October 26, 2014

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Judge rules dowries can’t be enforced

COLUMBUS — A man does not have to pay his former wife $25,000, promised as part of a dowry before their traditional Muslim marriage because a judge ruled the payment is part of a religious agreement, not a legal contract.

The decision by Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Dana Priesse on Oct. 10 is the first of its kind in Ohio, and a departure from rulings in other states, which have enforced dowries as part of Islamic marriage contracts.

The ruling 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.

The dowry, called a mahr by Muslims, is part of the marriage contract signed by both the bride and groom before a wedding, said

Columbus imam Mouhamed Tarazi. The amount promised to the bride depends on both the woman’s status and the man’s financial assets, and is often paid out over time, he said. Of the 300 Muslim couples he has married in central Ohio, all had dowries ranging from $100 to $50,000.

In the case, the bride, Raghad Alwattar, 21, was promised $25,000 and some gold jewelry by the groom, Mohammed Zawahiri, 29.

Their marriage lasted two years before the couple divorced in 2007.

Tarazi called the dowry a security for the brides, who often do not work outside the home.

“If the husband decides after a year or so to divorce them, they’re going to be left alone,” Tarazi said. “No one’s going to marry them again.”

Alwattar and her attorney said that the dowry should be considered a prenuptial agreement, but Zawahiri argued that he didn’t fully realize the terms of the agreement at the time he signed it, just minutes before the wedding. Zawahiri thought 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.

Judge Priesse agreed, saying the dowry contract could not be considered a prenuptial agreement, designed to protect a person’s assets in a divorce, because Zawahiri did not have time to consult an attorney.

This decision contrasts rulings to other states: in 2002, a New Jersey Court ruled that a man owed his wife her $10,000 dowry after their divorce because the secular parts of the marriage contract could be enforced, and a New York court made a similar ruling in 1985.

From now on, Tarazi said he will make grooms sign a promissory note for the dowry to ensure it is enforceable in civil court. Despite the ruling, the groom’s payment of the dowry is not debatable from a religious standpoint, he said.

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