Hanan Salem / Baghdad / August 2022
Despite being in her 30s, Fatima Hassan is still affected by the story of her older aunt who was married at only 12 years old. Specifically, she is affected by her aunt’s confusion about whether to bring her favorite doll with her to her husband’s house or leave it with her younger sister (Fatima’s mother).
The family rules were very clear, the wife must obey her husband who is 16 years older than her in all things, and avoid complaining no matter what happens. As a result, the aunt became a mother at the age of 13 and was used to being bullied, belittled, and humiliated in her own home. She has no role in making decisions in the household even after many years of marriage.
“All of that happened because she avoided becoming a divorced woman and returning to my grandfather’s house with children who should be supported by someone,” said Fatima, describing her aunt’s extraordinary ability to escape the hell of a marital home. She then firmly stated, “her story and others I know are my obvious reasons for rejecting marriage at the moment.”
It was not only the case of her aunt but also her mother who got married at 14, she said sadly: “I discovered after growing up that all the verbal abuse and physical violence my mother faced from my father was not just a game and that her crying was never just because of soap getting in her eyes as she used to tell us.”
Fatima stands firm on her stance of rejecting the idea of marriage and the pressure her father exerts on her despite her financial independence. “Often, my father and my brothers exert their authority over me, sometimes it pushes them to create problems and even physically hit me when I reject marriage proposals. What truly upsets me is that my mother takes their side when the topic of marriage is brought up.”
Fatima held back her tears and said, “Sometimes I don’t blame my mother for pressuring me to get married and form a family. She didn’t study and she got married at a young age, knowing nothing about the world except what goes on inside the walls of the family home. Her thoughts are nothing but a stale copy of my father’s ideas, for him a woman is just a tool for reproduction and sustenance.”
Early marriage and high divorce rates
A United Nations report issued in 2022 indicates that more than a quarter of Iraqi women who are married (one out of every four) were married before the age of 18 in 2021, while approximately one out of every five women were married before that age in 2011 when the rate of child marriage did not exceed 21.7%.
According to judicial sources and lawyers, child marriage is no longer limited to rural areas but has become common in cities, leading to many problems, starting with interrupting education and access to empowerment factors and ending with high divorce and family breakdown rates as most divorce cases occur among that group.
A joint conference was held in Baghdad on June 14, 2022, between the United Nations Population Fund and the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers, during which it was noted that the rate of early marriage (for those under 18 years of age) has risen from 21.7% to 25.5% over the past decade, while it reached 22.6% in the Kurdistan Region.
The Iraqi Ministry of Planning indicates that the marriage age in Iraq ranges between 24-26 years. The ministry data shows that the number of people in those age groups in 2020 was around 659,000 for those who were 24 years old, around 618,000 for those who were 25 years old, and around 612,000 for those who were 26 years old.
According to judicial authorities, about 273,000 marriage registrations were recorded in Iraqi courts in 2021 which exceeds the annual population growth rate of one million.
The ministry had indicated in a 2011 statistic that the number of single males and females between the 30-40 age groups approached 15%. However, that percentage has recently dropped significantly, according to activists in organizations concerned with family affairs who noted that it is just an estimate based on small surveys in light of the absence of official numbers.
According to that percentage (30%), there are about 1,648,000 single individuals who are between 30 and 40 years old out of a total of 5,493,000 as claimed by the Ministry of Planning statistics for the year 2020.
Nada Al-Abedi, an academic and social researcher found that this percentage is justified, due to the complexity of economic life and the lack of economic and social security felt by young people, in addition to the high divorce rate which reached 24,177 cases in the months of January, February, March and June 2022, according to statistics from the Higher Judiciary Council. It means that many marital relationships fail in forming stable families, as she said.
Al-Abedi mentioned several factors for the decline in marriage rates, including the rise in domestic violence and crime among couples, insecurity, and instability in the country, waves of migration, increasing unemployment, and a decrease in personal income, which have led to the aversion of a significant proportion of young people to marriage due to fear of an uncertain future.
“The economic factor here is decisive, the girl’s parents often seek expensive dowries and preparations, which do not match the economic situation of the youth in light of the problem of unemployment and increasing expenses to start a family. This is a major reason why many are choosing to avoid getting married.”
Haydar Askar, a young man from Baghdad agreed with her, saying that the difficulty in providing the necessities of life is behind the increase in the percentage of young people who refuse to get married, and he is one of them. He added: “Most young people do not have jobs and are unable to face the requirements of life after marriage, everything needs money even education and health which were free previously,” wondering how they can afford all these requirements.
Haydar, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Agriculture from the College of Agriculture, and used to spend some time with his colleagues in one of the popular cafes, expressed his frustration at the demand of the girl’s parents for a high dowry to guarantee the girl’s life. He added: “Some girls present detailed conditions that must be met by the groom and even set specific amounts to accept the proposal as if they are goods that are obtained by paying their price without any consideration of their personalities or the personality of the man who proposes to them.”
He indicated, pointing to a number of his colleagues who were sitting at a nearby table: ‘All of them have passed the age of 35, in their first years after their graduation they were thinking about getting married, and later on they gave up on the idea.”
His colleague Alawy supported him, and he said with a smile on his face as he pulled his chair away from the table: ‘’High dowries, bride demands, and wedding ceremonies make many young people delay getting married or opt for traditional early marriages with one of their relatives.”
He added: “As you get older, things become more complicated. If you get married early without proper planning and thinking, you’ll spend your life struggling to meet the demands. At least that’s what happened to two of my brothers who got married before they even turned 20.”
According to Anwar Ahmed, a graduate of psychology, “The reason behind early marriage or waiting until the end of your thirties, which is a commonly accepted age of marriage in Iraq, is due to various motivations and consequences that differ between men and women.”
Sara Sattar (34 years old), a lecturer in one of the schools in the province of Babylon, said that male domination is prevalent in most of the marriages she knows, whether among relatives or friends, and the violation of women’s rights without any religious, traditional, or legal justification in a rural environment, where men are in the majority, made her anxious about the idea of marriage despite her strong desire to become a mother.
Sarah is striving to obtain another university degree after completing her studies in computer science, and she finds that financial independence for women is one of the most important things, whether married or not. But she believes that a girl with a job that provides a suitable income does not find herself a prisoner to marriage pressures, unlike others.
She does not care about the importance of the questions that are constantly being asked about her social life, such as “Why haven’t you gotten married yet? You’ll regret it and won’t find someone who accepts you… When I was your age, I already had three children. When will we see your children? I hear things like this all the time in social gatherings and I have become accustomed to ignoring them.”
Early and late marriage duality
Salwa Ahmad (38 years old), a university employee who holds a master’s degree in sociology, said “Those questions that are followed by comments or special opinions, addressed to many non-married women, are the worst of it.”
She confirmed that the college where she works has many girls who have passed the age of thirty and have not got married because they did not find themselves forced to be with men who are not suitable for them just for the sake of marriage. She explained that marriage becomes more difficult for them as they get older, “Such a decision is subject to further study as maturity plays a crucial role in making it.”
Salwa believes that families, according to tradition, want to marry off their daughters before their sons, which conflicts with the increasing demands of life that push many young people to avoid marriage until they become close to the age of forty, which ultimately increases the rate of evasion from marriage.
Salwa focused on what she called a duality that controls the Iraqi society, which is represented by early and late marriage or spinsterhood. She explained: “the government is absent and does not have a program for awareness of the risks of early marriage, despite the high cases of divorce”. She also stated that “there are no programs to support the marriage of young people at the right age”.
She also pointed out that being a spinster, even if the girl is educated and financially independent, is difficult in an environment where she cannot live alone and is forced to live with her relatives and suffer from the patriarchal society.
Maturity and the domination of the mind over the heart, are the two reasons that have kept Ali Ghorabawi (a photographer) outside the marriage cage although he is over thirty years old. “I wander the streets because of my work and meet many people and hear their struggles and problems. Life is difficult in Iraq, so there’s no surprise that there’s little enthusiasm for marriage.”
Ghorabawi spends most of his daytime hours carrying his camera, documenting what he encounters in Baghdad. According to him, the toughest thing he encounters is the sight of children begging or selling goods at major intersections or performing in a theatrical way near their mothers, or sitting in their laps under the scorching sun to soften hearts and earn a few dinars to cover the expenses of life.
He added: “I never thought that a child would bear my name. What is the benefit of bringing a child into this world to face deprivation and the hardship of living? It is unjust to the child and myself to think about bringing him into this world before providing for his needs and ensuring his future.”
Ghorabawi concluded by saying that the necessity of marriage is “an old tradition and custom that weakens society and leads to an unplanned increase in population.”
The religion and the tribe
If the decision of marriage is in the hands of young men, it is not the case for the majority of girls throughout Iraq due to the traditional and religious nature of society in general. They are ruled by chains that start with the family, then extend to include relatives, the tribe, the region, and the city.
Sara Al-Naqash entered into a fierce conflict with her family after completing her law studies, due to her refusal to marry in an environment that is dominated by regional and sectarian discrimination and controlled by clan laws, according to what she believes.
“My mother, despite her weakness, was the only support for me, but the men in my family, from uncles to cousins, tried in various ways to get rid of me whenever someone proposed to me.”
She thought for a moment, then said with excitement “They want women to be blindly obedient and submissive, and this is what my mind refuses. I am not forced to speak or act according to their beliefs, it’s my right to have an identity, and to act according to my own will and not to the desires of those around me.”
Sara stopped talking, ran her hand over her forehead, and added: “But your rejection of what they try to impose on you pushes them to confront you with words and suspicions: Are you waiting for someone? Is your sexual orientation normal? Have you made a mistake with anyone? Have social media sites deceived you? And other questions loaded with accusations.”
She smiled and wondered:” What if I become 30 years old without getting married? What’s wrong with that? Isn’t it my right to wait until I meet someone right for me, after all, I’m the one who will be living with him in the end, not my parents and relatives?”
Sara works as a trainee in a private law firm in the city of Anbar and is determined to keep moving toward her dream of becoming a successful lawyer because she relies on her financial independence to determine her destiny despite the pressure from her family and society.
This is what Dr. Hani Salim Khodher, a researcher in social science, sees as key to freeing women from complete dependence on men or at least not being held hostage to their decisions. He said, “A woman’s work means her empowerment, and as a result, her ability to make important decisions in her life.”
However, he did not agree with the opinion that most spinsters are working women. He also pointed to several reasons behind the increase in rates of delay and refusal of marriage: “the society’s mood is changed, in the past, it was common for Iraqi families to choose the wife for their son, who usually did not have many options. However, that changed after girls went out to study and work and the young man had the right to choose unlike the previous.”
He also mentioned other reasons such as the reaction to the high rates of divorce in Iraq in recent years, and the fear of many girls of that fate, “Being a spinster is better than being divorced because society deals very strictly with divorced women.”
In addition, there are other reasons: the requirements of marriage, starting with the dowry and preparations for the bride and groom’s home, and ending with the wedding ceremony, there are also the problems imposed by the control of ISIS on several provinces, which caused internal displacement and external migration for tens of thousands of families.”
Dr. Hani highlighted that “the relevant ministries and agencies must study and identify all the reasons to find solutions and solving for the increasing problem of aversion to marriage among both females and males alike.”
Doha Mahmoud, a lawyer specializing in personal status cases, pointed out that she saw through her daily review of cases presented before the courts, the impact of the increasing cases of “marital infidelity”, domestic violence, and the rise in divorce cases, which mostly affect the younger age group, on many women so they remain within the circle of celibacy.
In addition, the economic deterioration, which forced young men to live with their families after marriage, increased the possibility of the failure of the marital relationship, “so we find that many women refuse to marry a man who cannot secure housing that is independent of his family.”
Doha called for Iraqi courts to rehabilitate people who are getting married and to create a governmental department concerned with psychological follow-up of newly married couples to avoid the occurrence of crimes and to highlight a more stable image of the institution of marriage in Iraq as she mentioned.
An unfair law and tribal rulings
Nura Hussain, a women’s rights activist, finds that the increasing trend of women choosing not to marry in Iraq is due to the laws governing the marriage system in the country, which she believes are unjust. “The man has the right to end the marriage contract without any conditions or restrictions whenever he wants, while the woman is subjected to his oppression and society’s bias against her, while the law remains indifferent to her situation and even considers her as a second-class human being!”
However, lawyer Abd Alghafour Mortada sees things differently, and believes that Iraqi law grants women more rights than it does for men in the case of divorce. He stated that the most important one is the right of custody until the child reaches the age of 18 years, and added that it is one reason among many that push young people to delay marriage.
“Nouria” (a pseudonym) is from a village in the Al-Hadar district, south of Mosul city (405 km north of Baghdad). She has been under a tribal law known as “Al-nahwa” (forbidding) for about nine years, as a result of a decision made by her uncle who banned anyone from proposing to her after she rejected to marry his son.”
“My uncle’s son is spineless, and fortunately, my father knows that and did not force me to marry him,” Nouria said gratefully. She added, “There are hundreds of girls like me in villages and rural areas who are forced to live as outcasts, even though the “Al-nahwa” is illegal and against the law.”
Her eyes drowned in tears and her voice choked with sorrow, “The fate of anyone who proposes to me will be murder, I am faced with three choices and each one is sadder than the other, either I accept living with an unstable person or I accept to marry another and risking bloodshed because of that, or I spend the rest of my life dreaming of a spouse and children who will never be mine in reality.”
The report was produced with the support of the NIRIJ Foundation for Investigative Journalism.