Informal Unions in MENASA: A New Form of Cohabitation?

Janet Afary holds the Mellichamp Chair in Global Religion and Modernity at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is a Professor of Religious Studies. Afary is a historian of modern Iran and has a PhD in History and Near East Studies from the University of Michigan, where her dissertation received the Distinguished Rackham Dissertation Award. Previously she taught at the Department of History and the Program in Women’s Studies at Purdue University, where she was appointed a University Faculty Scholar. Her books include: Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2009, winner of the British Society for Middle East Studies Annual Book Prize); The Iranian Constitutional Revolution: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy, and the Origins of Feminism (Columbia University Press, 1996, winner of Dehkhoda Institute Book Awardj; and (with Kevin B. Anderson) Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (University of Chicago Press, 2005, winner of the Latifeh Yarshater Book Award for Iranian Women’s Studies); (with John R. Perry) Charand-o Parand: Revolutionary Satire in Iran (Yale University Press, 2016, Honorable Mention Lois Roth Persian Translation Prize), and more recently the edited volume (with Jesilyn Faust) Iranian Romance in the Digital Age: From Arranged Marriage to White Marriage (Bloomsbury Press, 2021).

Abstract of talk:

Informal marriage, a form of common law marriage, has long been an acceptable social practice in some parts of the Muslim world. These unions come under different names and are subject to different set of practices compared to formal marriage (nekah daem). They have historically taken place between an older man of means and a much younger impoverished woman, and were thus closer to legal concubinage. In recent decades the nature of these informal unions has changed in both the Shi’i and Sunni world. The unions are now more loving relationships between people of similar age, with college education, who for a variety of reasons are not ready or able to enter into formal marriages. Our Facebook survey of more than 10,000 Muslim respondents allowed us to examine the nature of over four hundred such informal marriages. Our findings suggest that among a certain segment of the population who are connected to the internet, the traditional gendered order of matrimony is breaking down. Non-formal marriage, long taken as a marker of female subordination is being modernized in the interests of women and men. Impoverished engaged couples who want to marry but whose families cannot afford the expenses of a formal wedding resort to informal unions. For women – particularly those who were married before, this is a way to legitimately cohabitate without the asymmetrical order of formal marriage and having to face the possibility of another divorce. For men who have never been married, this is a way to avoid the extensive financial obligations of a formal marriage and the cost of potential divorce. Overall, we are witnessing the growth of more fragile marital relations and a weakening of the parent’s role in arranging the marriage of their children.
Date: 2 February 2022, 17:00 (Wednesday, 3rd week, Hilary 2022)
Speakers: Janet Afary (Mellichamp Chair, Professor of Religious Studies, University of California Santa Barbara), Roger Friedland (Dept of Sociology, University of California Santa Barbara)
Organising department: Middle East Centre
Organisers: Dr Nazila Ghanea ((Department for Continuing Education University of Oxford)), Dr Soraya Tremayne (University of Oxford), Professor Marilyn Booth (Al Saud Professor, Magdalen College)
Part of: MEC Women's Rights Research Seminars
Booking required?: Required
Booking url:
Audience: Public
Editor: Stacey Churcher