By Kurosh Bahrami
March 12, 2018
For more than three decades, temporary marriage has been a controversial topic in the Islamic Republic of Iran. And when, in mid-1985, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani promoted it as a way of strengthening “chastity” in the Iranian society as part of his Friday Prayers sermons, it became more widely discussed and debated.
The practice of “temporary marriage,” however, did not start with the Islamic Republic. It dates back further in Iran, but the Islamic government chose to use the term as a more politically correct and respectable replacement for sigheh, or concubinage.
In Shia Islam, a man and woman are able to marry for a fixed period of time in order to deal specifically with sexual needs. Iran’s Islamic government has promoted the practice to reduce illicit sex in the country, and some officials have suggested it can help in situations where young people cannot afford to marry because of financial constraints. Although some argue that the practice honors the sexual rights of both women and men, many experts and rights advocates claim that in reality, it only benefits males in society. Legally at least, a man is allowed to enter into many temporary marriages concurrently while a woman can only have one partner at any given time.
“A House on the Water,” which looks at temporary marriage in Iran, is the latest study by Kameel Ahmadi, an Iranian-British sociologist who lives in Iran [Persian PDF]. Kameel has published extensive research on sexual inequality and marriage in Iran, including a study of early child marriage entitled “An Echo of Silence” [PDF]. His latest research also pays special attention to the pathology of temporary marriage between legally underage children — a subject that has become more controversial in recent years.
In 2014, Iranian parliament’s Research Center published its own reportabout temporary marriage, describing it as a cure for “reducing illicit sexual relations” in Iran [Persian link]. The report warned about the “spread of homosexuality” among high school students because, it said, their chances of a permanent marriage are very low. “Now that permanent marriage has become difficult,” the report said, “if we cannot find a proper solution, then sexual needs will force individuals to find other ways —including self-gratification, homosexuality, illicit sexual relations, adultery or sexual aggression. And it is not often that individuals choose to control their sexual impulses by fasting, exercise, taking medication or surgery. Temporary marriage is the way out of all these negative consequences.”
Girls in Peril
But not all Islamic Republic officials and think tanks in the country view temporary marriage from the same angle. In August 2013, Mohammad Taghi Hassanzadeh, the head of Sports and Youth Ministry’s Strategic Research Center, presented a survey carried out by his institute. It said[Persian link]: “Young people are confused and conflicted whether to accept or reject the phenomenon of temporary marriage. Of the young people surveyed, 84.5 percent agree with it but of these, 62 percent avoid it out of the fear that they would lose face.”
Politicians have also voiced their opinions and presented the pros and cons of temporary marriage. One of the best known is Ali Motahari, who is currently deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament. When Tehran’s Education department announced that if female high school students marry, they will be expelled from school and will only be able to attend night schools, Motahari took exception to the decision and recommended that high school students should be allowed to enter into temporary marriages. “High school students who marry must not be expelled from school,” he said in a TV interview in August 2013. On the contrary, he said, they must be encouraged to enter into temporary marriages.
In politics, Motahari usually stands up to hardliners, but in religious matters he is as conservative as they come. He has held tight to his views on temporary marriage despite extensive criticism from activists who support the rights of women and children.
Articles 1075 of the Islamic Republic’s Civil Code defines temporary marriage as no different from regular marriage, except for the fact that it has a set duration. In other words, a man or woman is allowed sexual relations but for only for a predetermined period of time. The legal age of marriage under the Islamic Republic is 13 for girls and 15 for boys, and this rule applies to temporary marriage as well. However, the Civil Code allows underage marriage if the father consents and a judge permits it. Besides everything else, this escape clause puts the future of children, especially girls, in peril.
Psychological and Sexual Traumas
According to Ahmadi’s study, depending on the age and conditions of their lives, children suffer many negative consequences as a result of temporary marriage. “With the absolute lack of mental, financial and social preparedness for a permanent marriage, when sexual relations are formed during sigheh, then the child’s family begin thinking about making the marriage permanent,” the study reads. “And this can lead to them dropping out of school and psychological and sexual traumas.”
And if the marriage of children is made permanent, the fact of their age allows the couple’s parents to take away their independence and have control over them. The study cites the example of a 19-year-old woman from Mashhad who entered into a sigheh when she was only 11. “We had no problems with each other,” she is quoted as saying, “but the adults made us quarrel with each other. When I moved to my own house, I was very young so I wouldn’t listen to my husband.”
The study cites another example, that of a 22-year-old woman who entered into temporary marriage when she was 12. “How much can one understand when one is so young?” she said. “One day when I came home from school I was told that I must marry this guy. And I did not go to school anymore. I say that you need to be a little bit more mature, otherwise the man walks all over you and you must obey whatever he says.”
Kameel Ahmadi, who conducted his study in the three Iranian provinces of Razavi Khorasan, Tehran and Isfahan, criticizes the law and Shia jurisprudence for being silent on the legal age for temporary marriage where young people under age18 are concerned.
“According to the Civil Code,” he writes, “the minimum age of girls for temporary marriage is the same as the age for permanent marriage. In a permanent marriage for a girl under-13, the permission of both the guardian and the court is needed. But temporary marriages are done by the families in an unofficial way and without being legally registered.” He points out that this is a failure of the law.
Also, if a temporary marriage between a girl and a boy results in the girl losing her virginity but does not lead to a permanent marriage, then the girl will have difficulty in finding another husband in a society that puts a high value on virginity.
The study also finds that among men who enter temporary marriage, 61 percent do it for sexual satisfaction, 31 percent for emotional satisfaction and 8.9 percent because of financial needs, while around 80 percent of women do it for emotional reasons, around 10 percent for sexual satisfaction and 10 percent because of financial needs.