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Unmarried and happy in Malaysia

By Zainah Anwar

It's men who are the surplus goods. FOR every 100 women who are not married in Malaysia, there are 130 unmarried men. It is men who are surplus goods on the marriage market in this country, not women.

So how does nikah misyar as proposed by certain quarters help to solve the purported social problem of unmarried women and divorcees? This is a solution in search of a problem.

Check the 2000 survey on never married population aged 15 years and above issued by the Statistics Department. The problem in Malaysia is not just a surplus of unmarried men. The bigger problem is likely to be that many of these unmarried men are actually unmarriageable.

The misrepresentation of social problems to justify men's lust for multiple sexual partners is not a new tactic. This reminds me of a similar ruckus some 10 years ago when certain religious figures justified polygamy because there were purportedly 14 women to every one man in Malaysia! Yet another misconceived social ill that needed to be solved by extending men's privileges.

Any right thinking person would immediately conclude this as an impossibility unless Malaysia practised male infanticide or sex-selective abortion as in certain Asian countries against female foetuses. The Statistics Department corrected this gross error. And yet the media, and radio Ws for years, went on quoting this statistic to justify polygamy. And it even spread to Indonesia with advocates of polygamy there using the same women to men ratio!

The fact is there are slightly more men than women in Malaysia, and this is considered normal. Women exceed men only in the 65 years and above age group because women live longer. So if sex ratio is the justification for polygamy, then men should only be allowed to marry the surplus women in that age group.

The bigger concern in Malaysia is the seriously disproportionate sex ratio of unmarried citizens. Almost a third of men are surplus goods on the marriage market. This is not difficult to explain. A country that practises polygyny (one husband, many wives) will skew the marriage market. All things being equal, when one man marries two women, he deprives another man of a chance at marriage. When he marries three women, two other men are deprived; when he marries four, three other men do not marry.

So the problem does not lie with women, but with men who want to marry more than one wife in order to legitimise their lust for multiple sexual partners. It is not just women, but other men are also discriminated in the hazardous practice of polygyny.

The problem in Malaysia is compounded because we are still a traditional patriarchal society where women are expected to marry up. Thus men with money, education and skills will get their choice of women. Men with little money, education and skills are more likely to remain unmarried because society disapproves of women who marry men "beneath" them, and some of our religious leaders believe it is haram for men to be househusbands.

Unless this social value changes given the reality that women are increasingly bettereducated than men, and that there are men who are happy and willing to be househusbands, the opportunities for marriage for men, and women, will decrease further.

We all know what happens in societies where men outnumber women disproportionately; where unmarried men are actually unmarriageable because they are poor, unskilled and uneducated. They form an underclass with no strong social bonds who are more likely than other males to turn to vice and violence.

So if the logic of misyar marriage is to be offered as a solution, then the specific problem that it should address is really the surplus of unmarried and unmarriageable men. The outcome then is to legitimise sex among single men and women who for whatever reason are not able to marry, not because they don't'want to but because they cannot afford it, because the women earn more than men and therefore are not sekufu (of the same class and background), because it is haram for men to be househusbands.

It could be a workable, satisfying relationship between two willing partners who could still choose to marry when circumstances change.

But of course we know that in practice, misyar marriage more often than not leads to abuse and exploitation of women. In many cases, it is nothing more than legitimised prostitution. In poverty stricken Muslim communities, rich Gulf Arab men are known to fly in, contract a misyar marriage in order to have legitimate sex with young girls, pay money to the girls, or more likely to the parents who sold their daughters to these old men, and then fly out until the next visit, and the process repeats itself. Indonesia is already one target country of such marriages.

The practice actually allows men to have sex with women without feeling guilty that they have committed the sin of zinc. In research done in some Arab countries, most of the men in misyar marriages are already married. Often they are men on vacation or are working abroad, or in a different city, who have left their wives and children behind.

Is it any wonder that women and many fair-minded men are up in arms against the legitimisation of this practice? It reeks of deceit and adultery, two ingredients that will doom a marriage.

The discussion on misyar marriage raises the issue why society goes into a panic over unmarried women. Why not over unmarried men? Has anyone done a survey comparing the socio-economic status of unmarried men and women and their levels of well-being? Look at the single women around you. They are more likely to be better educated, financially independent, happier, responsible citizens and loving family members than unmarried men.

If you put together the statistics of young unmarried men in drug rehabilitation centres, juvenile homes, prisons, criminal gangs and those out in the streets aimlessly, you get a vivid picture of the underclass being formed. The solution is not to get such men married off, but how do we change our upbringing and education of boys to turn them into responsible citizens and caring family members, and attractive to women.

If our society continues to believe that polygamy is a man's right, that men must always be leaders and be superior to women, men must always be providers, that being a househusband is haram, then the statistic for an underclass of unmarriageable men in this country is likely to grow.

In the past, women needed to marry in order to survive. But today, when women are educated and financially independent, being a wife is nolonger the one ticket to happinessand well-being. You can actually lead a full and happy life without marriage.

In fact, in a society where religion is used to justify a man's right to four wives, to demand obedience, to beat his wife, to get sex on demand, to divorce his wife at will, marriage for many Muslim women, is an inherently high-risk and unstable institution. And now a proposal to legitimise illicit sex through legal action, specially for married men with unmarried women!

Is it any wonder that the divorce rate among Muslims is many times higher than non-Muslims? And yet our leaders wring their hands when women are marrying late or not at all, when they are having fewer children, or not. at all. The criticism is always. on women, as if the fault lies with them. The focus is on preserving marriage as an institution, no matter what, rather than building strong, happy, healthy and lasting relationships.

The reality is that increasing numbers of women, while believing in marriage, reject still the traditional model of the man being leader and provider to whom obedience is due, while the woman is the subservient and inferior other half who is on 24/7 duty as wife, mother, cook, cleaner, nurse... and for many, a co-provider as well, without whose income the family cannot survive.

We all believe in family. Let's get real in analysing why families break down, why women marry late, if at all, why there are many more unmarried men than women, why men are umnarriageable, instead of offering unwanted solutions to misconceived problems.

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