Finds a Way in Iran: 'Temporary Marriage
New York Times
October 4, 2000
Iran — For five years, Maryam, the hairdresser, and Karim, the
home appliance salesman, carried on a love affair, meeting secretly
at the house where Karim lived with his parents. The young couple's
relationship was officially sanctioned by Iran's Islamic Republic,
even though unmarried couples who have sex or even date and hold
hands can be arrested, fined, even flogged. That is because Maryam
and Karim were married.
had a valid contract of temporary marriage.
is a country where rules are fluid, where people of all classes and
degrees of religiosity pride themselves on finding loopholes in the
Islamic system. Temporary marriage, or sigheh, is one of the oddest
practice of temporary marriage is said to have existed during the
lifetime of Muhammad, who is believed to have recommended it to his
companions and soldiers. The majority Sunni sect in Islam banned it;
the minority Shiite sect did not. Historically, the practice was
used most frequently in Iran by pilgrims in Shiite shrine cities
like Meshed and Qum. Pilgrims who traveled had sexual needs, the
argument went. Temporary marriage was a legal way to satisfy them.
and Karim chose temporary marriage for a practical reason. "We
went out a lot together, and I didn't want to get into
trouble," Maryam, 31, said. "We wanted to have documents
so that if we were stopped on the street we could prove we weren't
doing anything illegal."
"marriage" ritual was simple. Even though they could have
sealed the contract privately, they went to a cleric in a marriage
registry office in Tehran with their photographs and identity
papers. Maryam had been forced into a loveless marriage at 15 to an
opium-smoking, womanizing factory owner nearly two decades her
senior who divorced her nine years later; so she brought along her
divorce decree. If she had been a virgin, she would have needed her
father's permission to marry.
couple could have gotten married for as short a time as a few
minutes or as long as 99 years. They could have specified whether
and how much money Maryam would be paid as a kind of dowry, or how
much time they would spend together. Instead, they decided on a
straightforward contract of six months, which they renewed again and
was unusual about Maryam's situation was her willingness to talk
about it. Despite its religious imprimatur, temporary marriage has
never been very popular in Iran. Tradition dictates that women be
virgins when they marry; even when they're not, they should pretend
to be. Many Iranians regard sigheh as little more than legalized
prostitution, especially since it is an advertisement that a woman
is not a virgin. In some circles, even illicit sex is considered
better — as long as it can be kept secret.
now an odd mix of feminists, clerics and officials have begun to
discuss sigheh as a possible solution to the problems of Iran's
youth. An extraordinarily large number of young people (about 65
percent of the population is under 25), combined with high
unemployment, means that more couples are putting off marriage
because they cannot afford it. Sigheh legally wraps premarital sex
in an Islamic cloak.
relations between young men and women will become a little bit
freer," said Shahla Sherkat, editor of Zanan, a feminist
monthly."Second, they can satisfy their sexual needs. Third,
sex will become depoliticized. Fourth, they will use up some of the
energy they are putting into street demonstrations. Finally, our
society's obsession with virginity will disappear."
conservatives like Muhammad Javad Larijani, a Berkeley-educated
former legislator, favor temporary marriage. As Mr. Larijani put it:
"What's wrong with temporary marriage? You've got a variation
of it in California. It's called a partnership. Better to have it
legal than have it done clandestinely in the streets."
most of Iran's reformist publications have closed in recent months,
newspapers and magazines that remain have begun to discuss the
issue. A recent front-page article in a weekly tabloid, "World
of Medicine," about a chador-wearing, AIDS-infected prostitute
who took pleasure in infecting her clients included a recommendation
on avoiding infection: take a temporary wife.
of temporary marriage also point out that children of such unions
are legitimate and entitled to a share of the father's inheritance.
rarely, unrelated couples have used nonsexual "temporary
marriage" in order to live or work in close quarters.
the popular response to such a sweeping societal solution has not
been favorable. After "The Hope of Youth," a weekly, ran
an article in favor of sigheh, readers called and wrote in with
am 23 years old," one unnamed young man told the paper.
"If I temporarily marry a young woman for three years and then
divorce her, would anyone be willing to marry her? It would be
impossible that any man would want to have a family with this
unidentified caller was quoted as saying: "Those who want to
promote temporary marriage don't understand that they would be
promoting prostitution. Who would be there to be a father for the
children from temporary marriage?"
paper wrote back: "The reality is that young men and women do
have sexual relationships. If these relationships are defined within
an Islamic framework, we will not have the danger of
for what to do about children of temporary marriages, the editor
added, "It is not so complicated to use birth control
is not the first time that people in the Islamic Republic have tried
to promote sigheh. The first person to discuss it openly was none
other than Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani when he was president. In a
sermon in 1990, he called sexual desire a God-given trait. Don't be
"promiscuous like the Westerners," he advocated, but use
the God-given solution of temporary marriage.
sermon brought thousands of protesters to Parliament, in part
because a married man can have as many temporary wives as he wants,
and up to four permanent ones, and can break the contract anytime he
wants, whereas women cannot. Many secular Iranians are irked by what
they perceive to be the hypocrisy of clerics, who have made ample
use of temporary marriage over the years but are adamantly opposed
to premarital or extramarital sex.
seldom talk about their experiences. But in the book "Law of
Desire," Shahla Haeri, a Boston University cultural
anthropologist and granddaughter of an ayatollah, cited interviews
proclaimed that because God banned alcohol, he allowed temporary
Haeri, who lectured on the subject in Iran, said that neither the
clerics nor leading thinkers had begun to analyze its implications
in a coherent way. "If they are really serious," she said,
"they should study the matter in the context of sexuality,
birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, morality, religion and
what of Maryam and Karim?
gave her clothes and a little money from time to time during their
"marriage," but not the gold coin he had promised her with
each renewal of their contract. He told her she was beautiful,
something her husband had never done. She cleaned his house
occasionally and even met his brothers. He met her mother — who,
twice divorced, had married (permanently) for the third time. They
kept their temporary marriage a secret, even from her.
knew that I was with a man," Maryam said, "but would have
preferred I was with him illegally than his sigheh."
fact, Maryam and Karim are not the couple's real names. Maryam
remains so ambivalent about what she did that she asked that not
even their first names be used.
the fifth year of their relationship, Karim began to call less
frequently. Maryam went to a fortuneteller, who told her that Karim
was to be married. When she confronted him, he said that it was
over. After their contract ran out, he married a virgin chosen by
of her divorce, she said, "he told me right from the start that
he couldn't marry me permanently. But he treated me so nicely that I
thought things would change."
was so much in love that she even offered — half jokingly — to
become Karim's temporary wife again after he was permanently
married. He refused.
think sigheh is good, very good," she said, but added that
she would not do it again. "I want to get married
permanently now, as soon as possible."