‘Marriages of pleasure’ take Iraq by storm
Baghdad - The mother of 17-year-old Nour was in tears as she spoke about the “ruined future” of her daughter who was left with a child after contracting a nikah mut’ah — a temporary or “pleasure” marriage — an informal and temporary secret union that is gaining popularity in Iraq.
“It is her girlfriends’ bad influence. They lured my daughter into this relationship with a man much older than her for the sake of money,” said Oum Nour, the name she asked to be identified with.
A mother of five, Oum Nour has been struggling to provide for her family after the death of her husband several years ago. She said the demands of her adolescent daughter have increased, causing disputes between them.
“I tried to meet all her wishes but unfortunately I could not prevent what has happened,” she said. “The man convinced her that nikah mut’ah is a legitimate union under sharia but he actually abused her sexually. When she got pregnant, he walked out, claiming that having children was not previewed under the so-called marriage agreement.”
Nikah mut’ah marriage was banned in Iraq under the former Ba’ath Party rule but became widespread after the US invasion in 2003, as the war made widows of thousands of women and led to an imbalance in the ratio of males to females.
Nikah mut’ah is considered “religiously” legitimate among Shias and can last for half an hour or several years. When the contract ends, so does the marriage. No witnesses, officials or family members need to get involved and the contract is not registered. If a child is born out of the union, the father has no legal or financial responsibility for the offspring.
Nikah mut’ah’s more seemly equivalent in the Sunni sect is called nikah misyar but, while the latter is rarely practiced, the former is becoming common in conservative Iraqi society.
A nikah mut’ah allows women to exchange their services for money without feeling guilt or being forced to “live in sin”. For many, it is a way to make a living or helping ends meet. “The (Islamic) law legalised this union, notably for divorcees and widows, especially when they have no one to support and cannot provide for themselves and when they have young children to feed,” noted 30-year-old Samara A., who refused to identify herself further.
For Samara, a divorcee with a child, the only way out of her economic situation was to remarry, again and again and again. She betrothed herself to men who provided dowries and a sense of security and comfort, if only temporarily. “I have resorted to these ‘legitimate’ unions several times and have asked for a dowry every time,” she said. “This has helped me provide for myself and look after my child.”
There are no official statistics on the number of such marriages there are in Iraq. Dowries, which are agreed to in advance, vary depending on the duration of the marriage and the status of the woman. A dowry ranges from 25,000 dinars ($22) to 50,000 ($44) for a few hours if the woman is uneducated and $100 to $300 a day if she has a university degree.
The practice of nikah mut’ah marriage is more than 1,000 years old and sanctioned by some Shia clerics. However, it is a “secret and informal marriage” in the eyes of law, which only acknowledges formal marriage contracts.
Sociology experts pin down the widespread nature of the phenomenon to conflict, poverty, harsh economic conditions and political chaos.
“The overwhelming changes that occurred after 2003 destroyed the social fabric and norms in addition to wrecking the economy. Many young couples who cannot afford to have regular marriages and cannot have a relationship otherwise are resorting to such temporary unions,” said Shaza Ojeili, a psychology professor at Baghdad University.
“Also, women contract such marriages in exchange for money and because they are taken care of during the duration of the union. They are mostly widows and divorcees desperately in need to provide for their children or women who want easier lives.”
A sociologist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, blasted nikah mut’ah as “veiled prostitution” contracted unscrupulously under the cover of religious legitimacy. She charged that the rise of religious parties and growing influence of the clergy in post-2003 Iraq facilitated the proliferation of the phenomenon.
“The encouragement of nikah mut’ah marriages is being done openly without shame or embarrassment, turning women into cheap (sex) slaves,” the sociologist said. “Material temptations, eroding morality and the large numbers of widowed and unmarried women are main causes for the wide spread of these unions.”
Legal expert Buchra al-Obeidi argued that “the absence of a clear-cut law that neither bans nor regularises temporary marriages facilitated the abuse of the trend. Poverty and lawlessness have inevitably encouraged men to abuse the system and take advantage of poor and lonely women.”