Ehsan fell in love with his wife A’isha, a girl from the neighborhood, when he was 14 and she 13.
Eight years later they are still together, with Ehsan is about to graduate with a degree in pharmacology from Gaza’s Al Azhar University and A’isha studying journalism at the same school.
But after being together for years, the couple is still no closer to being able to expose their marriage.
“I am a religious person and well mannered, and so is A’isha,” Ehsan told The Media Line. “We know right from wrong. Whenever we sneak our the back door of the university so that we can walk in the street for five minutes, we feel guilty and ashamed.”
“Then I remind myself that it’s not wrong, even though our parents don’t know,” said the black-haired young man with cautious honey eyes. “I have never even touched her hand, or degraded her in any way, be it hurting her feelings or her dignity. How can I hurt a person I love more than myself? Love is not wrong even though it’s considered ‘scandalous’ and unacceptable here in Gaza.”
A’isha and Ehsan’s status is what is known in Gaza as a ‘conventional marriage’, a union recognized by law, but often without the approval of the religious authorities or the couple’s families - an anomaly in a society in which religion, law and cultural legitimacy are so intricately weaved together.
“Conventional marriage, in its real meaning, is just like the real legitimate marriage but lacks the court papers, appearance and approval,” Dr Hassan Al Juju, Head of the Supreme Council of Sharia Law in Gaza told The Media Line. “Instead of the sheikh, a lawyer does his usual work in the presence of the man and woman. The bride’s father or legal guardian has to be present even if she is over 18.”
‘Conventional marriages’ occupy an uncertain space in Gazan society and are frequently known to stir controversy. The debate on whether they can be considered legal and culturally legitimate often appears irresolvable and the boundary between ‘conventional marriages’ and ‘secret marriages’ is often blurred.
In a society in which women’s ‘honor’ can impinge upon a family’s reputation, secret marriages and love affairs are a dangerous business, and often end in ‘honor killings’ – the murder by a family member of a female seen to have shamed the family name.
Men began knocking on A’isha’s door to ask for her hand in marriage when she was 16. Although she would always find a reason to refuse, she knows it won’t be long before her parents would start asking questions and force her to get married.
“I hope it never happens,” A’isha said through tears. “I am trying my best to buy him time and I don’t know how my destiny will end once my family knows I am married.”
“I am sure my family will either kill me or lock me up forever,” she said. “I want to live my life and be happy. Is that too much to ask?”
Many say they got into a conventional marriage by chance.
Nur, 31, holds a prestigious position in a Gazan civil society organization. With a degree in social science from the Islamic University, she has a tall fit frame, grey eyes, looks younger than her age and is smartly dressed.
“Every one who meets me thinks I am very happy and that I am lucky to have such an open minded father that lets me work and not get married,” she told The Media Line. “But the truth is much more complicated and painful.”
“My father has been refusing every man that knocks on our door for over nine years,” Nur said. “I am tired of him taking my salary and preventing me from marriage. Now I see education, work and independence as a burden, not a privilege.”
“Eight months ago a man came to ask my father for my hand,” she said. “After two months my father said he wasn’t fit and that I should forget about him but it was too late, we are in love.”
“I know it might sound too bold or maybe wrong but what could I do?” she said. “I had to turn to Dr. Hassan and tell him to give my father his last ultimatum or I will use conventional marriage to marry this man. I just want to be happy and be a mother. Isn’t that my right?”
Though the consequences for those who chose traditional marriage can be very severe, the desire to find love and happiness is often too big a draw.
“You know what would happen if we revealed our marriage right now?” Ehsan said. “She would be killed and I would be either locked up or have to go into hiding to keep myself alive. But I can never let them separate us and I will do everything to fight them if they try. I am willing to take her and live somewhere else or hide or even get out of Gaza.”
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