MORE AND MORE awareness has been raised regarding the phenomenon of ‘marriage bandits’ – those men, often portraying themselves as ‘religious,’ who approach women with convincing proposals of marriage, charming them into shady arrangements resembling (barely) ḥalâl hook-ups rather than serious commitments. Shortly after, victims of these predators will find themselves used and abused, their Islamic rights disregarded, and their stories discredited if they try to come forward with what happened to them.
However, while keeping in mind that the blame for such abuse lays squarely on the shoulders of the predators themselves, we must also acknowledge that the women involved are individuals of agency.
It is undeniable that they are often vulnerable (especially new Muslims or those without a strong Muslim support system), but we must also recognize that at the end, the marriage does not take place without the consent of the women themselves. It is rare, if ever, that these marriages are ‘forced’ in the sense that these women literally have no choice whatsoever.
We women cannot act as though we’re completely helpless in these situations. There are certain measures that women should take as a matter of course to ensure their own safety. It is unfortunate that this is an issue that even exists – much like rape or domestic violence – but at the end of the day, it is a harsh reality that must be faced and which we should be prepared for. If we want to empower women to take control of their lives, we must be ready to take responsibility for the decisions we make as well.
That being said, what are the proactive measures women should take in order to not be as susceptible to the appalling schemes of marriage bandits?
Be Aware, Be Wary
If an individual approaches you for marriage – whether it’s someone famous or not – the first rule of thumb should be: be aware and be wary. Especially if it’s a well-known daʿi or influential individual in the community, don’t be star struck. Keep your wits about you. Maintain an attitude of professionalism at all times; don’t communicate with them privately, without your wali or someone you trust CCed at all times.
Don’t fall for flattery. Many women suffer from low self-esteem or have deeply rooted insecurities, and someone who provides praise and reassurance immediately gains their trust. Always remember that you should never base your self-worth and confidence on others’ opinions of you – develop your own self-esteem. Know that someone who is preying upon your fears or weaknesses is not someone who sincerely cares about you.
Know that just because someone is a shaykh or a daʿi, it doesn’t mean that they are perfect, that they practice what they preach, or that they are good husbands. They are human, they can be good and they can be bad, and even the good ones have flaws. Never allow yourself to be blinded by an idealistic fantasy of being “the Shaykh’s wife” – the reality is very, very different.
Simply put, don’t rush. Don’t advertise your insecurities or your loneliness in marriage advertisements. Do your research with your wali, and don’t be embarrassed to do a thorough background check, including finding out about past relationships and doing credit checks. If it is an individual who travels a lot, find out about places he has spent time in and try to find out what his history is in those areas.
Hold Your Wali Accountable
The concept of the wali – a guardian or helper – has unfortunately been maligned, minimalized, or abused amongst many Muslims. While a wali’s duty is to have the best interests of a woman at heart when seeking for a prospective spouse, it has become all too common for walis to fall into one of two extremes: either to be completely negligent, or to be unreasonable and entertain offers that only suit their cultural or personal biases.
Women need to be educated as to the Islamic reasoning behind having a wali – no, it’s not to reinforce the patriarchy, even if it is abused in that way – and seek out a good wali.
Ideally, the qualities of a good wali are that he is of both good religious practice as well as character (so obviously, not someone who outwardly looks religious but engages in abuse, financial fraud, or other distasteful and unethical practices); that he should not have a conflict of interest regarding the proposed marriage (i.e. he’s not the would-be-groom’s best friend); that he is sincere and truly cares about the woman’s best interests; and that he understands the seriousness of the responsibility. It should be noted that a wali’s role does not end upon the performing of the marriage contract; should any issues arise within the marriage, the wali should be present (or at least accessible) and ready to advocate for the woman.
One way to ensure that a wali will do his job appropriately is to have a way to hold him accountable. Should you get screwed over because you trusted the wali to do a thorough background check and he didn’t, you should be able to report his negligence to those who have some kind of authority or influence over him. Of course, this is easier said than done and impossible for some due to community politics and lack of accountability in our communities in general, but it is something that should be seriously considered before trusting any random Joe or brother Bilal to play such an important role.
Watch for Red Flags and Check Your Attitude
If the proposed arrangement is one that involves polygyny – and especially secret polygyny – then first of all, watch out for red flags. If he says that he needs to keep you a secret for his reputation, or because his first wife “can’t know just yet” – then know that he is being less than forthcoming, and that he cares more about his image and self-satisfaction than your well-being, or his wife’s.
Polygyny already has a horrific reputation in the Muslim community because of how terribly it is practiced – don’t perpetuate that nightmarish cycle. Insist on your right to have a recognized marriage, and to communicate with his first wife directly to ensure that she is aware of his actions and that you are not harming her with the decision to become a second wife. If he gets angry, upset, or defensive about this, then that is enough of a red flag – shut down the conversation and don’t look back. Lying and deception does no one any good, least of all you.
On the other hand, check your own attitude. There is a tendency for some people to paint all second wives as naïve victims, and while this is true in some cases, it is not true for all. There are numerous examples of women whose attitudes regarding polygyny are worrisome in and of themselves. “It’s my right to marry him,” is a common phrase, and “I don’t need the first wife’s permission.” If one goes in with such a callous perspective, then to be blunt, Do you really expect to be treated any better? If you are considering becoming a second wife, then know that your decision will directly affect another woman’s life and marriage. Live according to the principle of iḥsân (excellence), and you will receive such in return:
Is the reward for good [anything] but good? [Sûrat Al-Raḥmân, 55:60]
Being vague about mahr, or promising something like “I’ll teach you my knowledge” or “take you for Hajj” are also indicators of a lack of commitment. One of the wisdoms behind the mahr is that the woman has a financial fall-back to depend on, should things unexpectedly go sour; as such, don’t give into pressure that, “The most blessed marriage is the one with the smallest mahr.” Ask for a reasonable amount that will show that you’re serious and expect seriousness in return.
It cannot be emphasized enough that you need to take your time and do your part in vetting an individual for marriage. If someone is pressuring you to ‘hurry up’ or threatening to move on and speak to another woman instead, then know that you can do without such an individual.
Won’t Someone Think of the Children?
Among certain groups, there are women with children who take part in serial remarriage – with devastating consequences for the children. As a mother, you cannot make rash or weak decisions based on your immediate emotions. Your (re)marriage(s) will impact your children seriously, and often, not for the better. Making a mistake once or twice can, perhaps, be considered forgivable… but if you’re on round 3 or 4 and you’re still on the marriage carousel, going from one man to another, then the serious problem here is your poor judgment.
There are many, many, many cases of women who have made this mistake and whose children ended up scarred, traumatized, and more often than anyone would like, left Islam completely. Children are vulnerable and deeply affected by having men enter and leave their lives so abruptly even when the men themselves are good; but when those men are sociopaths, abusers, or just downright callous, the trauma of witnessing one’s mother (and themselves) at the mercy of these individuals can be overwhelming.
If you’ve already gone through a painful marriage and divorce, don’t rush into remarriage. Take time to heal, focus on your spiritual and emotional well-being, and that of your children. While marriage may seem like a quick-fix solution to financial or other issues, know that it is not always successful. It is far better for your – and your children’s – mental and spiritual health to seek long-term solutions involving counseling, education, building healthy support systems, and working towards financial stability. Again, this may be easier said than done, but it is also less likely to result in your children’s faith and psyches being damaged.
It should be noted that the above points do not necessarily apply to everyone’s situations. There will always be times when, despite one’s best attempts at precaution, predators will still find a way to weasel their way into manipulating and abusing others. In such cases, one should not be afraid to step away as soon as it’s clear what’s happening, and to report the individual to the authorities or those within the community who are likely to hold the person accountable and possibly prevent them from committing such abuse with others.
In conclusion, the best way to avoid becoming a victim to predator shaykhs and marriage bandits is to educate yourself, have self-respect, and be very, very cautious. Don’t be easily swayed by charm, false promises, and the appeal of fame. Know that marriage is a serious undertaking, a commitment that requires one to be educated about both one’s Islamic rights as well as real-life skills, and above all, sincerity. Place your trust in Allah and seek His guidance every step of the way.