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Vows of Matrimony Spoken in Passing

A Shiite Muslim custom that allows temporary marriages is regaining popularity in Iraq.

January 15, 2006|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

NAJAF, Iraq — She is a 49-year-old divorced mother of seven children. He is a well-off farmer, with his own wife and children.

Theirs is a secret betrothal, with perfunctory vows exchanged alone in a bedroom for an ephemeral union.

Mutaa, a 1,400-year-old tradition alternately known as pleasure marriage and temporary marriage, is regaining popularity among Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim population after decades of being outlawed by the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein.

According to Shiite religious law, unmarried women may enter into pleasure marriages with men (married or not) for periods as brief as a few minutes or as long as a lifetime. Dowries, too, range from virtually nothing to millions of Iraqi dinars.

Shiite clerics, including Iraq's highest religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have sanctioned mutaa despite the social stigma attached to the marriages.

Women's activists in Iraq last year fought an effort by constitution drafters to endorse some form of Sharia, or Islamic law, in matters of marriage and family. The new national charter includes an article that allows Iraqis to choose their marital status according to their beliefs even as it reinforces the primacy of civil authority in family law.

Whatever the religious legalities involved, people who participate in mutaa -- especially women -- risk their reputations and prospects for permanent marriage.

The divorcee, a resident of this Shiite-dominated southern city who asked that her name not be used for fear of being stigmatized, said she had few options after her husband left her in 1991 without financial support. She found her mutaa spouse shortly after the divorce, she said, and they have been together since.

"He lives with his own family, so he would come to me for visits only. And he takes care of my children's expenses without his family's knowledge," she said. "This mutaa marriage is something between me and him. Only God knows of it."

Shiite and Sunni sects disagree on the lawfulness of mutaa. Shiite clerics generally consider it to be in accordance with Islamic law, whereas many Sunni authorities regard it as a sexual relationship outside religious behavior.

Some Shiite scholars say the prophet Muhammad sanctioned mutaa marriages for his companions during their wars and campaigns to spread Islam in present-day Saudi Arabia. Other historians argue that the practice existed in pre-Islamic societies and was later permitted by Muhammad.

Even though the practice quietly persisted during the Hussein regime, temporary marriages have experienced a resurgence in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, say women's advocates, social workers and mutaa spouses. They see that as a sign of rising Shiite influence in political and religious affairs and of the explosion of cross-border traffic between Iraq and the Shiite theocratic state of Iran, where mutaa is even more popular.

Critics of the practice also blame Iraq's dire economic straits and the lack of opportunities for unmarried women.

Many of the poorest people in Iraq are widows and divorced women with children. On any given day, women in black abayas, often with children in tow, can be seen threading their way through traffic jams, begging for money.

Women's rights activists call mutaa an exploitative arrangement. Aida Nasser Hussein Mosawi, who runs a Najaf-based women's rights center, said many women entered into the marriages not for pleasure but for financial reasons. She said many mutaa brides had no other means of support.

Mosawi criticized the Iraqi government for failing to fund women's aid programs and for ceding too much authority over marriage and family law to Shiite religious authorities under the newly ratified charter.

"The clerics issue fatwas condoning this practice that allows men to treat women like prostitutes. They take her for a short time and then he leaves her -- it's all up to him," she said. "If men want to marry women, they should come through the door, not the window, and if women really felt like they were half of our society, they would not sell themselves so cheap."

Sheik Adel Amir Tureihi, a Shiite cleric in Najaf, said mutaa marriages were consensual and preceded by a mutually agreed-upon dowry and duration -- although men can end the relationship anytime they like. Witnesses are required, but Iraqis say some couples dispense with that rule.

Tureihi said the practice was designed to provide Muslims with a lawful outlet for natural sexual desires.

"People need sex just like they need food," he said. "Islam is a natural, organic religion."

But Azhar Tureihi, a Najaf-based gynecologist not directly related to the sheik, said pleasure marriages carried serious societal consequences, regardless of how readily religious authorities accepted the practice.

She said she knew of a woman who became pregnant during a temporary marriage and was the victim of an "honor killing" by her brother.

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