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Dealing With Change: A Quarter of Bahraini Men Marrying Non Bahraini Women

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Saturday 5 May 201810:15 am
Every day, Mohamed Masoum goes to the shopping mall where his wife works. He would wait for her to finish her shift and then the couple would have dinner together. "I can't enjoy dinner without her," said the 27-year-old Bahraini referring to his Filipina wife of ten years. Apart from cultural differences and a language barrier, Masoum had to overcome many social challenges to get married to a woman from the Philippines. When the economic situation of Bahrain was stable, families would insist on marrying their children to compatriots to "ensure their future", as many parents would typically say. Marrying women of faiths other than Islam was unusual in the conservative Bahraini society a decade ago. A non-Muslim woman would have to convert to Islam, if only on paper, before marrying a Bahraini man in order to be on good terms with his family. Not only has the Bahraini community's perspective on marrying foreigners changed, intermarriage has drastically increased over the past decade as the number of expatriates multiplied in the small Gulf country. According to statistics released by the justice ministry in 2015, around a quarter of the male youth in Bahrain got married to "foreigners". The number of intermarried couples was 1356, of which 892 wives held Arab nationalities while 448 were non-Arabs. There were 4361 all-Bahraini marriages in the same year. These figures mean the number of intermarried couples in Bahrain has tripled in less than eight years. Masoum is one of thousands of Bahraini men who opted over the past decade to get married to women from different countries, such as Philippines, Pakistan, Bosnia, Russia and Turkey, among others. Next to love, there might be other motives that could urge hundreds of Bahraini young men to choose a foreigner over a compatriot as a wife.

Cultural Openness

Bahrain is the most culturally open Gulf nation and a destination for a lot of foreigners, especially Asians. When it comes to marriage, however, local girls remain the favorite choice. When a widespread religious rhetoric dominated the Bahraini society as well as cultural and educational institutions -- thanks to the influence of radical Salafist groups a while back -- intermarriage was resisted out of fear that it would change longstanding social and religious traditions, such as the veil. Gulf populations in general have always opposed globalization and been keen to keep intact their conservative characteristics, even though the younger generations tend to be more liberal and unbound by fervent religiosity. Undisputedly the most liberal Gulf country, Bahrain relies on tourism as a main source of income. It is situated between the ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia which disallows many activities, and Qatar which remains a radical Wahabi state despite gradually securing freedoms for foreigners.

Higher Divorce Rates

"It's not important to just get married, what matters is to guarantee the continuity of this marriage," said Hussein Khamis, a Bahraini man in his 50s. He describes his life with his Syrian wife as happy. Five couples get divorced in Bahrain on a daily basis, according to the justice ministry's statistics which indicated there have been 15,000 cases of divorce out of 60,000 marriages between 2005 and 2015. In other words, 25 percent of marriages were broken off. "What's the point of marrying a Bahraini woman and divorce her after a year, and your kids be raised without a mother?" he wondered. Many Bahrainis believe the old-fashioned arranged marriages through family connections lead to failed relationships that are not built on love and understanding, but rather on local traditions. Until nowadays some marriages are brokered by tribe elders. According to a study published by Saudi newspaper Al-Eqtisadiah, Bahrain had the highest divorce rates among the Gulf Cooperation Council countries in 2012. Some citizens believe the deteriorating economy is a main reason for the rising divorce rates in the kingdom, while others put it down to differences in cultural and educational levels between couples. In the 2013-2014 school year, females comprised 60 percent of Bahrain's higher education students.

Communal Acceptance

There are many reasons for more societal acceptance of intermarriage these days in Bahrain. Apart from globalization and cultural openness, parents realize that their sons' unenviable financial capabilities favor the prospect of marrying foreigners. Masoum says his parents blessed his marriage and were proactive about the wedding preparations; his father paid for the hall where the ceremony took place. According to young men who spoke to Raseef22, the hefty dowry a groom would be required to pay a Bahraini bride as well as other financial burdens have prompted many to marry foreign women. Families told Raseef22 the average dowry in Bahrain is between BHD 2000 and 4000. The expenses of the wedding can be up to BHD 1000 as well as BHD 2000 worth of gold, the bride's traditional wedding gift. The overall amount a man would need to get married might reach BHD 8000 ($21,000). According to the 2015 justice ministry statistics, 46 percent of Bahraini women holding higher education certificates are paid dowries that exceed BHD 2000, 40 percent of them are paid between BHD 1000 and 1500, and only 3,6 percent get less than BHD 400. Many young men whose salaries are in the area of BHD 300 (around $800) would need to wait for three years without spending a single dinar in order to be able to independently cover the marriage expenses. This is next to the daily expenses of a married life, which is getting less affordable with soaring prices and the implementation of the VAT. The Labour Market Regulatory Authority released figures in the last quarter of 2015 indicating the average salary of Bahrainis is BHD 386 and 673 in the public and private sectors respectively. This means the overall average is BHD 512 ($1358). Meanwhile, 8485 Bahraini citizens were unemployed by the end of 2016, according to the labor ministry, the highest unemployment rate since 2009. Bahraini actress Haifa Hussein, who is married to an Emirati man, called on women via her Instagram account to alleviate the financial burdens of marriage. Hussein says Bahraini girls' set of requirements is the main reason why men opt to marry a foreigner who would not ask for a dowry, pricey jewellery or a lavish wedding. "The Bahraini young men are in debt even before getting married" she said. The celebrity's followers reacted differently towards her take on marriage. "Dowry is her most basic right," a girl said, while another wondered, "Are you saying if your father told your groom no dowry required, you would say yes?" On the other hand, a girl said paying a dowry to marry a woman is like purchasing a commodity for a certain price, citing "Fatimah bint Muhammad whose dowry was a spear". Dana, a 22-year-old Bahraini woman who works for an American café in the district of Adliya, says paying a dowry is compulsory pursuant to the Quran. It means the "man appreciates his wife", she opined.

Living Conditions

Some Bahraini women would say a man has to be able to provide his wife the same living conditions she has enjoyed with her family in order to accept his proposal. This is widely regarded as one of the basics of a successful married life. "Marrying a Bahraini woman means you will be loaded with the burdens of a loan you would take out from a bank in order to fulfill her demands," Masoum said, citing his brothers who are married to Bahraini women. He believes most Bahraini men incur loans to cover daily life expenses that keep going up, referring to a recent costly trend among Bahraini families to order food every day instead of cooking. Fatma Idris, a university graduate, believes the difference between the costs of marrying Bahraini and foreign women is blown out of proportion. She said, for instance, a husband would have to pay BHD 100 ($265) to cover the expenses of his Bahraini wife's car, yet another man would pay double that amount to buy flying tickets for his foreign partner to visit her family overseas. However, many Bahraini young men tend to believe foreign women are more reasonable than local women when it come to expenses, with the latter having the tendency to squander their husbands' funds. Ahmed Mansour, a Bahraini businessman in his 30s, dated a Russian girl during a brief visit to St. Petersburg before they wed, a love story he says has completely changed his opinion on foreign women. Masnour said he kept scrutinizing her intentions during the first few months into their relationship. Three years after they got married, Mansour says she has never tried to take advantage of him. Living conditions are not the only reason to opt for a foreign wife; some people do it for cultural reasons, or over a preference for a western appearance. Ibrahim, 35, says marrying a foreign woman resulted in "well educated and intelligent children who are also quite good looking, and this is the investment I have achieved".

Marriage Broker

Khaled Salah got married to a Pakistani girl through a marriage broker in Bahrain, who is specialized in matching Bahraini men with Asian girls from poor countries such as India and Pakistan. The broker works with associates who send him photos of potential brides from these countries. He shows the pictures to clients and if they are interested, arrangements will be made for potential couples to meet. They eventually wed in Bahrain. Salah said he paid nothing but the broker's fee, which did not exceed BHD 200 ($530). He did not pay a dowry and did not throw a wedding party; the bride's family did not have any demands. "My wife knows my [financial] status well, and she is happy with our life and our beautiful daughter Maram. We are a happy family," he said. "The important thing is that both partners are considerate towards each other's circumstances, and love will come later."

Bahraini Women Marry Foreigners Too

While picking a husband, many Bahraini girls prefer Qataris and Emiratis, and possibly Saudis, to their countrymen. Men of these three nationalities share traditions and cultural background with Bahrainis, yet they are usually wealthier. According to statistics released by Bahrain's Central Informatics Organization, 630 female Bahrainis married foreign men in 2015, mostly from other Gulf countries. However, Bahraini women usually avoid this option due to unpleasant consequences their children would endure. The law allows children of intermarried couples to hold the Bahraini nationality when a Bahraini man marries a foreign woman, but not vice versa. Giving citizenship to the children of a Bahraini woman married to a foreigner might be considered to be a threat to state sovereignty. This could be a reason why some love stories would not end on a happy note.
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