Hierarchy of "Real Women" in Saudi Arabia

There are ~5.4 million women in KSA between the ages of 15-64 (~Saudi population is 20 million, 60% are over 15 years old, 45% of those are women) and 1.5 million are spinsters according to the Gulf News. 

That means close to 30% of Saudi women are not married because they are either considered old (over 25 according to some!) or unable to “attract” a husband. When asked about what makes women more attractive for marriage it turns out there is a hierarchy similar to that for men (see earlier post on racism and real men).

“Real Women” in order of decreasing attractiveness (for marriage) fall roughly in these categories (attractiveness for affairs or second marriages is another matter):

  • Tribal women- these are either Saudi (or Emirati women) that trace their lineage to a tribe. Each region has a hierarchy of tribes.
  • Foreigners (Western, Arabs, Asian, others)- the preferences between the various foreigners varies based on who is asked. Some mothers prefer Muslim Arab women for their sons, some mothers do not like converts, some sons prefer western women, some prefer someone who can speak the same language, some sons look for beauty and/or compatibility. What appears to be less common are tribal Saudi men married to Asian women (though it was more common a generation ago).
  • Non-tribal Saudi women, Saudi women doctors and divorced women- this category often ends up marrying non-tribal Saudis, divorced men or becoming second wives. Marrying non-Saudi men also happens however it is a prolonged process due to government approvals that are needed beforehand.

What is striking about the order is not that locals prefer to marry locals (that is true for almost every part of the world), it is the notion that non-tribal Saudi women are less desirable than foreigners. Tribalism is such a strong, heavily embedded concept that it completely supercedes nationality and language- not having a tribe while being Saudi is considered less than being a non-Saudi!

Shighar Marriages and Minors in Saudi Arabia

A case of “shighar” marriage gained a lot of media attention lately. Part of the unfortunate arrangement has been overturned by the courts and an 11 year old child’s marriage to a 75 year old man has been ended.

Shighar marriages are “exchanges”, where one bride and her dowry are exchanged for another bride and her dowry. For example, a father will marry the daughter /sister of an acquaintance and in exchange the acquaintance will marry his daughter/sister. These marriages are Islamically illegal as the marriages are contingent not just on their own contracts, but also the implementation of another marriage contract (see my previous posts on marriages in Islam and types of marriages in KSA). These transactions are effectively a barter of children rather than being real marriages between consenting adults.

What is unsettling about the court ruling is that it is unclear if the ruling was based on the type of marriage (shighar) or on the fact that the minors involved were 11 and 16 years old.

This question comes to mind as not too long ago the marriage of an 8 year old to a 47 year old man was NOT overturned by Saudi courts (Saudi news states the groom’s age as 58). This particular marriage was not a shighar marriage however it was done to pay off the father’s debt to his 47 (58 ) year old friend. In this case the child, currently unaware that she is even married, will make the decision when she reaches puberty.

Racism and "Real Men" in Saudi Arabia

Segregation of men and women in KSA in restaurants, schools, universities, work areas (even if not required by the government) is explained on religious grounds- that men and women who are not “mahram” for each other should not be alone with each other (different countries and societies deal with the issue of “khulwa” differently- the topic of a different post!).

A mahram is someone in front of whom a woman does not need to cover and can touch/hug e.g. father, father-in-law, bro, son, uncles, nephews, other women etc. For men the equivalent are: mother, mother-in-law, sister, daughter, aunt, niece, other men etc. Other than the husband/wife relationship, the people within the circle of mahram are people that one cannot marry.

So the question comes to mind that if the concept of mahram is so important that all public spaces are segregated, why is it ok for women to be driven by male drivers?

The answer I have received from several locals is mind boggling and has nothing to do with religion. Apparently the drivers in KSA are not considered “real men” as they are almost all from India, Pakistan, India and the Philippines. “Real men” can only be Arab. The hierarchy is as follows:

  • Tribal Arabs (Saudi or from other GCC countries)- real men
  • Syrians and Iraqis- real men
  • Other Arabs (like Egyptians)- NOT real men
  • Asian- not real men

The racism does not end here. People assume that Saudi women cannot possibly be attracted to non-Arab men. They also assume that all these foreign workers would not DARE approach a Saudi woman. Thus it is “safe” to be alone with them. Non-Arab foreign workers  are thus the preferred nationality for personal chauffeurs, limo drivers and taxicab drivers.

Marriage in Islam

Marriages in Islam are social contracts and have to be understood in two separate ways: the mechanics of the actual marriage contract  and the responsibilities/rights associated with the marriage.

There are many cultural practices that are common however there are only a few that are religiously required (as per traditional interpretations- I won’t be dealing with other interpretations in this post).

One of the first requisites by Islam is the right to chose ones own spouse. Neither sides can/should be forced into a reunion against their will.

Like all contracts, marriages are written and signed by the bride and groom with two witnesses from each side (2 from the groom, 2 from the bride), done in the presence of an imam or a justice of the court. That means that there are a minimum of 7 people involved in any marriage contract (though they might not all be present simultaneously).

The contract itself sets the terms of the “mahr”- the amount that the husband owes the wife after the consummation of the marriage.  This is the opposite of dowry. In divorce proceedings there are various rules associated with the return of the mahr. Additionally, any other clause of legally permissible items can be added.

One more concept that is of note is that there are separate contracts for separate “transactions” in Islam. This is no different for marriages where a marriage cannot be conditional on another marriage. The terms of the contract (mahr, clauses etc) are embedded in itself, not on any other marriage contract.

The rights and the responsibilities of husband and wife have to be understood as counterparts. The right of the wife is the responsibility of the husband and vice versa. These can of course be manipulated/customized based on individuals.

The main one is associated with finances. Men are required to cover all living expenses for their wives and families. The traditional religious counterpart for women is the responsibility  of taking care of the household.

There are many other aspects of marriages however these are a few of the main ones. So why the primer on marriage is Islam? Because many of the various types of marriages mentioned in my previous post violate one or more of these requirements. Some are invalid, while others are considered reprehensible (foul, heinous, shameful).

Divorce in Saudi Arabia

The official divorce rate in KSA is stated to be more than 30% while other sources claim it is upwards of 50%. Despite the variation in reports, this is high by any standard, and especially so considering the conservativeness of society. Something is clearly not working in the society. Mandatory classes are being considered to try to address the issue.

The reasons stated are like any other country in the world. In no particular order, here are some of them:

In an age where people learn about marriage and have expectations based on what they see of their parents (representing a different generation and context) and what they see on TV (representing a different culture and value system), there is an inevitable clash.

Up to a decade ago, KSA was a very closed society and was able to resist change through reference to traditions. In the past decade or so, with the increased access to global media this has become impossible.

Marriage counseling is desperately needed in this environment; pre-marital for prevention (especially focusing on communication and anger management) and also regular counseling to help with marriages in trouble. Additionally, mediation would be a good addition to the court system.

Types of marriages in Saudi Arabia

Since coming to KSA, my awareness of different types of marriages has increased considerably. Other than normal marriages and the oft-quoted multiple wives (polygyny) there are also misyar, misfar and shigar marriages.

Disclaimer: This post is about marriage as people or news have described it. This does not claim to describe the norm in KSA or any other country of the world

  • Normal- between one man and one woman
  • Polygyny- between one man and up to four women
  • Misyar- between one man and one woman with the woman giving up her right to financial support by the husband
  • Misfar- between one man and one woman done for the sole purpose of allowing the woman to travel outside the country
  • Shigar- one man marrying another man’s daughter or sister in exchange for the other man marrying his daughter or sister.
  • Urfi- an undocumented marriage between one man and one woman (not as common in KSA)

sanctity of marriage

In today’s crazy world of changing standards, double standards and no standards marriage as an institution has come under “attack”. The following two articles in yesterday’s news made my head spin. Both stories are about the same action, one done for lack of love, and the other one done for the sake of love.

Links to articles and some excerpts:

Who knew Korea had such laws…


Korean adulterer faces jail term

South Korean prosecutors have demanded an 18-month jail term for a popular actress who admitted breaking the country’s strict laws on adultery.

Ok So-ri had sought to overturn the 50-year old legislation, which carries a maximum jail sentence of two years.

She said it was an infringement of human rights and mounted to revenge.

But in October the constitutional court ruled for the fourth time that adultery must remain a crime, saying it was damaging to social order.

Ms Ok has admitted having an affair with a well-known pop singer and her husband, Park Chul, is said to be seeking “a severe sentence”.

‘Loveless marriage’

She blamed her infidelity on a loveless marriage to Mr Park, also an actor, and launched a legal challenge against the adultery law itself.

On the other hand we have this news:


American girl, Arab man get jail and lashes for adultery

JEDDAH – The Summary Court in Jeddah has sentenced a 23-year-old Arab national and an 18-year-old American girl to one year in prison and 100 lashes each after they were convicted of adultery.

The father of the girl reported the relationship to the authorities after his daughter became pregnant.

The father accused the Arab man of intentionally doing so in order to force her parents into letting them get married.

The parents of the girl had previously refused to let their daughter marry the man.

Did the married lady actually think she would find love through a transient affair? Why didn’t she get divorced if her marriage was so horrible?

And on the other hand, what is up with those kids and their parents? How desperate does one have to be to deliberately get pregnant to get married? And is the pregnant girl actually going to get 100 lashes? What was the father thinking when he reported his own daughter?

So many wrongs still don’t add up to a right.