Traditions and Occupation – Obstacles in the Face of Marriage in Palestine

A visual essay by Lama Mashni

1. Introduction

Marriage traditions vary from one country to the other, and from one culture to the other. This paper aims to explore the traditions of marriage in Islam, and more specifically in Palestine. It will particularly shed light on the concept of dowry, or as it is referred to in Islam as Mahr. The paper will focus on two parts: the effects of traditions and social conventions on Mahr, and on the other hand, the effects of the Israeli occupation of Palestine on Mahr, and therefore on marriage itself. These two factors form the two main obstacles in the face of Palestinians when it comes to marriage.

2. What is Mahr in Islam?

In Islam, Mahr is a mandatory part of every marriage contract. “Dowry” is the closest English translation of Mahr, however, there are several important difference between the two which will be discussed further on. Mahr is a payment in the form of money or possessions, which is paid by the groom, or the groom’s father, to the bride. The form of the Mahr varies, depending on mutual agreement between both sides at the time of signing the marriage contract. It is often given in the form of money, but it can also be a residence (a house or an apartment), furniture, jewelry (especially gold), home goods, or a piece of land.

Mahr is often divided into two parts: the prompt Mahr (muqaddam), and the deferred Mahr (mu’akhar). The prompt part must be given to the bride immediately or after the marriage ceremony. Upon signing the marriage contract, the bride must confirm receiving the prompt Mahr in front of the Sheikh. The deferred Mahr is meant to be received by the wife after the consummation of the marriage, and only in the case of divorce or death of the husband. Since this part is often money, the amount is usually much higher than the prompt part. The reason is that this part of Mahr is supposed to be a safety net for the wife, which should provide her with means of living and support her in the case of a divorce of the death of the husband.

Islam views Mahr as a fundamental part of any wedding, and it legally becomes the wife’s property. The husband is not allowed to reduce the amount after it had been agreed upon, and if the prompt part obligation is not fulfilled as agreed upon, then it is considered a debt that is legally binding. As for the deferred part, it is paid immediately after a divorce, and the divorce is not valid without fulfilling this part. In the case of the death of the husband, the deferred part is paid either from his estate or by his family, before any other debt is fulfilled, since it is treated as a priority religious requirement.

It is important to note that the Mahr becomes the exclusive property of the wife. It is meant as an assertion of her independence, as the owner of money or property. The wife receives a Mahr even if she owned nothing before marriage, in order to commence her new life with stability. Mahr is also viewed as a token  that the husband is willing to accept the responsibility of bearing all expenses instead of his wife. Women in Islam are usually tasked with taking charge of the internal arrangements of the household, while men are expected to provide financially for the family. Any money that the wife brings into the marriage, including a salary from her job, remains hers alone to spend as she wishes, and her husband has no claim over it.

The difference between Mahr and Dowry is that a dowry is optional in Western marriages, whereas Mahr is mandatory. Mahr is also paid in two parts, prompt and deferred, while a dowry is only paid in the case of the death of the husband.

The Amount of Mahr:

A standard marriage contract with the Mahr indicated in it consists of the names of the bride and groom, the amount of the Mahr that was agreed upon, a cleric’s signature, the signature of two male witnesses, and a disclaimer that Islamic law will govern the marriage contract. The exact amount that should be paid was not specified in Islam. The amount of Mahr is negotiated and agreed upon between the parents of the bride, or her guardians, and the groom. However, Prophet Mohammed stated that Mahr could be “one gold piece”[1]. In an incident that is recorded in Hadith (Prophet’s sayings), a man came to the Prophet to announce his marriage. The Prophet asked, “How much Mahr did you give her?” He replied, “The weight of one (date) stone of gold.” The Prophet said, “Offer a banquet, even with one sheep.”[2]

Islam is filled with quotes both from the Quran and from Prophet Mohammed, encouraging Muslims to set the amount of Mahr depending on the financial circumstances of the groom. Since Mahr is intended to be a safety net for the woman, the amount should realistically be enough to protect her in case of death or a divorce. At the same time, women are encouraged not to set high limits which men cannot meet. The Holy Quran says:

“the wealthy according to his means, and the straitened in circumstances according to his means. The gift of a reasonable amount is necessary from those who wish to act in the right way.”.[3]

However, social conventions, traditions, and even the political situation all play a role as deciding factors in the amount of Mahr which should be required. In the following section, the paper will examine two of those deciding factors and their effects on marriage in Palestine; traditions and the Israeli Occupation.

3. Mahr in Palestine:

Since 93% of the Palestinian population is Muslim, marriage in Palestine generally follows the same rules as in the Islamic Arab World. However, Mahr in Palestine is particularly influenced both by the local traditions, and by the political situation and the Israeli Occupation. An important point to bear in mind is that while most families in Palestine aim for marriages that best cater to the needs of the bride and groom, and that would foster a happy relationship, however, parents often fall as victims to social pressure, stereotypes, traditions, social conventions, and even the political situation itself which greatly influence what is viewed as “acceptable”, “honorable”, and “respectable” marriages.

4. Effects of Tradition and Social Conventions:

Mahr was mentioned in many Palestinian colloquial sayings and proverbs, emphasizing its importance. The following are some examples:

“If you want to marry a beauty, first you have to afford the dowry”, “Do not complain if the price is high, when the prize is marrying a beauty”, “If your aim is the beautiful woman, then sell your weapon”;[4] in reference to what is viewed as the most valuable possession of Palestinians, which is the weapons that they use to resist the Israeli Occupation.

Although Mahr is a religious requirement, it became more influenced by traditions rather than Islam itself. For example, while the Mahr is intended as a means of support to the bride, its value is seldom decided by the bride herself, and rather by her father or her male relatives. In some cases, the parents of the bride may take claim over the Mahr, for several reasons that will be discussed further on, even though Mahr is both legally and religiously the property of the wife alone.

Some families believe that the higher the value of the Mahr is, the better it reflects the status, and hence the “value”, of the bride herself. This tradition of connecting the worth of the woman to the Mahr is not religious and does not stem from Islam itself, but rather became a traditional practice with time. A Palestinian researcher named Dr. Bassam Abu Alyan, conducted a research in 2015 on the topic of “Singlehood in Palestine”. He found that 65% of the sample identified “the interference of the bride’s family in setting the marriage standards” as the main source of marriage problems, while 32% see the “impossible conditions set forth by the bride’s family” as the real source. [5]

Another influencing factor is the social scene in Palestine, which can be very competitive especially when it comes to marriage. Many families tend to raise the Mahr value as a sign of their own social status in society. Their demands can be very hard to meet, starting with a very exuberant engagement party and ending with a list of conditions that should be included in the Mahr. This naturally eliminates suitors from different social levels, and therefore guarantees that only those of the same status can qualify. In the majority of the cases, the difference in social classes is identified as a major problem facing couples in Palestine.

As it was mentioned before, the prompt part of Mahr usually consists of money and gold jewelry. An example of the unrealistic demands that the parents ask of the groom would be demanding a high amount of gold, which could range anywhere between 5000 Euros and 40,000 Euros. The problem intensifies especially when parents demand the same as parents in other wealthy Arab countries, without taking into consideration the vast difference in the economy and financial status of those countries.

Mother and daughter choosing gold for the Mahr in a traditional gold shop

Mother and daughter choosing gold for the Mahr in a traditional gold shop

Some people view a high Mahr as an assured sign of a continued marriage.  They believe that once a man pays a high sum in the prompt part of the Mahr, he will view it as a considerable investment and will therefore be more likely to put more effort into making the marriage work. They also believe that the man will be more reluctant to ask for a divorce if the deferred part of the Mahr is high. Parents often overlook the problems that could arise from either party feeling trapped in a marriage because they cannot afford to end it. Another interesting proverb which depicts this mentality is “A marriage that is for free will surely result in an easy divorce”.

Young men and women protesting the high Mahr demands in society. The signs say "I want to get married but no groom can afford my Mahr", "My father raised my Mahr and no groom can pay it. Welcome spinsterhood, my Mahr is 10,000 Jordanian Dinars"

Young men and women protesting the high Mahr demands in society. The signs say “I want to get married but no groom can afford my Mahr”, “My father raised my Mahr and no groom can pay it. Welcome spinsterhood, my Mahr is 10,000 Jordanian Dinars”

Other families connect the amount of Mahr to the beauty and education of the woman. If a woman has a high education for example, or is more beautiful than her peers, then she merits a higher Mahr in their eyes. When a woman has a job and a salary, then the parents feel even more justified in raising the amount of her Mahr. This could be done as a way to filter good from bad suitors. The parents would think suitors are be interested in their daughter solely for her salary, especially if the man himself does not have a job or has low income. Therefore, setting a high Mahr would filter the ones who are really interested in their daughter from those seeking a gain. Another reason would be the parents wish to drive the suitors away, and deter them from proposing all-together, especially if the daughter is the sole breadwinner in the family. Her marriage in that case would be considered as a loss to the family since they would lose their source of income.  A recent study has shown that 80% of educated women between the ages of 30-40, and who have well-paying jobs, do not find acceptable suitors who can afford their Mahr.

In less-frequent cases, old-fashioned families would even go as far as viewing the marriage as a source of compensation. Parents would feel that the cost of raising their daughter and putting her through school and university, was too high. A high Mahr would therefore be a way to compensate them for those costs as they view their daughter as the responsibility of her husband.

5. Effects of the Israeli Occupation:

Palestine has been suffering under the Israeli Occupation since 1948. This Occupation has had numerous devastating effects on the lives of Palestinians, both social and political. Those effects included the matter of marriage, and even affected the issue of Mahr. In his book, Palestinian Political Culture, Basem Ezbidi takes a deeper look  at those effects. An example he offers is the economic siege which Israel has been enforcing on the Palestinian territories for the past six decades. In addition, Palestinians have no freedom of movement between their cities, and are therefore forced to stay within their area. The siege and lack of ability to move both led to growing numbers of unemployment, where the percentage jumped to 65% in some areas like the Gaza Strip, and 30%-40% in the West Bank. People, especially men, are not able to move around to look for jobs, and the siege itself limited the numbers of jobs available. This has left most eligible young men who are aiming to get married unable to fulfil their wish as they cannot afford it.

Recently, parents in the Palestinian society have become more willing to overlook the matter of a high Mahr, and are able to fight the social pressure. However, they find themselves unable to accept a suitor who has no job or cannot provide a place of residence, due to the hard social circumstances caused by the Occupation. Parents often would accept their daughter living in the same house as her in-laws, in an effort to ease the conditions of marriage. But many would still stand helpless when the man has no source of income. This has led to growing numbers of couples who want to be married, but cannot do so until the situation becomes better. Dr. Abu Alyan’s research has identified a shocking percentage of 75% of the Palestinians in Gaza and 64%[6] in the West Bank who are unable to pay the Mahr, or provide a residence due to the hard political and social reality.

Another effect of the Occupation is the fact that most Palestinian men between the ages of 17-45 usually serve various sentences in Israeli prisons for acts of resistance. This leaves many couples who are engaged but cannot get married, or others who wish to be together but are forced to seek new relationships when the prison sentences are too long. In addition to that, when Palestinians manage to finish their prison sentence and are released, they find themselves with no job, no income, and no savings. They are forced then to wait even longer until they find job opportunities and start saving to afford the Mahr and other requirements of marriage.

A Palestinian woman visiting her husband in an Israeli prison

A Palestinian woman visiting her husband in an Israeli prison

The Occupation has also deepened the gap between the social classes. The siege and closures have doubled and tripled the prices of everything in the market. This means that even the simplest requirements, such as household items, furniture, clothes, etc have become out of reach for a vast majority of people. Therefore, when a man wants to get married but cannot even afford the smallest items, let alone a place to live in, parents of women who have a good financial situation would naturally accept suitors of the same status. Others who also suffer from the situation would rather hold off on allowing their daughter to get married in the hopes that a proper suitor will come and be able to provide to her.  In his research, Dr. Abu Alyan attributed 83% of to unemployment as a main obstacle in the face of marriage, and 56%[7] to the increase in prices due to the Israeli Occupation.

In conclusion, while marriage traditions and requirements differ and vary from one country to another, marriage in Palestine remains hostage to two important factors. On the one hand, there are traditions and social norms that intend to protect the woman in marriage but fail by subjecting her to Mahr regulations and limitations that are not Islamic. And on the other hand, the Israeli Occupation which aims at destroying the social fabric of the Palestinian society and does its best to break it apart.

It is also important to note that all the factors that have been discussed in the paper above play different roles and in different percentages in the matter of marriage in Palestine. This paper does not intend to generalize, but rather seeks to shed light on the problems that face young couples in Palestine who have to endure social as well as political hardships, which limit their chances in establishing relationships and building families as they wish.


[1]  DeLong-Bas, Natana J. (2004). Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (First ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, USA. p. 159.
[2]  The Hadith, (pp. Sahih Bukhari, Book 62, Vol.7, Hadith Number 10).
[3] The Qur’an, Al-Baqra 2.236
[4] Alloush, Ibrahim. Palestinian Folksongs. Dar-Alloush For Publishing, Birzeit. 2011
[5] Abu Alyan, Bassam. Singlehood in Palestine. Dunia Al Watan, Palestine:20 Nov. 2015
[6] Abu Alyan, Bassam. Singlehood in Palestine. Dunia Al Watan, Palestine:20 Nov. 2015
[7] Abu Alyan, Bassam. Singlehood in Palestine. Dunia Al Watan, Palestine:20 Nov. 2015


  1. Abu Alyan, Bassam. Singlehood in Palestine. Dunia Al Watan, Palestine: 20 Nov. 2015
  2. Alloush, Ibrahim. Palestinian Folksongs. Dar-Alloush for Publishing, Birzeit: 2011.
  3. DeLong-Bas, Natana J. (2004). Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (First ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, USA. p. 159.
  4. Ezbidi, Basem. Palestinian Political Culture. Nadia Printing and Publishing, Ramallah: 2003
  5. “Mahr”. Encyclopedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P.Henrichis. Brill Online
  6. The Hadith, Sahih Bukhari, Book 62, Vol 7, Hadith Number 10
  7. The Qur’an. Trans. by Tarif Khalidi. New York: Viking, 2008. Print.