If Certain Couples in Yemen Choose to Divorce, Their Siblings Must Get a Divorce, Too

“Swap” marriages dictate that both marriage vows and divorces must be evenly shared between siblings of two families

Photo: Lo Mak/Redlink/Corbis

The average Yemeni citizen makes just $2 a day or less. Yet dowries—which men still present to the bride's family in exchange for her hand in marriage—can cost as much as $3,500 or more. Add to that the cost of the wedding party and some gold jewelry, and for the poorest people in the country, marriage is cost prohibitive. 

However, there is another way. A brother who has a sister of marriagable age (usually, 18 years old or younger) can approach another family that has a brother and sister and essentially propose a swap. As the BBC writes, it boils down to, "I'll marry your sister if you marry mine." 

This tradition, called shegar, or swap marriages, is still popular in the countryside. While these marriages allow couples to come together, however, they also carry a unique risk: if one of the swap couples gets a divorce, the BBC explains, the other couple must divorce, too—even if they don't want to. (The family of the divorced woman typically forces their son to also divorce his wife, as a form of pay-back.)

This situation applies even if the couple has children. The BBC describes one example: 

Nadia, a young woman in her late 20s, married a man whose sister married her brother. It was a happy marriage and she had three children - before her brother's marriage broke down, and she and her husband were torn apart. Her children were taken away from her, including her youngest, who was then seven months old.

Nadia considered resorting to the law to get her children back, as the law does side with mothers in these cases, but she decided against it. In practice, tribal and social customs tend to overrule the law of the state.

She did not see her daughter again for three years. "When I saw her for the first time after all those years I thought to myself, 'She won't recognise me.' I imagined her saying: 'You are not my mother how could you be my mother when I haven't seen you since I was a few months old?'" she says.

Swap marriages that end in divorce sometimes spark violent clashes between families, too, Al Arabiya writes

To avoid this, sometimes, families make agreements ahead of time to ensure couples will not be bound to one another. But when divorce ensues, however, those rules are often thrown aside.

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