the laws as oppressive and discriminatory, fought for more than two decades for reform. Among many fights led by women’s NGOs was the issue of polygamy. The law on polygamy was finally amended in 2005 when it became obligatory for the man to obtain permission from his first wife if he wanted to marry more wives. Civil marriages were also introduced and all religious marriages had to be preceded by a civil one.

Accordingly, Section 4 of the Ordinance 04-02 of 27 February 2005 states that: “Marriage is a consensual contract between a man and a woman in legal form. It aims among others to found a family based on affection, kindness and mutual help, to morally protect the two spouses and to preserve family ties.”

Moreover, in 2006, imams were officially prohibited from performing religious marriages without a formal civil marriage certificate delivered by the competent authorities. These changes were introduced at a time when the government was trying to regain control of parts of society which, during years of violence between the army and Muslim extremists, had been living outside marriage.

A decade later, in 2015, Algeria is witnessing a surge in nikah al-misyar, or traveller’s marriage. Imported from Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt via the Gulf states, it is now finding its way into educated Algerian society, particularly academia.  An al-misyar marriage is a religiously permitted form of marriage contract to which a man and a woman agree in the presence of two witnesses.

According to supporters of al-misyar, its growing popularity is mainly due to the fact that the sexual needs of young people are neither recognized within those societies nor by religious discourse, which explicitly condemns sex before marriage. However, even if it is accepted in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, al-misyar marriage as well as all its variants such as zawadj al-moutaa are not recognized by the Maliki rite dominant in Algeria.

The process has been made possible by the complicity of some imams following the Wahhabi trend. However, many opponents bluntly describe this form of marriage as disguised prostitution and a practice behind nikah al-harb (sexual jihad), where women voluntarily provide sex to male warriors (jihadi).

Nikah al-harb is reportedly also on the rise, particularly in Syria and Iraq where some Muslim women are offering themselves to Islamic State (IS) fighters as part of their religious duty. The rape and sexual slavery of women whom IS considers to be infidels and apostates is a different subject.

Another form of al-misyar is the marriage of rich women, who choose to waive some of the rights they would enjoy in a traditional marriage in order to stay with their parents. It seems that when a woman asks a man to marry her, it is recognized by Islamic law, since Khadija, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, was the one proposing.

In any form of the marriages mentioned above, Algerian girls are faced with the consequences of it being invalid under Algerian law. Not just because of the absence of legal marriage conditions (no dowry, no intention to live together, no rights in the event of separation), but also because of the repercussions if the marriage results in a child, which as a product of a non-legal alliance has no legal rights.

The problem is that the Algerian legal system lacks any form of criminalization of these marriages. Informal marriage is prohibited under the reformed Family Code before civil marriage, yet there is no reference to any sanction. Another popular and dangerous phenomenon in Saudi Arabia is to find an underage girl from a poor background, pay an expensive dowry to her family and then provide a monthly allowance until the end of the relationship. Underage marriage is a pure violation of state law.

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