KANO, Nigeria (AP) — Islamic religious authorities married 1,111 couples at a mass wedding aimed at combating rising rates of divorce, births out of wedlock, and the number of impoverished widows and divorcees forced to make a living on the streets in Muslim northern Nigeria.
Thursday's wedding in Kano city comes as the Hisbah Board responsible for Shariah law has been clamping down. Thousands have been arrested in recent months for improper dress, selling alcohol, prostitution and indecent mixing of the sexes. At one recent ceremony, a bulldozer crushed 240,000 bottles of beer.
"The high rate of divorce is a worrisome situation resulting in adultery, prostitution and the births of children out of wedlock, and has become dangerous to society," Deputy Gov. Abdullahi Umar Ganduje said at the ceremony at the main mosque of Kano, Nigeria's second city.
It is not clear if the stronger implementation of Shariah is connected to charges by extremists waging an Islamic uprising centered in northeastern Nigeria that northern governments are failing to enforce the law.
Kano has had several terrorist attacks, most recently multiple bombings planted around bars serving alcohol in the city's Christian quarter that killed at least 24 people in July (before alcohol sales were banned). Last year, an assassination attempt on the emir of Kano, a revered Muslim leader who has spoken out against extremism, killed his driver and three bodyguards. And nine women in a polio vaccination drive were executed in drive-by shootings.
The mass marriages also are seen as a way of wedding bachelors who cannot afford the cost of an individual marriage and may resort to prostitutes. Millions of young Nigerians cannot afford the dowries required by customs for both Christians and Muslims, as well as the costs of many gifts and ceremonies leading up to a marriage.
"Poverty is the major setback to people getting married, while divorce is becoming rampant," said Aminu Ibrahim Daurawa, commandant general of Kano's Hisbah board. There are no figures on divorces, but some analysts say as many as 50 percent of marriages in northern Nigeria end in divorce.
There were calls at the ceremony for laws to make divorce more difficult, though it was unclear how that would line up with Shariah law that allows a man to divorce his wife simply by saying three times "I divorce you."
Grooms married at the mass ceremonies are not allowed to divorce without the permission of the Hisbah, and then they can be subjected to a fine of 50,000 naira ($313).
While most marry happily, and officials match-make with a choice of partners for those who don't already have one, some are given little choice.
Arrested prostitutes are given a choice of joining in a mass wedding or going to jail.
"If our operatives (the religious police) arrest prostitutes, we normally give them an option to marry," said Aisha Atiku, planning director of the Hisbah board. "If they agree, we will include them. But if they disagree, we cannot force them (into marriage)."
Thirty-five willing participants were barred from Thursday's ceremony because they were found to be pregnant or infected with the HIV/AIDS virus, officials said.
Divorced or widowed women in northern Nigeria often are left destitute, thrown out of their homes by the husband or his family members, and sometimes even lose custody of their children, according to Dorothy Aken'Ova, a human rights advocate in Minna, in central Nigeria.
Her International Center for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights has gone to court to help widows reclaim their children and goods. But she said that most women do not know their rights, and often Islamic law is adulterated with traditional practices that favor men.
Many of the destitute women are forced to prostitute themselves or beg on the street. Also Thursday, Kano's government banned street-begging.
For the mass wedding, the state government paid a token dowry of 10,000 naira (about $65) for each bride and gave them household utensils. Grooms were given white brocade robes for the ceremony topped by scarlet hats, with brides in matching red outfits.
Some 4,461 couples have been wedded en masse in the past 18 months, Ganduje said.
Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria.