Columbus Dispatch: Muslims’ dowry not binding, judge says

Muslims’ dowry not binding, judge says

Saturday,  October 20, 2007 3:50 AM

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

On Raghad Alwattar’s wedding day, her groom gave her a gold bracelet, a ring and a promise of a $25,000 payment. 

Less than two years later, the marriage is over, the pair aren’t speaking, and a Franklin County judge has refused to enforce the dowry because she considers it a religious agreement.

The dowry, called a mahr by Muslims, is unenforceable in Common Pleas Court, Domestic Relations Judge Dana S. Preisse ruled Oct. 10.

Preisse said that because “the obligation to pay $25,000 is rooted in a religious practice, the dowry is considered a religious act, not a legal contract.

Courts in other states have enforced dowries and considered them part of Islamic marriage contracts, but no such cases have occurred in Ohio, Preisse wrote.

The case has prompted Columbus imam Mouhamed Tarazi, who married Alwattar and Mohammed Zawahiri, to change how he performs weddings. From now on, he will make the man sign a promissory note for the mahr so it’s enforceable in civil court, he said.

Tarazi, Alwattar’s father and Zawahiri agreed on the terms of the contract immediately before the couple were married, Alwattar said. The one-page marriage contract, also signed by Alwattar, gives the dollar amount and a promise that the couple will raise Muslim children.

Tarazi has married about 300 Muslim couples in central Ohio in the past decade, and all had marriage contracts that included dowries ranging from $100 to $50,000, he said.

The amount depends in part on the status of the woman and the man’s financial assets. To facilitate the marriage of young men who can’t afford a mahr outright, many couples agree on a smaller gift or payment upfront, like Alwattar’s gold bracelet and rings, with the rest to be paid over the years. Some Muslim couples agree that the money will be paid only in the case of a divorce or the husband’s death.

“It’s more like a security,” he said. “Remember, most of these women don’t work. If the husband decides after a year or so to divorce them, they’re going to be left alone. No one’s going to marry them again.”

Alwattar, a 21-year-old from Dublin, will graduate from Ohio State University in December with a degree in pharmaceutical sciences.

She accepted Zawahiri’s proposal about a month after he and his mother visited Alwattar and her family to discuss the possibility of marriage. Zawahiri had first seen his future bride during prayers at a mosque. Generally, Muslims don’t date.

After several phone calls to learn about his personality and values, Alwattar accepted. After their marriage, Zawahiri and his mother both became highly critical and yelled at her all the time, she said.

“And I don’t put up with that,” she said.

Zawahiri, now 29, could not be reached for comment.

Alwattar and her attorney argued that the mahr should be considered a prenuptial agreement.

Preisse disagreed. In her ruling, she said a prenuptial agreement must be entered into without duress or coercion. In this case, she said, the agreement was made just a few minutes before the wedding ceremony, and Zawahiri did not have time to consult an attorney.

Preisse also said that a prenuptial agreement is designed to protect a person’s assets in the event of a divorce. The mahr was designed to give Alwattar money in addition to whatever assets she owned, so it could not be considered a prenuptial agreement.

Tarazi said payment of the mahr is not debatable, and that the stigma of being a young, divorced Muslim woman will not be easy for Alwattar to overcome.

“This is in the Quran. It’s not up to him to interpret,” he said. “He will have to pay it in this life or the hereafter.”

Zawahiri didn’t understand what he was doing, thinking the contract was just a formality before marriage, said James Adair, his attorney.

“From my client’s standpoint, he wouldn’t have seen much different from $25,000 or 25 cents or $25 million,” he said.

A New Jersey Court ruled in 2002 that a man owed his wife her $10,000 mahr upon their divorce because the secular parts of the marriage contract could be enforced. A New York court made a similar decision in 1985.

Muslims and other religious people entering into marriage contracts should ensure that the agreements meet the requirements of a valid prenuptial agreement if they want enforcement in a civil court, Adair said.

“The more you can make this whole concept secular, the better off you’re going to be in terms of walking into a civil court,” he said.

mheagney@dispatch.com

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