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TEHRAN, Jun 25 2007 (IPS) - A key Iranian minister calls ‘temporary marriages’ a pragmatic way to deal with young people’s sexual needs and to prevent prostitution, but a wide range of critics lambasts them as little more than ways to give religious sanction to practices that degrade women.
The debate about temporary marriages, called ‘sighe’ or ‘mot'e’ and which can last a few hours or decades, continues weeks after Iran’s interior minister, Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, called them ‘’God’s decree for the young people" on May 31.
"Temporary marriages must be bravely promoted. Islam is in no way indifferent to the needs of a fifteen year-old youth in whom God has placed the sex drive," Mohammadi was quoted as saying by the media.
Angry criticism about these marriages, done to allow sexual relations within a supposedly acceptable religious context, immediately poured in from women's rights activists, sociologists, and even from women officials known to be hardliners.
"Unmarried people are not interested in temporary marriages at all and it is mostly married men who take temporary wives," Fatemeh Ajorlou, a conservative female member of parliament, told the Iranian Students News Agency. "Many women are hurt seriously by entering temporary marriages and the harm affects not only the women themselves but also their families," she said.
According to the latest statistics, the average age of marriage in Iran has risen to 26.7 for men and 22.4 for women. The legal age for marriage is 18 for men and 15 for women in this country of 70 million people.
Some young people are finding it increasingly difficult to start families, and are attracted to the idea of temporary marriages in spite of the huge stigma attached to it. But for others, it remains taboo.
"A lot of young people have premarital sex of some sort nowadays. Virginity can be restored (through a surgical procedure that is illegal but quite often carried out) if a girl breaks up with her partner and wants to marry someone and she can afford a few hundred dollars," Elnaz, a 26-year-old office worker from a middle-class family here, told IPS. "Birth control is readily available everywhere so there is much less inhibition than before."
"Many families, including mine, are now quite tolerant of their daughters having boyfriends if there are any prospects of marriage later, but temporary marriage is another story," she said.
"My father would rather die than let me enter into a temporary marriage, even with my boyfriend of three years, because it clearly speaks of the intention to have sex. He won't even allow my brother to do this, because he considers any girl or woman who accepts to be temporarily married a prostitute," she said.
More traditional families do not allow premarital relations. Fatemeh, a 24-year-old theology student from one of Iran's western provinces, told IPS her father and brothers would kill her if they found out that she had a boyfriend, let alone go into a temporary marriage.
"They are very religious, but even so, they are not prepared to even hear of temporary marriage," said Fatemeh. "I'm religious myself and don't want to have sex out of wedlock. But maybe a temporary marriage can be a good way to get to know the person I want to marry better."
Under temporary marriages, practiced largely by Shiites and banned by most Sunni sects, there are no limits as to the number of temporary wives a man can take. Unlike in Sunni communities, having multiple permanent wives is quite rare among Iranian Shiites.
A temporary marriage does not have to have witnesses or be registered anywhere, although it is always possible to register a marriage with a notary.
Just an agreement between the parties involved and a few sentences uttered in Arabic, or even in one's own language, are enough for the temporary marriage to be done. The husband has the exclusive right to terminate the marriage at any point he wishes, even before the term is over and without the wife's consent.
Widely practised in Iran by married and more rarely by single men, temporary marriages are largely looked down upon by traditional Iranian society, even among the very religious. In nearly all cases, women who enter into temporary marriages are divorcees or widows.
Virgin women need have permission from their father or paternal grandfather to enter into such a marriage, and temporary marriages involving young unmarried women are quite uncommon except among the extremely needy.
Unlike the usual marriage, a temporary marriage does not create any financial obligations for the man, who is only obliged to pay an agreed amount of money as dowry to the woman at the time of marriage, upon being asked during the marriage or at the time of its termination.
"The reason many religious women oppose the idea of temporary marriages in spite of strong religious sanctioning is that to marry second (or more) permanent wives men are required to have the consent of their other permanent wife (or wives), but this is not needed in the case of taking temporary wives," Fatemeh added.
"They take this as a threat to the foundations of the family and they are quite right. Temporary marriage has always been exploited by men who can afford it to give religious cover to having mistresses," the theology student said.
In Iran, prostitution and illicit sex are serious crimes. Offenders can be flogged and jailed. A person found guilty of illicit sex four times can be punished by death, and adulterers will face death by stoning.
"Prostitution made look 'religiously clean' is an age-old practice here. Very short- term temporary marriages for sex, in return for the 'dowry' that the man pays, have long been used for the purpose," said a sociologist who asked not to be named.
"Prostitution can't be officially recognised due to religious reasons in a religious state like Iran. One of the reasons they are promoting temporary marriage is that they want to give religious cover to prostitution to be able to deal with the problems associated with it without having to name it what it really is," she pointed out.
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