“I had no alternative but to arrange a temporary marriage to support my children”, says “Fatima,” a young woman in her thirties from Karbala. “They told me this marriage was legalised by religion, so that women would not deviate. But I only see it as deviance disguised by religion.”
When her husband passed away in 2018, she was forced to leave her home. She and her three children moved in with her brother. But within a few months, she started to feel she was a burden on her brother and his family. They were complaining about her children all the time.
So she went to a cleric who was known to help widows and divorced women. She had already once received an amount of 25,000 dinars ($17) from him, as well as some foodstuffs and children’s clothing.
She accepted his invitation to visit him once a week. And each time she did so, he provided her with some assistance to meet her needs. Meanwhile, he told her marriage was the only permanent solution to her problems.
At some point the cleric, who Fatima referred to as “the master,” made her meet a man in his forties. The sheikh assured her a marriage would be temporary and without any obligations.
“I believed him,” says Fatima. “The situation of me and my children at my brother’s house was miserable. And I had always dreamed of a house of our own.”
She received 300,000 dinars (US$ 200) as a dowry for the marriage, as well as 50,000 dinars (US$ 34) for the days the marriage lasted, which was about a week,
“From time to time, ‘the master’ offered me new husbands, some of them elderly, in exchange for little sums of money, enough to pay the rent for my house and feed my children,” Fatima continues with some difficulty. “If it weren’t for my children, I would have wanted to die, as I hated my own body. My brother, my only close relative since the death of my husband and parents, and the sheikh, brought me to this.”
A contract arranged by a Shiite cleric with a dowry for a limited duration, under which neither spouse receives an inheritance, and the husband is not required to pay any alimony after the contract expires, is known as “Nikah Mut’ah,” a pleasure or temporary marriage.
According to legal expert Rana Al-Taie the 1959 Iraqi Personal Status Law does not actually regulate such a marriage contract, which has led to numerous social problems and lawsuits, particularly in the Shiite regions of central and south Iraq.
“Several legal decisions have established that temporary marriage contracts are illegal, and many cases have been dismissed in this regard,” says Al-Taie. “There have been numerous preliminary and appeal decisions, in which plaintiffs demand ratification of temporary marriage contracts, yet the Court of Cassation rejected them because they do not meet the permanence condition.”
Al-Taie warned women against entering a temporary marriage contract, because of the psychological and physical harm it may cause. She has worked on many cases in which women sought legal help after men tried to convince them to enter such contracts. In some cases, it even involved blackmailing women by filming them or recording conversations in order to have sex.
If a woman gets pregnant things can take an ugly turn.
“A temporary marriage is secret because it is really just a sexual relationship for money,” Al-Taie explains. “So, if a woman gets pregnant as a result of such a marriage, and fails to abort herself using herbs or other traditional means, she will face a bitter struggle to find a doctor willing to carry out an illegal abortion, while midwives demand large sums of money, arguably more than the sum received from the temporary marriage contract.”
Al-Taie stressed that women who wish to seek justice based on a temporary marriage contract will find it very hard and unfavourable to do so. They might even get killed by their own family. Others may experience harassment during the legal procedures.
As it is not acceptable in Iraqi society for a woman to outright claim she had sex with someone, some people may regard her as easy prey, even if she was abandoned while pregnant and only seeks justice. While Iraqi society may not openly approve of this type of relationship, Al-Taie asserted it is a widespread phenomenon.
“Displacement and poverty forced me into temporary marriage arrangements seven times,” says “Rita,” a 27-year-old Shiite woman from a village east of Mosul. She has been rolling dough since the wee hours of the morning in order to sell her daily bread.
Rita used to live with her husband. He worked with her brothers in construction, before ISIS seized control of Mosul in 2014. One day, they left for work and never returned.
When ISIS went on to attack the villages east of Mosul, Rita was forced to flee with her three children. So were her mother and sisters, and all other women and remaining men in the village. They first fled to a refugee camp in Kirkuk before settling in a Hussainiya (Shiite religious center) on the road to Baghdad.
“At first, we received food assistance from aid organizations that occasionally visited us,” says Rita, as she picks up a ball of dough and, using both hands, gracefully turns it into a thin circular disc. “But the aid reduced over time, and my children were asking me for toys and sweets, while I had no money.
“One day a turbaned cleric came to visit,” she continues, as she takes out bread from the oven. “He inquired about my husband and my life. I felt reassured by him, and I wasn’t the only one. All women here felt that way.”
He started to hang out with Rita and the other women. He explained that a Muslim woman really should be married for her not to fall into sin. One day he gave Rita a mobile phone as a gift. That same night he called and asked her to marry him.
“I told him my husband is missing, is it okay for me to be married again?” she says. “‘Sure, it is acceptable for you to marry again in accordance with the Sharia of Ahl al-Bayt,’ he replied.”
She assumed the marriage would be an ordinary one, and agreed Having learnt that ISIS had executed thousands of people in Mosul, she had given up on the idea of her husband ever coming back. What is more, her living conditions caused her a lot of stress.
After signing a marriage contract, she sneaked out of the Hussainiya every day to spend hours with him in his car or residence, and had sex. After a week, however, he informed her that the temporary marriage contract was over and he did not wish to renew or extend it.
“He gave me US$ 300,” she says. “In 2015, that was worth some 500,000 dinars. That was a very generous sum for someone like me who had zero dinars. I believed he was a religious man who feared God and guarded me. But he was really a rascal who exploited me.”
Two weeks later, he called her and suggested she married someone else. Initially, she refused. But gradually she changed her mind. She called him back a few days later. Forced by her needs, she told him she agreed. Six temporary marriages were arranged by him in that way, until early 2017, when she and the others returned to their village.
When she felt in her heart she had turned into a prostitute, he would tell her to think of it as just another job. Occasionally, he would ask her to persuade her younger sister to accept a temporary marriage arrangement as well, but she refused.
Later, she later learnt from a woman who lived next to the Hussainiya that her older sister and the wife of one of her brothers had also responded to the sheikh. When Rita finally told her sister about the situation, the latter broke down sobbing.
Rita described how one of the Mut’ah husbands had taken naked pictures of her. She had told the sheikh, who reassured her and asked her to just finish the contract period. The husband, however, threatened to expose the photos if she did not keep seeing him even after the contract ended.
“I did not return because our villages were liberated,” Rita says. “A few days later, we returned. At least here we did not have to sell our bodies for slave labor.”
Legitimate Marriage, Legal Prostitution
One of the legal requirements for a pleasure or temporary marriage is the inclusion of a duration clause. According to researcher Raouf Makhlad, “the husband has the right to keep his wife for the whole period or part of it.”
The contract must include a dowry, yet the wife can only receive it after sexual intercourse. In the event that did not occur the woman is entitled to only half of the dowry.
According to Makhlad, temporary marriage cannot end in divorce. Instead, it stops automatically at the conclusion of the time period determined in the contract.
For a divorced or widowed Shiite woman, this type of marriage is permissible. According to Makhlad, there is disagreement whether it is acceptable for a virgin girl. “Some say it is not permitted for her at all,” he said. “While others permit it, but without deflowering her.”
Women’s rights activist Amira Jawad accused Iraqi clerics of being against women working, yet “allowing prostitution in what is called a temporary marriage.”
“Clerics have taken advantage of the phenomenon, which is widespread in Iraqi society, to fulfil their sexual desires under such a religious name as a temporary marriage,” she says.
She believed they disapprove of a woman making her own decisions and prefer her to remain illiterate so that men can maintain (financial) control and continue to exploit her.
According to her, Iraqi women have grown weaker and more vulnerable, due to the war that has been ongoing since the US-led invasion in 2003, as well as the widespread poverty, unemployment and corruption. Temporary marriage is one of many abuses Iraqi women face.
“Some girls get married when they are only 10 years old,” she says. “I have personally observed many such cases. In addition to temporary marriage, underage girls are employed in nightclubs and brothels, which is considered a human trafficking crime.”
Some clerics are taking advantage of widows’ difficult social and financial situations, especially those who lost their husbands in the fight against ISIS. According to Jawad, most of these women are forced to endure these offences because they have no other option.
“The clerics are taking advantage of the absence of an effective legal deterrence,” she says, sarcastically raising her voice to imitate the clerics. “It is legitimate marriage, legitimate marriage.”
Shahbaa is a 35-year-old widow who works at the Ministry of Electricity in Baghdad. After her husband passed away, temporary marriage provided her with a solution, as her family forbade her from getting married again. They did not want a stranger to take the place of her cousin, Shahbaa explained.
One day in 2021, she met an officer at a workshop she attended. A romantic relationship developed, which lasted for a while, before he asked her hand for a temporary marriage. She agreed, and they continued to meet intimately in secret. One day, despite being cautious and using birth control pills, Shahbaa to her surprise found she was pregnant.
She was even more surprised by her temporary husband’s reaction when she informed him. He asked her to abort the foetus, refusing to admit it was his.
“I will not destroy my house for the sake of a woman with whom my relationship does not go beyond temporary marriage,” he told her.
Disappointed, Shahbaa turned to a lawyer for advice on how to file a lawsuit. But she lacked documentation that could prove her temporary marriage. She then decided to have her baby aborted with the help of a midwife. If she had kept it, she said, “my family would have killed me to get rid of the shame.”
The exploitation of women, particularly widows and divorcees, is a result of allowing temporary marriages, said an employee at the Welfare and Social Affairs Department in the Wasit Governorate of south Iraq, who requested not to be named.
“Our department reviews the situations of many of these women,” she explains. “If an official likes to marry one of them, the process to grant her financial help is delayed until she consents to the temporary marriage. And it will be much harder for her if, for example, they don’t like the way she looks. Then no one will even notice her in the first place and she will be lost in a sea of procedures.”
“Normally a woman’s phone number is requested under the pretense of having to alert her that the procedures related to her request have been completed,” she says. “Then she will be called after office hours and the haggling starts. The same happens at other departments.”
The cleric Ahmed Al-Shaibani acknowledged that some women are taken advantage of by those who enter into temporary marriages.
“Some women sign a temporary marriage contract for a year, but after a month or two, the man leaves the woman without terminating the contract or giving her the full amount that was agreed on,” he gave as an example.
He advised women who consulted him to specify the contract for a short term, such as an hour, a day, or at most a week. If the two parties want to continue, they can always renew the contract. In his opinion there is no limit to the number of times one can renew. He does not encourage women to refrain from a temporary marriage. Like many other clerics, he does not contest the legality of a temporary marriage.
Sex for Money
One of the charges brought against Shiite clerics supporting temporary marriage is that they only do so to reap the financial rewards. However, Sheikh Majeed Al-Aqabi denied this. Such claims were only aimed to belittle the Shiite sect, he said.
“The Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammed legitimize Mut’ah marriage,” he claims. The goal is to safeguard women from “deviation,” particularly those who lack a breadwinner.
Civil activist Ghidaa Amer refuted the idea that prostitution and temporary marriage are two different things.
“Both are for a limited period of time, for money, and without any further obligations regarding divorce, livelihood, or alimony,” she says. “In addition, both need a facilitator, either a pimp or a cleric, to come to an agreement. The only difference is that a temporary marriage is legal, because the clerics are the ones controlling people’s minds.”
The report was completed under the supervision of Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ)