Aman and an unmarried woman contract with each other to be husband and wife for a mutually agreeable length of time--one hour, or several years. They agree on a sum of money to be paid to the woman. No witnesses or formal registration are required; the man may already be married, yet his new temporary marriage is legal and religiously sanctioned. At the end of the contracted time, the marriage automatically comes to an end, and the partners are free to either renew it or allow it to lapse.
A fiction dreamed up by a lascivious man? No, a pre-Islamic form of temporary marriage, mut'a , that has been enjoying a revival, according to Shahla Haeri, among the followers of Twelver Shi'ism, the dominant religion of Iran.
The Shia ulama (religious scholars), the author claims, have been conducting a campaign to promote temporary marriage as an alternative to the "free love" of the West, touting it as an institution that recognizes human needs in a realistic and farsighted way. Paradoxically, therefore, while suppressing and severely restricting open social relations among men and women, the religious establishment has been advocating temporary marriage as the Islamic solution for regulating natural sex drives and as an antidote to Western "decadence."
As a native Iranian educated in the West, Haeri is uniquely qualified to disentangle the skein of mut'a into its component threads of religious law, secular law, folk custom, traditional morality, sexuality and cultural practices, often at odds with each other. As the granddaughter of an Ayatollah, Haeri has access to information ordinarily unavailable to a Westerner. And as a student of cultural anthropology, she exposes the underlying assumptions and decodes the cultural attitudes that simultaneously demand strict sexual segregation, yet allow men and women to enter into marriage contracts for a temporary period of time.
Recognizing the complexity of the system, and aware of the ambiguities and paradoxes resulting from the tension between the religious law and cultural mores, Haeri meticulously delineates the origins of temporary marriage, placing it within its historical and political context. Aware of the apparent similarities between mut'a and prostitution, she is careful to emphasize the very real differences. But, aware of the differences, she does not paper over the similarities. Neither apologizing for an institution proclaimed by its adherents to be forward-looking and realistic, nor blindly condemning a system manipulated by men and women alike, Haeri brings to the study of her subject the dispassionate assessment of the scholar. Haeri demonstrates how women can manipulate the system in their own interests. What often stands in their way, however, is their unequal power vis-a-vis men, a weakness rooted in their lack of social standing and lack of education.
Haeri is not content with drawing on an impressive body of religious interpretations of Muslim ulama on the subject of temporary marriage. She interviews a number of living ulama. In addition, she draws on interviews with people actually involved in a temporary marriage, uncovering many misperceptions of the institution even among its practitioners. She explodes the myth that most women contract a temporary marriage for the sake of financial gain. Her findings demonstrate, on the contrary, that "the unifying motivational theme for . . . women is complex and double-edged. On an intimate and personal level, their objective is a desire for attention, affection, and belonging . . ." They seek not only "to establish meaningful, enduring, and humane relationships in which pleasure and friendship would be reciprocated in kind but also to anchor themselves in their communities."
For centuries the target of disparaging criticism on the part of Western travelers and commentators, temporary marriage tantalized the Western world, feeding its imagination and contributing to a taste for the exotic. At the same time, it provided Western observers with ammunition to castigate the little-understood religion of Islam as being sexually permissive and promotive of a promiscuity that allowed a man to have as many as four wives simultaneously and as many temporary marriages as he had the means and the sexual prowess to contract.
In modern times, the tables have turned and it has been the Muslim East that has castigated the West for its sexually permissive environment and its promotion of promiscuity. It is in the context of this larger historical framework of mutual recrimination that Haeri places her study of this admittedly marginal institution, tying its recent resurgence to Iran's reassertion of national-cultural identity and an apparent rejection of alien norms and values.