Pleasure marriages' regain popularity in Iraq
Outlawed for years, muta'a a means of income for widows
By Rick JervisUSA TODAY
BAGHDAD — In the days when it could land him in jail, Rahim Al-Zaidi would whisper details of his muta'a only to his closest confidants and the occasional cousin. Never his wife.
Al-Zaidi hopes to soon finalize his third muta'a, or “pleasure marriage,” with a green-eyed neighbor. This time, he talks about it openly and with obvious relish. Even so, he says, he probably still won't tell his wife.
The 1,400-year-old practice of muta'a — “ecstasy” in Arabic — is as old as Islam itself. It was permitted by the prophet Mohammed as a way to ensure a respectable means of income for widowed women.
Pleasure marriages were outlawed under Saddam Hussein but have begun to flourish again. The contracts, lasting anywhere from one hour to 10 years, generally stipulate that the man will pay the woman in exchange for sexual intimacy. Now some Iraqi clerics and women's rights activists are complaining that the contracts have become less a mechanism for taking care of widows than an outlet for male sexual desires.
The renaissance of the pleasure marriage coincides with a revival of other Shiite traditions long suppressed by the former regime. Interest in Shiite customs has accelerated since Shiite parties swept Jan. 30 elections to become the biggest bloc in the new National Assembly.
“Under Saddam, we were very scared,” says Al-Zaidi, 39, a lawyer from Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. “They would punish people. Now, all my friends are doing it.”
A turbaned Shiite cleric who issues wedding permits from a street-side counter in Sadr City says he encourages permanent marriages but gives the OK for pleasure marriages when there are “special reasons.” The cleric, Sayid Kareem As-Sayid Abdullah Al-Mousawi, says he grants licenses for muta'a in cases where the woman is widowed or divorced, or for single women who have approval from their fathers.
“Clerics who blessed them were hounded by security during the previous regime,” he says. “I can assure you, these (muta'a) marriages are flourishing in (Shiite cities) Najaf, Karbala and Kadhamiya in an amazing way. There are a lot of hotels (patronized) by Shiites who approve of such marriages.”
Shiites and Sunnis both permit men to take more than one permanent wife, but the rival branches of Islam are deeply split over pleasure marriages.
Most Shiite scholars today consider it halal, or religiously legal. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority in Shiite Islam, sets conditions and obligations for muta'a on his website. (“A woman with whom temporary marriage is contracted is not entitled to share the conjugal bed of her husband and does not inherit from him …”)
Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and other Shiite lawmakers have said they want Iraq's new constitution to use the sharia, or Islamic law, as its basis. That could give muta'a formal legal protection. Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who are mainly Sunni, oppose the idea. But the practice is growing among Sunnis and Shiites alike.
Sunni scholars fear that giving official sanction to pleasure marriages — many of which are only verbal agreements between the couple — are little more than legalized prostitution that could lead to a collapse of moral values, especially among young people.
“We have reports about one-hour pleasure marriages that are flourishing among students,” says Sheik Ali Al-Mashhadani, a Sunni imam at the Ibn Taimiya mosque in Baghdad. “I'm advising parents to watch their sons very carefully, particularly those who are in the colleges and universities.”
Short-term marriages were considered idolatry by Saddam's ruling Baath Party in the 1970s and '80s, says Kamal Hamdul, president of the Iraqi Bar Association. Muta'a were punishable by fines or prison, he says. Couples took the practice underground, meeting in out-of-the-way apartments and hotels — and rarely telling even family members.
Pleasure marriages began to resurface after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. One reason is that Shiites, 60% of Iraq's population, have a greater ability to shape social mores than they did under Saddam, a Sunni Arab whose top aides were also Sunnis.
A woman agreeing to a pleasure marriage that involves a one-time encounter might be able to count on about $100. For a muta'a that runs longer, she might be paid $200 a month, though the amounts vary widely and can depend on whether she has children.
Zeinab Ahmed, 31, lost her husband in a car accident five years ago. She says she has considered entering into a muta'a contract with a man, but the stigma attached has kept her from doing so.
“All my friends who have done this have told me they got married in this way just to meet their sexual desires,” Ahmed says, “but later on they started to love that man, and he does not accept to get married permanently. … Most of the men, at the end of the contract, they feel contempt towards the woman.”
Contracts for pleasure marriage strongly favor men.
Married women can't enter a muta'a, although a married man can. Men can void the contract at any time; women don't have that option unless it's negotiated at the outset. The couple agrees not to have children. A woman who unintentionally gets pregnant can have an abortion but must then pay a fine to a cleric.
Women's rights activists are concerned. Salama Al-Khafaji, a Shiite lawmaker who supports the concept of sharia law but advocates for women's rights, calls the re-emergence of muta'a an “unhealthy phenomenon.”
With the right intentions, she says, muta'a can serve the noble purpose of helping divorced and widowed women. But too many men are using temporary marriages to exploit women for sex, she says. Her solution is to reinforce the importance of permanent marriages with work programs for newlywed couples and education campaigns.
“A woman who practices muta'a does not usually feel comfortable about it,” Al-Khafaji says. “People these days are creating excuses to practice these acts.”
Al-Mousawi, the Shiite cleric, says the practice of pleasure marriages is open to abuse and misinterpretation. He says he is particularly troubled by kiss-and-tell men. “After they've finished with the woman, they've told their friends about her beauty and given a description of her body, which is something absolutely unacceptable in Islam,” he says.
Al-Zaidi, the Sadr City lawyer, says his motivations are spiritual. In 2002, he says he persuaded a Sunni widow to enter into a one-year muta'a with him, even though at first she refused.
To him, pleasure marriages are legitimate in God's eyes. They bring responsibility and formality to what would otherwise be squalid and sinful, he says. “There is a noble goal in this kind of marriage,” says Al-Zaidi, still married to his first wife and has five children. “It's to eradicate moral corruption.”
In the past, some muta'a contracts have been struck when permanent, legal marriages were not possible.
Ayad Muhammed Ali fell in love eight years ago with a woman who walked into his Baghdad tailor shop. She was a widow with two young sons whose husband, a member of an underground group outlawed by Saddam, had been executed by Saddam's men. The woman also was richer than Ali, so her family would never have consented to a legal marriage.
The lovers agreed to a yearlong muta'a in 1993 and have renewed their contract every year since, he says. In the decade after their muta'a, the couple never dared meet in the open. In April 2003, the month U.S. forces swept into the capital, they began meeting in public places for the first time, he says.
“I was always so afraid someone would find out and I'd go to prison,” says Ali, 29. “Now, I'm not afraid. My only fear is her family.”