Arab Marriage and Family Formation


Arab societies are undergoing major changes as new patterns of marriage and family formation emerge across the region. For long decades, early marriage was the common pattern in the Arab world. However, it is no longer the only pattern. The average age of marriage is rising and more Arab women are staying single for a long time and sometimes they don't get married at all.

These new marriage trends in the Arab World are part of a world global phenomenon. The changes of marriage trends in the Arab world reflect the social and economic changes taking place in the region. Arab economies moved away from agrarian based systems which supported both early marriage and extended family numbers [Hoda R.and Magued O., 2005].

The majority of the Arab populations live in cities working in industrial or service sectors. Today, Arab women are more educated and more likely to work outside their homes for personal and financial independence. These changes create a new image of woman and change her past traditional role as a mother and household member.

The objective of this research is the studying of marriage issue in the Arab world because marriage is one of the key important factors that determine the social and economic present and future in the Arab countries. Both problems of early marriage and increase of average age of marriage of marriage are explained. Finally, a recommended solutions and actions are proposed in order to naturalize the two problems for decreasing the negative impacts and creation of better Arab societies.

Importance of Marriage in Arab Society

Family is the main concern in Arab societies. Family is considered the main social security system for young and elder people in Arab countries. In Arab culture, parents are responsible for children well into those children's adult lives, and children reciprocate by taking responsibility for the care of their aging parents—responsibilities that Arabs generally take on with great pride. Marriage for Arabs is thus both an individual and a family matter.

In Arab societies, marriage is considered the turning point that defines prestige, recognition, and societal approval on both partners, particularly the bride. Marriage in Arab societies is considered the social and economic contract between two families. Marriage is also considered the right form of socially, culturally, and legally acceptable sexual relationship [1].

Early marriage in Arab World

Early marriage is any form of marriage that takes place at age of 18 years. Early marriages are often associated with enforcement. Forced marriage is the marriage conducted without full consent of both parties and sometimes with a threat [2].From human rights point of view, early marriage is considered a violation of human rights conventions. In Arab societies- especially developing countries- early marriage, is considered a means of securing young girls' future and protecting them. Wars and social problems may leads also to early marriage as in Palestine, where the intifada has led to earlier marriage.

Many countries in the world have declared 18 as the minimum legal age of marriage. However, more than millions of young girls are expected to marry in the next decade according to the international statistics. [2].

Early marriage has decreased in many world countries in the last decades. However, it is still common in rural areas and among poor people. Poor parents believe that early marriage will protect their daughters and save their future. Young girls are forced into marriage by their families while they are still children because they think that marriage benefits them and secure their financial and social future.

Early marriage violates children rights because it decreases their human development, leaving them socially isolated with little education, skills and opportunities for employment and self-realization. These conditions ultimately make married girls vulnerable to poverty .Early marriage is a health and human rights violation because it takes place within the context of poverty and gender inequality with social, cultural and economic dimensions [3].

Reasons of early marriage in Arab World

There different reasons of early marriage in Arab countries, some of these reasons are referred to cultural reasons, others are referred to economic reasons. Some of these reasons are: High poverty rates, birth rates and death rates, greater incidence of conflict and civil wars, lower levels of overall development, including schooling, employment, health care and believes that early marriage is a means of securing young girls' future and protecting them [4]. Traditional values surrounding girls' virginity and family honour play a major role in Arab families' decisions to marry off their daughters at young ages [1].

Effects of early marriage

Although the trend of early marriage is decreasing in the Arab world, the number of young girls in Arab countries teenagers who are married is still high. Early marriage is generally associated with early childbearing and high fertility, both of which pose health risks for women and their children [5]. Young mothers are at greater risk than older mothers of dying from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. And the younger a bride is, the more significant the age gap with her husband tends to be—which exacerbates her disadvantage in negotiating with her husband on matters such as her own health care needs [6].

Young wives are required to do a many hard domestic duties, including new roles and responsibilities as wives and mothers. The young bride's status in the family is dependent on her demonstrating her fertility within the first year of marriage when she is not physiologically and emotionally prepared [7]. Young wives are forced to be responsible for the care and welfare of their families and future generations while they are still children themselves.

They have no decision making powers, restricted mobility and limited economic resources. Early marriage is a direct cause of woman poverty and wide age gaps between younger married girls and their spouses create unequal power relations between the young bride and her older and more experienced husband, resulting in husbands having total control over sexual relations and decision-making [5].

Young wives are often unable to make wise plans for their families and may be forced to select between one of two hard choices: either to tolerate husbands' violence or to make crimes (killing them). AIDS epidemic increases in young women due to the combination socioeconomic, cultural and political factors that put young women at greater risk of HIV infection due to the lack of sexual knowledge and limited access to information and resources. Younger women may face unsuccessful marriages and divorce could happen as a result of lack of maturity, incomplete independence, limited time to get prepared for marriage and having kids, dealing with education/career building and family formation at the same time.

Relative Marriage in Arab World

Marriage between relatives is a significant feature in Arab societies. High rate of marriage between relatives is known as consanguinity. Marriage between relatives is clear in Arab countries such as Libya and Sudan. Sometimes, consanguineous marriage is arranged marriages that reflects the wishes of the marrying relatives. But marriage between close relatives can jeopardize the health of their offspring, as can marriage among families with a history of genetic diseases [1].

New trends in Marriage in Arab world

In the last decade, early marriage has declined in many Arab countries such as Kuwait and Emirates. For example , in Emirates, the pace of decline is very significant where the percentage of women ages 15 to 19 who were married dropped from 57 percent in 1975 to 8 percent by 1995 [1]. The general feature of marriage pattern in the for the region as a whole, women are marrying later in late of 20th or 30th and some women are not marrying at all.

As shown in table (1), In Tunisia, Algeria, and Lebanon, only 1 percent to 4 percent of women ages 15 to 19 are married, and the percentage of women ages 35 to 39 who have never married in these countries now ranges from 15 percent to 21 percent. The percentage of women ages 35 to 39 who have never married is a good indicator for measuring changes in the universality of marriage, because the likelihood of a single woman marrying after age 40 is quite low [8]


Pan-Arab Project for Child Development: Arab Mother and Child Health; Council of Health Ministers of GCC States, Gulf Family Health Surveys; and Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics' special tabulations of the 2004 Palestinian Demographic and Health Survey .

Palestinians have different marriage pattern where early is the most type that takes place. The main reason is the war and occupation where families wishes to increase the generation for freeing their countries and help them to face hard life in the region. As shown in figure (), most of Palatines marry in the age of 14 to 24 year old [1].

SOURCES: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, special tabulation, 2004 Palestinian Demographic and Health Survey.

The marriage-age gap is particularly pronounced in Arab societies. One-quarter of recent marriages in Egypt and Lebanon had women at least 10 years younger than their husbands [9].

Marriage problem in Egypt

The main problem of marriage in Egypt is its high costs especially because of dowry, Shabka, Housing, Furniture and appliances and gihaz. Regardless of the economic situations of marrying couples and their families, the gihaz and other goods purchased to set up the newlyweds' home have to be new, not used.

The rising cost of marriage is in part attributed to the rising expectations and consumerism that have accompanied the opening of the Egyptian economy, which began in the 1970s. The country's high cost of housing and furnishings have had a number of unintended consequences for marriage patterns, such as youth entering into urfi (common-law marriages that are unregistered and generally secretive) as well as men marrying women who are older and financially secured [10].

Nonconventional Forms of Marriage

The high costs of Arab marriage as well as high unemployment and economic difficulties are blamed for the spread of so-called “urfi” (or common law) marriages among young urban adults in some countries in the region. Generally hidden from the participants' families, urfi marriages are undertaken to avoid the difficulties of a standard marriage and give a sexual relationship some degree of legitimacy.

The secrecy surrounding urfi marriages puts young women at a particular disadvantage because these women are not able to negotiate the terms of their marriage a role usually played by families in conventional marriages. There are thousands of urfi marriages cases in Egypt among university students [11].

Traditionally, urfi marriages have been religiously condoned as proper if the couple's parents approve of the marriage and there is a public announcement of the ban. Some families in rural villages opt for urfi marriages when the bride is too young to be legally married, deferring the official registration of the marriages to a future date. But the public, the religious establishment, and the legal system have generally perceived urban urfi marriages as a pretext and cover for premarital sex.

Another form of unconventional marriage in the Arab World is the muta'a and messyar. Muta'a is a temporary marriage, which is practiced by the Shi'ites in southern Lebanon and other areas, couples specify in their marriage contract the date upon which the marriage ends. On ther hand, Messyar marriage is common in the Gulf region. In this type of marriage, there is an arrangement that man marries without any of the housing and financial responsibility that a standard Arab marriage generally requires of him.

In general, Messyar and Muta'a are practiced mostly by men who are marrying a second wife where they tend to give legitimacy to sexual relationships and reduce the number of never married women in society, they introduce other social complications, such as the upbringing of children from such marriages [1].

Women's rights regarding marriage

According to the international human rights conventions, woman has the rights when entering, during and at the end of the marriage. When entering marriage, woman has the same right as a man to enter marriage only with full consent. A woman married under minimum age shouldn't be considered legally married. Marriage must be registered in an official registry. If a woman marries someone with another nationality, she will not have her nationality automatically changed to that of her husband unless she chooses that [12].

During marriage, woman has the same rights and responsibilities as man. She has the right to equal access to health services, the right of protection from violence within the family. She also has the same rights as a man to decide freely about the number and spacing of children and to have access to information, education and means to exercise these rights [12].

Woman has the same rights and responsibilities as her husband towards children regardless of her marital status and family benefits. Change in woman's husband nationality during marriage doesn't imply that her nationality must be change. If woman is employed she must not be discriminated against on the grounds of marriage and maternity.

At the end of marriage, woman has the same rights as man when a marriage ends. Neither woman nationality nor that of her children shall automatically be affected by the ending of a marriage. Woman has the same rights and responsibilities as a man towards her children regardless of her marital status [12].

How to solve the problem?

There is an urgent need to for a better understanding of the social and economic environment surrounding Arab marriage. Policies and governmental programs should meet the youth need to marry and make families. Understanding of marriage patterns changes and their social and economic implications need to be addressed. Successful implementation including right decisions and accurate schedules are needed to address and meet the requirements and needs of young people who want to marry or remain single [1].

The recommended solutions for improving marriage situation in Arab World are:

  • Using International pressure specially regarding woman rights stated in human rights conventions on Arab countries to follow the Women's Conventions.

  • Following poverty reduction strategies

  • Making the required reforms of marriage and family laws to meet the human rights standards and monitoring the impacts of these laws on Arab societies.

  • Providing safety employment opportunities for youth specially girls and women affected or at risk of early marriage.

  • Ensuring the right to education and information for girls, including married girls.

  • Providing incentives to encourage families to educate their children.

  • Encouraging activities that change the attitudes and behaviour of community and religious leaders – especially regarding early marriage, girls' education and employment.

  • Developing rules that redefine acceptable ages of marriage and offer social and economic supports that allow parents and girls to delay marriage until suitable age.

  • Raising consciousness about child marriage consequences and impacts of increase of average age of marriage as well.

  • Promoting legal, and chosen forms of marriage

  • Supporting married young girls

Work cited

  • Hoda R. and Magued, O,, " Marriage in the Arab World ", Population Reference Bureau, September 2005.

  • Stephen H. , "Early Marriage – Child Spouses ", Innocenti Digest no. 7, UNICEF , March 2007.

  • UNIFEM, "Forced and Early Marriage", "URL:", Advocates for Human Rights, August 2007.

  • Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Girls, "Early Marriage and Poverty Exploring links for policy and program development" ,2003.

  • UNFPA, "The Promise of Inequality: Gender Inequality and Reproductive Health", "URL:", 2005.

  • World Health Organization, “WHO/UNFPA/Population Council Technical Consultation on Married Adolescents” ,Geneva: WHO, 2003.

  • United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, " A Choice by Right: Working Group on Forced Marriages Child Marriage Fact Sheet, 2000.

  • League of Arab States, Pan-Arab Project for Child Development: Arab Mother and Child Health Surveys , Pan-Arab Project for Family Health; Council of Health Ministers of GCC States, Gulf Family Health Surveys; ORC Macro, Demographic and Health Surveys; and Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics' special tabulations of 2004 Palestinian Demographic and Health Survey.

  • Social Research Center at the American University in Cairo using the Egypt Demographic and Health Survey (2003) and the Lebanon Maternal and Child Health Survey (1996).

  • Diane S. and Barbara I., “The Cost of Marriage in Egypt: A Hidden Variable in the New Arab Demography,” in the New Arab Family, Cairo Papers in Social Science 24 (2001): 80-116; and World Bank, “Building Institutions for Markets,” World Bank Report 2002 (Washington DC: World Bank, 2002): table 1.

  • Gihan S., “The Double Bind,” Al Ahram Weekly On-line 397 (Oct. 1-7, 1998).

  • The International Women's Tribune Centre Rights of Women, "A Guide to the Most Important United Nations Treaties on Women's Human Rights", New York 1998.