Marriage is a fundamental part of Somali culture and it considered to be the most important occasion in one’s lifetime, it is also considered to be a hallowed and blessed event as it takes place only once in an individual’s life although one can have multiple marriages after the first one. Traditionally, the nature of the wedding depends on the financial status of the bridegroom or the would-be husband. Most of marriages are long planned out and organized with huge feasts, celebrations and with budgets in the thousands of U.S. dollars. Some, however, are organized in a more informal, less costly way, known as “elopement” or what Somalis call “La Tagis”.
For centuries, couples running away to get married has been part of the Somali culture and tradition despite its controversy among Somali communities and its Islamic scholars. Elopement is often referred to as a marriage that is conducted in sudden and secretive fashion, usually involving a hurried run away from one's place of residence or family together with one's beloved with the intention of getting married. The idea is widely practiced in some Muslim countries, however, in countries where Saudi-based Wahabi school of Islam is applied there is a belief that elopement is against Islamic teachings and some even consider it taboo since it is done without the consent and the knowledge of the parents. But the moderate Sufi sect which is dominant in Somalia believes that this type of marriage is permissible and legitimate since the couples travel 90 kilometers away from their parent’s home which gives them the authority to make their own decision, especially for girls.
"Elopement is legally permitted in accordance with the Islamic teachings religion," said Sheikh Mohamed Ahmed, a Sufi cleric in Mogadishu who was speaking on local radio. "If the woman happens to be in a remote area or about 90 kilometers far from her guardians she can be wedded if she agrees to it."
The reason why one chooses this kind of arrangements is vary from person to another. In many cases, if the man is not in a position to cover marriage expenses, dowry and other money given to the bride’s family, elopement is his best option. Others choose it to prevent forced marriage -- particularly girls to a man they never wanted to marry -- so that love and can prevail.
Those who strongly support the idea take the above mentioned reasons as a way of justifying and making it Halaal (permissible) but others who disagree it say such reasons are not justifiable and it is mandatory to have the consent of the parents or the guardians.
Wanlaweyn; home of secret marriages
In Somalia, there is a small town called Wanlaweyn, located exactly 90 kilometers away from the capital city Mogadishu, that attracts many marriages through elopement. Couples usually take a public bus and sit in different places to prevent them from being recognized or draw any attention. Upon arrival at the town, they are received by local clerks who then take them to wedlock rooms. The marriage ceremony, unlike other fancy elaborated ceremonies only lasts 15 minutes or so and the couples are then given an official letter (marriage certificate) written with ink proving the legitimacy of their marriage which means they will be accused of committing adultery if they don't have it. The couples then return to Mogadishu using public bus or minivan and sitting in different positions as if they had never met. The couples keep their marriage secret and continue like this for a few months until the girl gets pregnant which is the time the couples have to break the news to their families. At this moment, the two families have no option other than accepting the marriage, but the husband’s family must pay a remedy (a small amount of money) to appease the family of the bride since their daughter eloped without their knowledge; the life of the couples goes on from there.
“He might deny you”
In some cases when situations the husband might deny his wife. “Some people say it is win win strategy but I don’t believe so, even though I believe the process of elopement is easier than formally arranged marriages yet it only favors man, women are always trapped in such kind of marriages. Once the news comes out the man might deny you as I previously seen, it happened to some of my friends and that is the worst part of all of it” says Asha 28 years mother of 3 children who is married through elopement.
Elopement marriages have recently decreased
During the last decade the secret marriages have dramatically decreased in major cities of Somalia although they still exist in rural areas. This is due to mass awareness campaigns on reducing marriage and dowry expenses across the country undertaken by Somali scholars. These outreach messages are usually aired through radios and TV where parents are encouraged to limit the burden of the huge amount incurred during marriage feasts and weddings, they are also warned not to arrange marriages by forcing their daughters to marry a man they don’t want to live with. Another reason is that nowadays, especially where the bride is employed, the couples share the wedding expenses other than the bride price and the dowry. It is still culturally stigmatized for a woman to invest in her own marriage.
Somali families, despite some of them believing elopement is a legitimate form of marriage, are reluctant to embrace it. For instance, you ask a father or mother whether they would allow their daughter to elope they will absolutely refuse it even if they (the parents) were married by elopement. This is considered to be killing the honor and the character of the family and this can have a negative impact on the woman’s relationship with her family as long as she stays with the man who eloped with her; some families even disown their daughters for eloping.
“The only option we have”
“We all want our dreams to come true but if i am not able to achieve that because of my financial circumstance then elopement is the only option we have. I just married last week through elopement but our official marriage will happen soon.” said Osman Farah happily enjoying his secret honeymoon with his new wife
It goes without saying that secret marriage or elopement favors a number of young men in Somalia who would otherwise never realize their dreams of living with their soulmates or their beloved fiancée. Society is divided into two groups; one group believes that elopement is good and even prevents youngsters from committing adultery if there is no possibility of a formal marriage, another group strongly opposes it, saying the practice is un-Islamic.