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Temporary marriage has long been common practice in Shiite Muslim communities, especially in Iran. Rather than having an affair, a man who wants to be sexually involved with a woman simply marries her for a few months, or even for just a few hours. That way, the relationship is legitimate.

In Iraq, the practice was banned under Saddam Hussein, but it flourished after the American invasion. Now, though, some men are using the system to take advantage of poor women, and many of Iraq's Shiites say religious institutions that sanction such marriages are to blame.

NPR's Kelly McEvers has the story.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

KELLY MCEVERS: This woman is so ashamed about what happened to her, she doesn't want to give her name. A mother of three, she says her husband abandoned her when she found out he preferred men. She had no way to support the family.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: A religious figure in her neighborhood promised to help. He brought her to his home, locked the door and had sex with her. He offered her $15.

For the man at least, it was a brief moment of muta'a, the Arabic word for pleasure and the Arabic word for temporary marriage.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The woman says the man who had sex with her worked with leading Shiite religious clerics in the Iraqi City of Najaf. It's one of the most revered places in Shiite Islam.

We're standing on a main street in the Holy City of Najaf. Just down some of these smaller streets are the offices of the Marjah. That's the four top clergymen for the Shiite community in all of Iraq.

It was on this street that Kawthar Kadhim says she approached a religious scholar who works with one of the marja and asked for help.

Ms. KAWTHAR KADHIM: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: Her husband left her after the first Gulf War. Her father had tuberculosis and was coughing up blood. And her mother was paralyzed. The scholar told her to lift the veil from her face, and then he basically proposed.

Ms. KADHIM: (Through translator) He said, would she accept to marry me, muta'a marriage? I said, no. And when he found out that I was refusing to marry him, he said, okay, let her go home, and then I will send for her if I get some money. And he never did that. He never sent for me.

McEVERS: Other women in Najaf told us that religious offices only help poor women if they're pretty, which makes them good candidates for muta'a marriage.

One said, her brothers won't allow her to go near such places for fear she'll be tricked into a temporary arrangement.

Nagham Kadhim runs a women's rights group in Najaf. She says muta'a marriage is a sensitive subject in the holy city. But she says abuse of the practice is common.

Ms. NAGHAM KADHIM: (Through translator) The muta'a marriage happens when there is the economic factor, like when the woman is poor and cannot have money. And so, the religious institution would offer her those job opportunities through working for a kindergarten, looking after children. And then they would - she would receive like 100,000 dinars.

McEVERS: That's about a $100 a month. Once the women get the job, Kadhim says the institution will host seminars about temporary marriage to convince them the practice is acceptable.

Aqil al Shammari is a religious scholar who works with a handful of leading figures in Iraq's Shiite community. He explains that muta'a marriage goes all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad, who once told his traveling companions they could purchase a wife with a handful of dates if they were away from their regular wives.

Mr. AQIL AL SHAMMARI (Religious Scholar): (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: Shammari says he's temporarily married at least five women while traveling. Each time, he says, he paid them. He made sure they used birth control. He kept his arrangement to be married for only a month. And he didn't do anything to sully their reputations afterward. This, he says, is the right way to do muta'a marriage.

The people who do it, they say I'm doing it in the right way, but it feels like the line between the right way and the wrong way is very fine.

Mr. AL SHAMMARI: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: Shammari insists that the abuse of muta'a marriage is still rare in Iraq. We ask him if he'd want his daughter or sister to enter into a temporary marriage. Sure, he says. If the man is pious and religiously committed, yes. But then he gets a sly look on his face. Of course, he says, such a man is hard to find.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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