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Ohio Dowry Ruling is Appealed; Important Muslim Marriage Issue

Posted Nov 1, 2007 11:21 AM CDT
By Martha Neil

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In a case that has attracted national interest, an Ohio woman is appealing a court ruling that her ex-husband doesn't have to pay the dowry she is guaranteed in her Muslim marriage contract.

Although courts in other states reportedly have enforced similar religious marriage contracts, the judge in Raghad Alwattar's case said her ex-husband wasn't legally required to pay her the agreed $25,000 dowry. That is because the Muslim marriage contract, known as a mahr, didn't comply with Ohio standards for for prenuptial contracts, explains the Associated Press. In particular, her now-former husband, who says he didn't understand at the time he signed the mahr (PDF) in their case that he was agreeing to pay a dowry, didn't have a chance to consult a lawyer beforehand, said Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Dana Priesse.

As a result of the Oct. 10 ruling, which was the first in the state on the issue, those involved in Muslim marriages are now being urged to make sure that future mahrs comply with Ohio law on prenuptial contracts, so that they are enforceable. At least one Columbus imam is now having husbands-to-be sign promissory notes concerning the dowry.

The dowry is important security to a woman in a traditional Muslim marriage, an earlier ABAJournal.com article notes, because wives often don't work outside the home and are unlikely to marry again after divorcing.

Noure Alo, who is representing the 21-year-old Alwattar, is still drafting the appeal but plans to argue that both constitutional and contract law were misapplied, he tells ABAJournal.com. He is being joined in the appeal by Ahmad Nassar and other lawyers from Patton Boggs, a Washington, D.C.-based national firm that has agreed to represent Alwattar on a pro bono basis.

But James Adair, who represents ex-husband Mohammed Zawahiri, 29, tells ABAJournal.com that the case was correctly decided at trial. "It was just painfully obvious, when I read this one-page contract, that it wasn't enforceable, in my view, in civil court," he says.

Generally speaking, practitioners representing Muslim clients should be aware that a mahr may exist that could be relevant not only in a divorce case but in a probate matter, Adair notes.

An article in Southern California Law Review (PDF) that was cited by the judge discusses the issue of court enforcement of Islamic marriage contracts in detail.

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