Last Updated: Sun Oct 17, 2010 00:17 am (KSA) 21:17 pm (GMT)

Clandestine marriages on the rise in Mauritania

Most secret marriages take place in the countryside
Most secret marriages take place in the countryside

So-called “secret” marriages in Mauritania have been on the rise as affluent men, seeking to bypass restrictions on polygamy, often fail to register their marriage to a second wife.

Women in Mauritania’s rich Arab families tend to set written marriage preconditions on their would-be husbands prohibiting polygamy. But rich men resort to temporary and often “secret” and unregistered marriages in exchange for money.

 The girl agrees to live in the shadow because of the money the groom pays not realizing that is falling victim to her family’s ignorance and her husband’s selfishness 
Mariam bent al-Tarad

Amongst the most common traits in these clandestine marriages is the wide gap between the bride and groom as far as age in concerned and which usually exceeds 20 years.

In order to lure the bride’s parents into accepting the marriage, the husband pledges to support them financially throughout the duration of the contract. Peasants in the countryside, recent immigrants to the city, or girls from nomadic tribes are the main target of the suitors, who take advantage of their dire conditions.

The grooms, who are usually tradesmen or civil servants, stipulate that the marriage be kept secret and that the contract is not officially registered. Instead of a marriage registrar, a preacher or a mosque imam oversees the procedure and the contract is handwritten in the presence of two witnesses and the bride’s guardian, usually the father.

It is, therefore, almost impossible for the new wife to register the contract if she tries to since the Family Disputes Division at the Ministry of Women refuses to take undocumented marriages. It gets worse if the wife gets pregnant.

Girls who accept this kind of marriage usually come from dysfunctional families and are hoping to better their conditions, said Marian bent al-Tarad, who married twice in secret.

“The girl agrees to live in the shadow because of the money the groom pays not realizing that is falling victim to her family’s ignorance and her husband’s selfishness,” she told Al Arabiya.

Some girls, Tarad added, are hopeful that they would be luckier than others and that the husband would not want divorce.

“In several cases, the husband falls in love with the girl and refuses to divorce her even after his first wife knows. In this case, the marriage becomes official and they stay together.”

Poverty and social traditions

 Most of the families in the countryside believe that marrying a girl when she is a teenager even if in secret will keep her chaste and protect her from committing sins 
Sociologist Ould Mohamed Aali

The prevalence of this type of marriages is to a great extent attributed to the gender inequality in Mauritanian laws, said lawyer Mohamedou Ould Jedein.

“Mauritanian laws do not regulate polygamy in a way that gives women their rights, he told Al Arabiya. “Secret marriages violate Islamic teachings which stipulate equality between wives.”

Jedein noted that those marriages usually end with a dispute between both parties, especially if the new wife becomes pregnant or demands an official registration of the contract. The fact that those marriage are bound to end also constitutes a serious social problem.

“The number of divorced women and single mothers has increased significantly as well as children that do not officially have a father.”

Jedein blames the government and civil society for not spreading awareness amongst poor families and warning them of the consequences of secret marriages.

“They are thus left to fall prey to ignorance, fear, and poverty.”

Sociologist Ould Mohamed Aali blames social traditions that promote early marriage especially for girls.

“Most of the families in the countryside believe that marrying a girl when she is a teenager even if in secret will keep her chaste and protect her from committing sins,” he told Al Arabiya.

Girls fall prey to temptations


Girls, he added, are also worried they might end up not getting married if they reject the suitors that come to them at an early age.

“They see their relatives become spinsters because they refuse to marry when they are still young so they are afraid to suffer the same fate.”

Aali pointed out that some girls agree to marry in secret because they see this as a way of supporting their families and saving them from abject poverty.

As for the men who seek clandestine marriages, Aali stated that they are also more or less victims of a social system that promotes pre-arranged marriages amongst relatives especially in well-to-do families.

“This makes it hard for a man to choose his partner in the first time, so he does that in the second marriage,” he concluded.

(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid).

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