Temporary 'Enjoyment Marriages' In Vogue Again With Some Iraqis

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By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 20, 2007

BAGHDAD -- Fatima Ali was a 24-year-old divorcee with no high school diploma and no job. Shawket al-Rubae was a 34-year-old Shiite sheik with a pregnant wife who, he said, could not have sex with him.

Ali wanted someone to take care of her. Rubae wanted a companion.

They met one afternoon in May at the house he shares with his wife, in the room where he accepts visitors seeking his religious counsel. He had a proposal. Would Ali be his temporary wife? He would pay her 5,000 Iraqi dinars upfront -- about $4 -- in addition to her monthly expenses. About twice a week over the next eight months, he would summon her to a house he would rent.

The negotiations took an hour and ended with an unwritten agreement, the couple recalled. Thus began their "mutaa," or enjoyment marriage, a temporary union believed by Shiite Muslims to be sanctioned by Islamic law.

The Shiite practice began 1,400 years ago, in what is now Iraq and other parts of the region, as a way to provide for war widows. Banned by President Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led government, it has regained popularity since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq brought the majority Shiites to power, said clerics, women's rights activists and mutaa spouses.

"During Saddam's time, there was no religious freedom," said Faris al-Shareef, a sheik who lives in the mainly Shiite city of Hilla.

Opponents of mutaa, most of them Sunni Arabs, say it is less about religious freedom and more about economic exploitation. Thousands of men are dying in the sectarian violence that has followed the invasion, leaving behind widows who must fend for themselves. Many young men are out of work and prefer temporary over permanent wives who require long-term financial commitments. In a mutaa arrangement, the woman is entitled to payment only for the duration of the marriage.

"It's a cover for prostitution," said Um Akram, a women's rights activist in Baghdad. "Some women, because they don't want to be prostitutes, they think that this is legal because it's got some kind of religious cover. But it is wrong, and they're still prostitutes from the society's point of view." Um Akram, like the mutaa spouses interviewed, asked that only parts of her name be published.

Many intellectuals consider ancient traditions such as these an obstacle to Iraq's effort to become a more modern, democratic society. In recent years, extremist religious groups have gained more power in Iraq.

"These steps are taking the whole country backwards and are definitely hurdles to the advancement of the country," said Hamdia Ahmed, a former member of parliament and a women's rights activist in Baghdad. "The only solution is to separate Islam from politics."

Shiite clerics and others who practice mutaa say such marriages are keeping young women from having unwed sex and widowed or divorced women from resorting to prostitution to make money.

They say a mutaa marriage is not much different from a traditional marriage in which the husband pays the wife's family a dowry and provides for her financially.


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