Many people look forward to getting married, a day when they get to say “I do” to the person they love.
But did you know that in some communities, your biological father, brother or cousin can marry the bride on your behalf if you are unable to attend your wedding?
For example, the groom may have travelled overseas and cannot return for the most important day of his life. What to do?
In many parts of coastal Kenya, Muslim communities practise representation marriage.
One such case is that of Zuleika Abdul, who got married last year when the world was battling the Covid-19 pandemic.
Her husband was and still is in Dubai, where he went to search for greener pastures.
She says their wedding was planned for April 2020 but it was postponed to August the same year as she waited for her groom to return home.
But that did not happen.
“We had arranged the wedding and premeditated everything but then the first case of the coronavirus was announced in March which shut down all our plans,” she says.
“We postponed it, believing that by August my husband would have managed to come back.”
After deliberations, the two families decided the wedding would proceed in the absence of the groom.
A wedding without a groom, you are wondering?
Among Muslims, the first stage of a wedding is called the “fatiha” ceremony, when the groom’s and bride’s families meet to discuss how the dowry will be paid.
Once they agree, a small celebration takes place as they plan for the second part, called the “nikkah”.
At the nikkah, the groom takes an oath in a mosque by agreeing to marry the bride in front of at least two witnesses. He then signs a contract, making the marriage legal under civil and religious law.
“I accept to marry (someone’s) daughter through the dowry that we have agreed on,” the groom pledges.
But in cases where the groom is not present to take the oath, either his biological father, brother, cousin or even a friend can do it on his behalf.
Ms Abdi got married to her now-husband but the person who took the oath in the mosque was the man’s cousin.
“Muslims believe that something that comes with a blessing should not be postponed frequently, so we went for the representation marriage, which my husband agreed to,” she says.
The groom selects his representative, then the chosen person would attend the dowry payment and nikkah ceremony on behalf of the groom.
A nikkah ceremony held without the groom, as in the case of Ms Abdi, is somewhat different from that where the groom is present.
The cousin who represented him said: “On behalf of Ms Abdi’s husband, I accept to marry her following the dowry payment that we had agreed on.”
But Ms Abdi tells the Nation that she did not get to enjoy the wedding as she had wished.
“If my husband had been present during the wedding, he would have come to send his blessings in what we call the ‘kutoa mikono’ ceremony. But that cannot happen in a representation marriage,” she explains.
She noted that the ceremony happens at the bride’s home, where the groom is received with ululations and then finds her and places his hand over her head as a means of blessing her.
Khadija Bintali also tied the knot through representation marriage.
In her case, though, the biological father of her groom took the oath on behalf of his son.
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“My husband works in Uganda. Around the time of the wedding he was to travel back to the country but a work issue came up two days before the ceremony. The only option he saw was to send his father to represent him,” she says.
But the groom had attended the dowry payment ceremony.
Sheikh Yusuf Abdi, based in Mombasa, says the representation ceremony is allowed in sharia law as long as the groom is the one who makes the choice.
“It is a common practice. It can be carried out even in divorce cases,” he says.
In divorces, he says, the husband sends someone to the wife’s family to deliver a message of dissolution.
“If the wife accepts the terms, the person sent will sign divorce papers on behalf of the husband,” says Sheikh Abdi.
But in representation marriages, he says, only the groom can sign the marriage certificate, which he can do when he returns.