Bedouin Marriage Practices

The Bedouins are fascinating to study from an anthropological perspective. While we must be sensitive not to sensationalize gender inequalities in Bedouin society, it is true that “loss of a woman’s honour, her ird, is extremely serious” here. This belief, in a sense, ties the different aspects of Bedouin marriage together, allowing us to understand it from a holistic, unbiased vantage point.

The Bedouins' Marriage Practices - Anthropology & the Human Condition
Figure 4: Man with goat heads
“Celebrating a wedding, the host proudly holds aloft two freshly severed goats’ heads, signs of the abundance of meat available to feast his guest” - Koehane, 1994


Endogamy and Polygamy – Uncovering the mystery that shrouds Bedouin marriage
According to the Qur’an, marriage should ideally occur “between a man and his father's brother's daughter”. A man, therefore, is entitled to marry his bint amm, or paternal parallel cousin. Endogamy takes on various forms in different Bedouin tribes, from patrilateral parallel marriages to patrilineal kin marriages. Statistics indicate the common nature of patrilineal parallel marriage in Bedouin society:
  • Negev Bedouins of Israel: 14.2% patrilateral parallel marriages (among women)
  • Sinai Bedouin of Egypt: 31 % patrilateral parallel marriages (among women)

To understand the social functions of this unique practice, we must study the interactions between marriage and kinship among the Bedouins. For women, honor, or ird, is inviolable, and a marriage within the family helps keep this ird intact. Additionally, the woman can be kept away from harm, and conflicts between the natal kin and the affinal kin can be avoided. Conflict-minimization and safety-maximization is vital in the brutal, desert environment that the Bedouins occupy. In short, endogamous marriage strengthens kinship ties (or what the Arabs call Asabiyya) and maintains blood purity. Another added advantage? Economic stability! World economic crises affect tribal societies like the Bedouins, too. Endogamous marriage helps retain economic resources – money, cattle, property - within the family. We may find it odd that endogamous marriage is so common among the Bedouins. However, we need to step out of our cultural comfort zone and view this marriage practice in terms of the social, familial and economic utility it has for the Bedouins. Once we do so, endogamy does not seem so odd after all!


The Bedouins' Marriage Practices - Anthropology & the Human Condition
Figure 5: A diagram depicting patrilateral parallel marriage


Another fascinating marriage practice is polygamy, which can be defined as having two or more spouses within a marriage. There are three main types of polygamy, but we will be primarily focusing on polygyny here:
  • Polygyny: A man with two or more wives
  • Polyandry: A woman with two or more husbands
  • Polygynandry: A group marriage

The Bedouins are largely comprised of Muslims, and therefore subscribe to the teachings of the Islamic religion. Islam gives consent to the marriage of up to four wives provided that the man is able to treat all of them fairly. This religious rule, however, does not establish polygyny as a fundamental right to all men, but merely defines boundaries within the marital system – as seen in this Qur’anic verse: "Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire: But turn not away [from a woman] altogether so as to leave her [as it were] hanging [in the air]” It clarifies that a man should only engage in polygyny if he has the economic abilities to take care of all of all his wives. It is therefore, not surprising that many of the men in polygynous marriages are relatively wealthy.

Many men, however, see polygyny as their right. Although prohibited by Israeli law, polygynous marriage is a social norm – with a rate as high as 20% – among the Negev Bedouins. What explains this rate? The answer lies in the complexity of Bedouin marriage rules. A woman can only marry a man of the same origin as her because the origin of a particular family affects the entire tribe’s status. Some parents are, therefore, more willing to marry their daughters off as second wives to men of the same origin than as first wives to men of a different origin.

Bedouin men in polygynous marriages usually maintain separate households for each wife and live with them in turn. Research has shown that such men tend to spend more time with their ‘favourite’ wife and children, and that sex is more frequent with later wives. This has definitely resulted in stress on Bedouin women in polygynous marriages, producing “low self-esteem and other psychological distress”.

Polygyny has crucial social and economic functions in Bedouin society. More wives equate to more offspring, and children are viewed as contributors of wealth. However, with the gradual transition of the nomadic Bedouin society into a sedentary one, polygyny may add on to a husband’s financial burden, especially because wives are often confined to their home compounds. Will this practice be as common among the Bedouins in the future as it was in the past? Only time will tell!

Marriage and sexuality – Who has the rights?
For Bedouin women, marriage and sexuality are inextricably linked. They are both also intimately connected to the concept of ird that we discussed earlier.

A Bedouin woman’s ird is intact when she upholds her hasham – essentially “an internal state of shyness or embarrassment and a set of modest behaviors that are thought to grow out of these feelings.” Besides modestly, chastity – the denial of sexuality – is another valued code of conduct among the Bedouins. Together, these two virtues permeate marriage rituals and expectations of a woman’s behaviour in marriage.

Bedouin marriage is usually arranged by the groom and the girl’s male representative (usually the father). A bridal contract is announced in front of witnesses and a person of authority (usually the Sheikh). The bride is usually not present but allowed to hide behind a tent to listen. This segregation of men and women during the arranging of the marriage is in accordance with the concept of hasham.

The marriage ceremony itself is a simple one; it is the wedding night instead that is carried out with fanfare – it is sometimes signaled by a rifle shot by the groom! As a display of the man’s virility, he is expected to make rapid advances to his virgin bride. On the contrary, as a sign of chastity and honour to her family, the bride is expected to resist the aforementioned advances. The longer she can do so, the more honour she gains. On the other hand, the longer the wife withholds intercourse, the more the husband’s reputation suffers. This behavioral dichotomy shows us just how highly prized a woman’s chastity is – to preserve her own ird, and, by extension, the reputation of her family. A woman who does not act accordingly to this code of conduct during intercourse is seen as being sexually experienced.

The Bedouins' Marriage Practices - Anthropology & the Human Condition
Figure 6: Putting on a veil as a sign of modesty and chastity
"Veiled to all but her immediate family, a Bedouin woman dons the distinctive Omani burqa, or mask, after reaching puberty." — From "Oman," May 1995, National Geographic magazine

Exploring the antithesis of marriage – Divorce and remarriage among the Bedouins
Much of the discourse on Bedouin divorce and remarriage has focused on its impact on women with little attention given to the corresponding effects on men. This gender bias in research is a reflection of the institution of divorce in traditional Bedouin culture.

The bias against women in divorce matters stems from the Bedouins’ cultural association of femininity with dependency and masculinity with autonomy. Traditionally, the prerogative to divorce lies with the male, besides, wife-initiated divorce is a rare phenomenon. Why is this? It is generally the norm for men to gain custody of the children, and this acts as a major deterrent for women seeking divorce. Instead, a woman’s preferred form of escape from an unhappy marriage is to return to her natal kin. If she does this, her husband cannot compel her to live with him again, but he can refuse to grant her a divorce, thus denying her the freedom to remarry.

The scholar Lila Abu-Lughod (in her study on Egyptian Bedouins) describes the fascinating process of Bedouin divorce. A man can officially divorce his wife by pronouncing the formula ‘I divorce you’ three times consecutively. There is also a type of non-final divorce in which a man can separate from his wife by saying ‘I divorce you’ only once. This allows the man to take back his wife if she agrees to it, without having to remarry her and thus pay a second bride-price, or mahr, to her family. It is no surprise that this form of divorce has been found to be most common among the Bedouins.

What are the main reasons for divorce in Bedouin society?
  • Polygyny, as mentioned earlier, is rather common in Bedouin society. If a first wife disagrees with her husband’s polygyny intentions, he can choose to divorce her.
  • Conflicts that arise from living in a joint household (especially those between: mother-in-law and daughter-in-law; the wife's family and the husband's family)
  • Long-term refusal or inability to provide sexual services by either the husband or wife,
Divorce among the Bedouins is a common practice that is relatively easy to obtain. However, it should be noted that divorce is more easily attainable by the man, and this divorce is usually the non-final type discussed earlier.

How does Bedouin society regard divorced women? Literature indicates that divorce affects a man’s social status less than it does for women. Men may even betroth themselves to another woman on the very same day of divorce, while the woman is required to wait forty days before she can remarry. Stigma is often attached to a woman’s second marriage as she is already experienced in sexual intercourse, and may thus be seen as defying Bedouin codes of conduct. This observation is congruent with the previously discussed emphasis on modesty (hasham) and honour (ird).

However, it is important not to over-state this gender inequality in divorce as literature still offers some contradictory viewpoints on this matter. There exist works claiming that divorce and remarriage carry little social stigma for a woman. According to scholar Alan Koehane, “Depending on the reasons for her dissatisfaction, (a woman’s) family may or may not side with her, but they have to respect her decision (of escaping from her marriage). Her husband, too, will soon have to agree to a divorce”. Koehane also believes that both men and women can remarry without any damage to their reputation.

Whether or not divorce entails social stigma for women, the fact remains that divorced women often suffer emotionally. If they remarry, they may be restricted to being a man’s second or third wife, something which is further emotionally draining.

But, things are now changing with an increasing number of Bedouin women getting highly educated. This creates problems in finding a suitable match within the community for remarriage. As a result, more women are opting to remain single or divorced despite the apparent stigma attached to it.

Bedouin marriage from an economic and social perspective
Bedouin marriage is not simply between the man and the woman, it is rife with underlying economic and social aims. Marriage establishes connections between two Bedouin families. It is not uncommon for Bedouin parents to arrange marriages for their children. According to Bedouin Law, a man that does not agree with the choice of spouse for his daughter, sister or cousin has the power to stop the wedding. Thus, romantic love is seen as a feeble basis for marriage. Instead, criteria for marriage include:
  • Character
  • Reputation (very important from a social standpoint, as marrying into a family of high reputation can increase a family’s social standing)
  • Economic status of prospective in-laws.

Thus, Bedouin marriage criteria focus more on the social and the economic than the individual. Even the practices we discussed earlier – endogamy and polygamy have economic and social functions for the Bedouins. According to Islamic law, marriage involves a bride-price, also known as Mahr. This is an amount that the groom’s family must pay to the bride’s guardian (father) to cover purchases such as clothing and jewellery. Mahr is seen as a form of economic security for the bride in the event of a mishap. As noted earlier, men and women usually do not socialize with each other – except during wedding ceremonies. Thus, weddings – usually huge affairs involving dance and song – have important social functions for the Bedouins.

The Bedouins' Marriage Practices - Anthropology & the Human Condition
Figure 7: The gathering of Bedouin men in Jordan

This gathering of Bedouin men in the absence of women is an example of the gender segregation that exists in Bedouin society. Weddings, then, are a common ground for both sexes to meet, and sometimes even serve as an opportunity for both Bedouin men and women to find love. Post-marriage, the newly formed nuclear family tends to remain within the larger domestic unit until it is economically stable enough to survive on its own.

Connecting the dots...
We hope to have given you an unbiased understanding of Bedouin marriage. Marriage among the Bedouins is affected by myriad internal and external factors. Internal beliefs have led to the commonality of practices such as endogamy, polygamy (polygyny, in particular) and the value placed on modesty and chastity. But these practices and values are also influenced by overarching social and economic factors. Lastly, studying divorce is as important as analyzing marriage, and we hope to have painted a holistic picture of Bedouin divorce - from the perspectives of both the men and the women.

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