ON A DUSTY MORNING in the holy city of Qom, I went looking for a shrine in a walled cemetery of martyrs known as Sheikhan. The graveyard's walls are lined with glass cases containing the framed photos of soldiers felled by the Iran-Iraq war. The shrine, I'd been told, is a hangout for women seeking temporary marriage, an intriguing mechanism in Shiite Islam for relieving sexual frustration. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, sex outside of marriage is a crime, punishable by up to 100 lashes or, in the case of adultery, death by stoning. Yet the purpose of a temporary marriage is clear from its name in Arabic—mut'a, pleasure. A man and a woman may contract a mut'a for a finite period of time—from minutes to 99 years or more—and for a specific amount, mehr in Farsi, which the man owes the woman.
Inside the shrine, I struck up a conversation with a 55-year-old woman and asked whether she had ever contracted a temporary union. She had. A man in white clerical robes standing nearby seemed to perk up, so we moved aside for privacy, sitting cross-legged on the ground. The woman, a widow, asked that I use only her first name—Robabeh.
Six years earlier, Robabeh was leaving Sheikhan when a young man introduced himself. They chatted, and Robabeh learned that he was a seminary student. She told him she wanted to go on a pilgrimage to Syria. The student, 25 years her junior, promised to take her, proposing a sigheh, the Farsi word for a temporary marriage. Robabeh agreed, and they negotiated terms: eight months, and the mehr would be a trip to Syria.
Robabeh's black socks and thick rubber sandals peeked out from under her black head-to-toe chador. (It is rumored that women at shrines wear chadors inside out to signal their availability for temporary dalliances.) The only adornment on her kindly, owlish face was a pair of round black glasses. "My children asked where I was going," she said, laughing. "I told them I was going as a cook." Robabeh said that after being a widow for four years, she enjoyed the company and the opportunity to travel—not to mention the physical benefits. She considers the temporary marriage a blessing, even though she has kept it secret. "People say it's bad," she said. "Although it's in the Koran and people know about it, they still feel ashamed about doing it." However, Robabeh said she has no regrets, adding firmly, "I liked it."
Remarkably, Iran's Shiite clerics not only tolerate sigheh, but actively promote it as an important element of the country's official religion. "Temporary marriages must be bravely promoted," the interior minister said at a clerical conference in Qom in 2007. "Islam is in no way indifferent to the needs of a 15-year-old youth in whom God has placed the sex drive." Yet the Iranian mullahs' efforts to rehabilitate sigheh have met a stubborn core of resistance—particularly from feminists, who decry the practice as a kind of "Islamic prostitution." Which is it—an empowering possibility for women, or a back door to exploitation? How Iranians answer that question provides a glimpse into the surprisingly fluid attitudes toward the authority of the clerics who back President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
AT THE TIME of the prophet Muhammad, in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, temporary marriage was already common in Arabia, and many Islamic scholars believe he recommended it in circumstances such as pilgrimage, travel, and war. Most Shiites go a step further, maintaining that the practice is endorsed by the Koran. The second caliph, Umar, banned temporary marriage, but Shiites reject his authority because they believe he usurped Muhammad's rightful heir, his son-in-law Ali.
The Pahlavi shahs, who ruled Iran until 1979, sought to delegitimize temporary unions as backward, but after the revolution, the Islamic authorities moved to reclaim the tradition. In 1990, President Hashemi Rafsanjani offered a widely noted sermon on the practice, emphasizing that sexual relations aren't shameful. He encouraged young couples to contract marriages "for a month or two"—and to do it entirely on their own if they felt shy about going to a mullah to register the union.
Two decades later, Iran's Shiite clerics continue to endorse temporary marriage as a sexual escape valve. (Sunni variations on the theme are also on the rise throughout the Middle East.) In an interview at his home in Qom, the conservative ayatollah Sayyid Reza Borghei Mudaris offered a list of who might benefit from temporary marriage: a financially strapped widow; a young widow—"She answers her needs because if she doesn't, she will have psychological problems"; a man who cannot afford a permanent marriage; and a married man with domestic problems who needs "a kind of medicine."
Sigheh has worked well for Habib, a 48-year-old businessman from a small city in northeastern Iran. A balding man with a compensatory mustache and an eager smile, Habib counts his blessings, which he believes have been multiplied by his many temporary marriages—15 or 16; he has lost track. "I do sigheh with women who need financial help. Instead of giving money for charity, I marry them in this way and financially support them," he said over tea at a hotel in Tehran. "I believe when I do this, God helps me and I get more wealth."
Habib has never had sex outside marriage. "Even if I wanted to have an hour-long relationship with a woman, I want to do it in a religious framework," he said. "When you set the time in a temporary marriage, you follow all the Islamic codes and regulations. The woman is also satisfied and content." Everyone is happy, Habib said—except, truth be told, his permanent wife of 29 years. Habib told her about one of his temporary wives, but she has no idea about the others. "If she knew, she would decapitate me," he said with a cheery lack of concern. "She cannot even stand the first one."
Presently, Habib had two temporary wives. He wanted to permanently marry the first—a 21-year-old law student who is the daughter of a poor family he'd been helping—but his full-time wife said no. Undaunted, Habib and the law student contracted a sigheh of 99 years, with a mehr of 124 gold coins. The second is a divorcée he met in 2007. She was suing her ex-husband for alimony, and before Habib knew it, he was in another commitment—this one for three months and $2,000 for a deposit on a house for the young mother.
Iranian feminists ardently oppose sigheh. In the summer of 2008, they were infuriated by President Ahmadinejad's attempts to push through a new "family protection" law that would have made it easier for men to contract temporary marriages. Many of those activists took to the streets after his contested reelection the following June. "One of the main attributes of marriage is publicity and the celebration of it," said Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a legal anthropologist who wrote a study of Islamic family law. "Women who enter this kind of marriage never talk about it. That's why I call it a socially defective marriage." While the ayatollahs see temporary marriage as good for both sexes, feminists point out its lopsided nature: It is largely the prerogative of wealthy married men, and the majority of women in sighehs are divorced, widowed, or poor. Only a man has the right to renew a sigheh when it expires—for another mehr—or to terminate it early. While women may have only one husband at a time, men may have four wives and are permitted unlimited temporary wives. Rezvan Moghadam, the director of a women's health nonprofit, put it bluntly: "Men do it for fun. Women do it for money; they don't enjoy it at all."
Yet women do derive some benefits from sigheh. Children born of sighehs are considered legitimate, and entitled to a share of their father's inheritance. In a permanent marriage, the family usually negotiates a dowry on the bride's behalf; a woman entering a temporary marriage sets her own terms. A temporary wife has no right to maintenance or inheritance, but she also has fewer obligations than her permanent counterpart—her duty to obey her husband encompasses only sex.
Saeedah, who is 32 and works in the film industry, decided to do a sigheh at her boyfriend's suggestion, but her eyes welled up at the memory of her visit to the registry. She felt the mullah's eyes on her, she recalled, as if she were "like meat" and he, too, might get a taste. She was also disappointed by her girlfriends' reaction. "They think it's cheap," she said.
Zahra, an unemployed 47-year-old widow from Qom, entered a sigheh with a doctor. She didn't tell her four children about the union, explaining, "People don't like it. Because of this, I also don't like it." Tuba, a widow who lives with her two grown sons in a small room in one of Tehran's poorest neighborhoods, would prefer a permanent marriage, but the 55-year-old is certain that her temporary husband—a taxi driver three decades younger—will never propose one.
In spite of the stigma, the women I spoke with were ultimately content with their choice. Saeedah felt more secure knowing she could show the police her marriage certificate. Zahra enjoyed sharing her feelings with someone else, as well as the physical intimacy. Tuba, for her part, is delighted that her taxi driver, who lives in the north, visits once a month and calls daily. "Sigheh is not a good thing in our society," she said. "But I'm a relaxed person, so I don't give a shit what people think."
THE CLASH over the June 2009 presidential vote was a reminder of how deeply divided Iranian society is. The schism between Iranians who believe in the legitimacy of the Islamic republic and those who never will is also reflected in attitudes toward sigheh. Many young Iranians reject it precisely because it's promoted by the clerics.
"Most of us, we like to imitate all things from Western countries," said 27-year-old Sina Ahmadinejad (no relation to the president). "Being boyfriend and girlfriend is much fancier than sigheh." For young liberals like him, dating has become an act of protest, while sigheh remains inescapably Islamic—and uncool.
Still, some young Iranians are beginning to experiment with sigheh in a way that can feel like defiance. Three years ago, Amir, an English teacher, and his girlfriend, Tara, decided to move in together. "It's impossible to rent an apartment with your girlfriend," Amir said. "They check if you are officially married." So Tara proposed a sigheh. After a quick trip to the registry, they broke the news to their friends over pizza and champagne.
The real celebration came later, when they began planning a trip together. Usually, unmarried heterosexual couples have to engage in elaborate stratagems to go on vacation, often coordinating with friends so that men and women travel in separate cars and check into different hotel rooms, only to reconfigure in coed pairs behind closed doors. For the first time in their adult lives, Amir and Tara wouldn't need to go through those contortions.
Barely an hour into the drive, a policeman pulled them over. In the trunk of Amir's car was a bottle of whiskey. Drinking alcohol is punishable by 80 lashes or, after repeated offenses, death. The officer eyed the couple suspiciously, demanding, "Are you married or are you single?"
"Tara is my wife," Amir answered calmly, presenting his gold-lettered marriage certificate.
"Okay, go," the officer ordered, and the newlyweds drove on.