Short-Term Marriages Gain Popularity in Iraq

Outlawed under Saddam Hussein's rule, a Shia custom that allows a man to marry a woman for a short period of time has become increasingly popular in Iraq since the American invasion. But critics say it's nothing more than religiously sanctioned prostitution.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Over the centuries, Shiite and Sunni Muslims have developed distinct rituals and customs. One on which they disagree is the Shiite institution of a temporary, or pleasure marriage known as muta'a. According to Shiite religious law, unmarried women may enter into these temporary marriages with men, married or not, for periods as brief as a few minutes, or as long as a lifetime.

Dowries are negotiated. In Iraq, muta'a was outlawed by the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein. Now, it's gaining popularity again among Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim population.

NPR's Anne Garrels has this report.

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ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Fifty-year-old Ferial Jasa Mohammed(ph), a plump woman draped in black, sits on the floor of her modest house in the poor Shiite neighborhood of Shula. As she serves tea, she describes a life of disappointment and struggle. She never finished primary school. Her first marriage to a drunk ended in divorce.

Ms. FERIAL JASA MOHAMMED: (Through translator) I only wanted stability. I didn't want to go through agony and pain, but I didn't find happiness.

GARRELS: She tries to be a cheerful host, but her eyes well up with tears.

Ms. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) First, there are the financial problems, and you are stigmatized for being divorced. You cannot go out freely. People point at you, and the children suffer discrimination, too.

GARRELS: With no financial support, she barely scraped by, juggling three jobs as a dressmaker. Eventually, friends mentioned a well-off married man who was looking for a temporary wife. The two eventually drew up an agreement that he would help support her for one year, in exchange for sex and companionship.

Ms. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) We laid out the plans ourselves, and no one was a witness but God. Basically, I needed money, so I had to do it.

GARRELS: The man lived with his own family, and would come for visits. Ferial says he turned out to be a decent man who cared for her and the children, but he was killed in a car accident before the year was up. She couldn't publicly mourn, because whatever the religious legalities, women who participate in muta'a marriages risk their reputations.

Abdul Jaabir Abdullah, whose title Sayyid means he's a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, and therefore respected, acts as a muta'a broker.

Mr. ABDUL JAABIR ABDULLAH (Muta'a Broker): (Through Translator) My role is that I ask the woman, what is the duration you want? She says, let's say two weeks, and we negotiate the dowry.

GARRELS: The rules for muta'a marriage are described on Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani's website.

Mr. ABDULLAH: (Through Translator) It has increased after the U.S. invasion, because people have more freedom. If people did this under Saddam, it was a crime. This was a political issue, because it was seen as an Iranian tradition.

GARRELS: Women's rights groups say the increase is a sign of rising Shiite influence in Iraq's political and religious affairs. And they also point to cross-border traffic between Iraq and the Shiite state of Iran, where muta'a has long been popular.

Yanar Mohammed, with the Iraqi Women's Freedom Organization, says it's now particularly common in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala--popular destinations for Iranian pilgrims. Yanar Mohammed calls brokers like Sayyid Abdullah nothing more than pimps, and muta'a marriages religiously sanctioned prostitution.

Ms. YANAR MOHAMMED (Iraqi Women's Freedom Organization): So, what's happened is that, in those two cities, there is something that is similar to sexual tourism--that there are agents who do the muta'a marriage, even in some of the high schools and universities.

GARRELS: One man interviewed for this story said he had embarked on ten muta'a marriages, each lasting a day. Yanar Mohammed says this encourages the exploitation of women, especially the poor, whose needs are being ignored by the government.

Ms. MOHAMMED: I'm finding it a common practice for women to get married, even if for temporary period, just to feed her children and herself, because there is no hope of getting a job. So, when she starts it once, there is no end to it. And all of a sudden, she finds herself turned into a prostitute.

GARRELS: Women's groups who take on such subjects have been attacked. After she spoke out against muta'a marriages, Aida Nasser Hussein Mosawi, an activist in Najaf, was shot and seriously wounded. According to Yanar Mohammed, women's rights and safety are in decline.

Ms. MOHAMMED: There is a new trend that, in Iraq, women are finding they don't have the problem. Some of the men respond very aggressively against us women activists when we say that there is oppression against women.

GARRELS: As Ferial sends her teenaged daughter out to market, she confides she's ashamed. Whatever the religious authorities say, she believes muta'a is wrong.

Ms. Mohammed: (Through Translator) Women do it because they are desperate for money or sex. It's a mistake. There are good men who do muta'a marriages, but there are often bad men who take advantages of it.

GARRELS: She says she'll never do it again, and she warns other women against it.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

MONTAGNE: NPR's El Adul Jahlee contributed to this report.

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