The Shadow of a Man

This piece was first aired in the show “Drying Up,” on June 26, 2009.

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    HOST: This is War News Radio. Imagine that on the day of your marriage, you also picked a day when it would be over. This kind of arrangement, though very rare, is permitted by a select set of Shi’a clerics in Iraq, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. It’s known as a marriage of pleasure, or a temporary marriage, and it’s surrounded by a nest of arguments: over women’s rights, the role of religion in Iraq’s family law, and even the influence of Iran on Iraq’s internal affairs. Emily Hager has more.

    EMILY HAGER: A man and a woman decide to get married. They exchange vows and a dowry, and settle into married life. But even on the wedding day, the couple already knows that after a few years, months, or even just a few hours, their marriage will be over. There is no need for an official divorce, no complicated legal ceremony: just an expiration date.

    This phenomenon, known as temporary marriage or the marriage of pleasure, is unique to Shi’a Islam – though Sunnis offer their own variety of less-formal marriage. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, these marriages have come into the spotlight: the subject of both harsh condemnations from some scholars, and a rash of reports in the western media.

    But there’s no way of knowing how many people in Iraq actually have marriages of pleasure. Few people share that information publicly, and the marriages aren’t always overseen by a cleric. Abu Ahmed is a car dealer in Najaf. He’s had more than 20 marriages of pleasure in his lifetime.

    ABU AHMED (voice over): My first marriage of pleasure was organized by a cleric, and it was before I had a traditional marriage. The cleric organized things, and introduced me to the woman. After that, I did things on my own. I was under 20 years old.

    EMILY HAGER: Abu Ahmed did not want to be identified by his complete name – and most women in a marriage of pleasure would never admit it, even to a cleric. To do so would be to risk their reputation.

    HANNA EDWARD: According to our Iraqi values, she is considered like a prostitute. She will be neglected by people.

    EMILY HAGER: That’s Hanna Edward, an Iraqi women’s rights activist. For her, the marriage of pleasure is an outrage that tramples on the rights of women. She says the secrecy surrounding temporary marriages can become dangerous.

    HANNA EDWARD: He can make relations in a very secret way. Nobody knows from her family about this, and even like a slave he can treat her. This is really inhuman! Inhuman situation for her, and this is humiliation for human beings.

    EMILY HAGER: Men have fewer obligations to their temporary wives than to their permanent ones. Unless it is built into the marriage contract, they don’t have to provide financial support other than an agreed-upon dowry, and they don’t have to house or live with their wife. Any children that come from a marriage of pleasure are supposed to be cared for by the father, but in order to enforce that responsibility women have to face the courts and the social stigma that comes with a temporary marriage. Abu Ahmed says that he and all his wives have taken great precautions to prevent any children.

    ABU AHMED (voice over): Because our society is critical of this marriage, couples have to be careful, and use contraceptives to avoid having children.

    EMILY HAGER: Marriages like this first appeared about 1500 years ago, when men would be granted temporary marriage contracts to keep them from committing adultery while they were fighting far from home for years on end. Now, there’s a debate over whether the marriages should still be allowed, and if so, for whom. Under Iraqi law, marriages of pleasure are illegal – but they are approved by some influential Shi’a clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Abu Ahmedbelieves the marriage of pleasure is important today for the same reason it was 1500 years ago: it lets men and women have sex without sin.

    ABU AHMED (voice over): God permits the marriage of pleasure. People do it before their traditional marriages, and even afterward. They also do it when they can’t have sex with their wives, or when their wives are pregnant. So, instead of committing adultery, God has granted this.

    EMILY HAGER: Hanna Edward, the Iraqi women’s rights activist, has encountered this view – but she says that for women, sex is usually not the reason they agree to a temporary marriage.

    HANNA EDWARD: We had a debate, and she asked me, “Why you are neglecting women’s need for sex?” They put it under this excuse – that women need sex! So why you are preventing them from practicing this? When woman, she has nothing, she has nothing to eat, she has no food, she has no protection, and really she wants something to eat, to earn her children – how she can speak about need for sex in this situation?

    EMILY HAGER: Mishkat al-Moumin is an Iraqi legal scholar with the Middle East Institute. She agrees that given the shame associated with a marriage of pleasure, it’s not a need for sex that’s driving women into these relationships. It’s the devastation caused by Iraq’s wars – starting in the 1980s.

    MISHKAT AL-MOUMIN: Given the fact that it’s a war torn society, so women face different atrocities, they are subject to a lot of attacks and threats, they look for protection. So that’s what makes it an option.

    EMILY HAGER: For Iraqi women in their thirties, options are scarce. If they’re single, divorced or widowed – a growing population in Iraq – they have little hope of becoming a permanent wife. But there’s an Iraqi proverb about marriage: the shadow of a man is better than the shadow of a wall. Given the security situation in Iraq, al-Moumin says it’s a principle taken to heart.

    MISHKAT AL-MOUMIN: A woman alone in Iraq, she is very vulnerable, and subject to attack from all people. If she has a boy or a girl or there are children involved, then she is more vulnerable. If she doesn’t work, then she is more vulnerable. So if a man approached her saying, “well, it’s a pleasure marriage, but I will protect you,” so she has something to consider here. Although it’s not the best option, or the ideal option, but she might look into that.

    EMILY HAGER: She says some younger women are agreeing as well. These college students are hoping the marriage of pleasure might one day become the real thing.

    MISHKAT AL-MOUMIN: “He will keep me, I will become a second wife.” That is also acceptable, so they look forward to having it for an indefinite period of time.

    EMILY HAGER: This rarely happens. But it’s hard to say how often: because no one even knows how many marriages of pleasure are actually taking place. Since the practice is often kept secret, there is no way to get statistics about how many couples are involved.

    Marriages of pleasure are said to be growing in popularity in cities with a lot of Iranian pilgrims, like Najaf and Karbala. But it could also just be rising to public attention more than it did under Saddam. Abu Ahmed says that in fact, the marriages are less common now – partly because of all this publicity.

    ABU AHMED (voice over): Actually before 2003, the marriage of pleasure was taking place more often. After 2003, things got harder in Iraq. Society started talking about the clerics and the marriage of pleasure, sometimes describing it as adultery. It is still taking place, but not in big numbers.

    EMILY HAGER: Some in Iraq call the marriage of pleasure nothing more than dignified prostitution. For others, it’s a reasonable solution to the problems facing single men, and especially women, in a country torn apart by war and joblessness.

    So is the shadow of a man better than the shadow of a wall? Some Iraqi women seek out the shelter of a temporary marriage – but if anyone finds out, a different kind of shadow remains with her once that marriage is over.

    For War News Radio, I’m Emily Hager.

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