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Iraqi widows subjected to temporary marriages

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The man spotted Nisreen Ahmed at a relative's home and asked around about the pretty widow and her five young children.

She was known as a gentle and pious woman who had been married to a textile merchant in Baghdad's most exclusive neighborhood. But the war, friends told the man, had left her widowed and destitute. Two months ago, the man approached Ahmed with a proposal: her body in exchange for $15 a month, plus groceries and clothes for the children.

"Don't worry," he told her. "It's not a sin."

Ahmed's hands shook and her face reddened with shame as she signed a one-year contract for a muta'a, a temporary marriage recognized only by Shiite Muslims. Like many Shiite practices, muta'a was banned under the Sunni Muslim regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Now, hundreds of Shiite women who lost their husbands and livelihoods in the war that toppled Saddam are resurrecting the practice.

"What I did was not wrong, but I regret this marriage with all my heart," Ahmed said. "It's ruined my relationship with my children. My son calls me a bad woman, a prostitute. They have no idea I did this for their sake, so I can have money to spend on them."

Clerics who support muta'a say the practice offers sexual and financial freedom to widows. Iraqi women's advocates, however, speak out against what they call the economic enslavement of women prevented by custom from working outside the home. The practice occurs in such secrecy and with such a social stigma that no one can give a firm figure on the number of muta'a contracts that have been signed since the war ended last spring, though estimates stretch into the low thousands.

"Muta'a was rare before the war. We only heard of a few cases," said Hend Tahir, who coordinates widows' programs for the Iraqi Women's League. "Now it's common. Iraq is 60 percent women, and until we have government projects to help women, this practice will only continue."

Muta'a emerged at the time of Prophet Muhammad, who sanctioned it as a way to ensure the financial security of widows and divorcees during times of war. Later generations of Islamic rulers disagreed on continuing the practice. Sunnis condemned it as outdated and easy to abuse, while most Shiites maintained that banning anything the prophet allowed was heresy, Islamic scholars said.

Through the centuries, the practice fell out of popularity. Though there are stories of Muslim college students in America using muta'a now to skirt their faith's prohibition on premarital sex, Iraq is one of the few areas where muta'a has resurfaced in great numbers.

"After the war, this type of marriage increased because of the number of widows, especially those with children," said Hazem al Araji, a religious authority and keeper of one of the Shiite holy shrines in Baghdad. "How else can they support their families?"

Watchful eyes follow widows as they weave through a Baghdad market's alleys every Friday and stop at the tiny room where a cleric sits before a Quran and a ledger filled with names and dates. On a recent day, the sheik, Hadi al Shadidi, stealthily tucked away the ledger and insisted he didn't perform the ceremonies.

An hour later, however, al Shadidi revealed his familiarity with the process. Typically, he said, a man and woman ask him to draw up a wedding contract that can last from an hour to a year. The woman, most often a widow, receives about $6 up front from the short-term spouse, who is usually a married businessman with a standing account at a Baghdad hotel. Muta'as are blessed by the clerics who perform them, but hold no weight in Iraq's secular courts.

"He is not obliged to pay her anything more, and he can't have sex with her until the money is paid up front," al Shadidi said. "Sometimes the payment is only symbolic; other times it's a kilo of gold. Only widows are desperate enough to accept this arrangement. It's done in secret, but it's not forbidden."

Around the corner from al Shadidi's marketplace office, 26-year-old Ahmed Risouli scanned the crowd outside his gold shop for women in mourning clothes who dared to meet his gaze. Risouli said he "can't remember how many times" he's entered into a muta'a and boasted of a surefire way to lure cash-strapped widows.

"From first sight, I can tell whether a woman will accept muta'a or not," Risouli said. "I'll give her roses and invite her to expensive restaurants. When she's weak, I kiss her and we talk about the terms of a muta'a. The only problem I have with this marriage is that the woman always falls in love with me. I tell her, `For God's sake! It was a deal for two days!'"


(Allam reports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): tempmarriages