Prostitution or a "humanitarian" solution?

"Enjoyment marriages" have resurged in Iraq. The question is: Whom exactly do they serve?

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published January 22, 2007 8:12PM (EST)

Since the Sunnis' fall from power during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Shiite practice of "enjoyment marriages" has resurfaced in the country, the Washington Post reports. These temporary marriages, known as "mutaa," are framed by clerics as a compassionate response to the throngs of women widowed during wartime, but many women's rights activists argue the arrangement is simply thinly veiled prostitution.

The practice, which originated some 1,400 years ago, allows a man to enter into a marriage that can last anywhere from the amount of time it will take you to finish reading this post to several years. A woman is limited to one husband, while a man can choose to supplement his permanent wife with as many mutaa wives as he can financially support. Usually the husband will dish out some meager spending money, as well as take care of the woman's general living expenses. Take the example of Fatima Ali, 24, and Shawket al-Rubae, 34. As the Post puts it: "Ali wanted someone to take care of her. Rubae wanted a companion." So Rubae paid Ali, an uneducated, unemployed divorcée, "5,000 Iraqi dinars upfront -- about $4 -- in addition to her monthly expenses" in exchange for her companionship twice a week.

Opponents argue that the practice exploits financially desperate women, many of whom are uneducated and have few work opportunities, particularly considering Iraq's feeble economy. "Some women, because they don't want to be prostitutes, they think that this is legal because it's got some kind of religious cover. But it is wrong, and they're still prostitutes from the society's point of view," Um Akram, a women's rights activist, told the Post. Activists also say that there's been a surge in "enjoyment marriages" among college-age women, some of whom "do it for money," the Post reports. Of course, supporters of mutaa point out that there are similar financial transactions in traditional marriages. There are also cases where the financial exchange is largely irrelevant; sometimes, star-crossed lovers, banned from marrying outside of their family's religious sect, will secretly arrange a temporary marriage.

A mutaa marriage -- which can only be ended by the husband -- is understandably an increasingly appealing option for some of the thousands of woman widowed since the start of the U.S. invasion and left with few ways to support themselves. Not to mention the scores of men out of work and unable to make a long-term financial commitment. But Shiite cleric Mahdi al-Shog's argument that the practice was "designed as a humanitarian help for women" during wartime is dubious at best. Let's get real: It is more believably an opportunistic bending of the rules than an act of altruism bestowed on women.


Tracy Clark-Flory

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