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Iran: Temporary Marriages Fuel Debate

By Azam Gorgin and Charles Recknagel

In Iran, temporary marriages as short as a few hours are legal under Islamic law. But a cleric's recent proposal to register the marriages in civil court -- and give temporary wives greater rights -- has sparked new debate over the practice. RFE/RL's Azam Gorgin reports.

Prague, 18 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An Iranian cleric's proposal to legalize temporary marriages under the country's civil code has reignited debate over a practice which some call an economic necessity and others prostitution.

Until now, temporary marriages -- which may be as brief as a few minutes or as long as years -- have been sanctioned by the Islamic Republic's religious law code, but remain outside the civil court system. The practice permits a man to marry a woman for a mutually agreed time by reciting a verse from the Koran. When the verbal contract expires, there are no obligations upon the man unless the marriage produces a child.

The custom -- unique to Shiism and dating back to its origins -- has been quietly practiced in Iran for generations. But it has always been controversial.

Proponents say that it offers women -- especially those divorced or widowed -- a way to obtain a temporary husband and support when they are unable to find a permanent marriage. Opponents say the practice is frequently used to legitimize prostitution or extramarital relations and is a danger to family values. They also say the practice undermines women's dignity.

Debate over temporary marriages has increased in recent years as some of the countries' ruling clerics -- including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- have suggested young Iranians adopt the custom as a temporary substitute for establishing families.

The religious leaders say that the Shiite custom will help release widespread social discontent among young people over the Islamic Republic's struggling economy. High unemployment and inflation -- which have both been at double digit levels for years -- forces many young men and women to put off establishing families until they are well into their 20s and 30s.

Now, another high-ranking cleric has fueled the public debate further by proposing last month that temporary marriages become part of Iran's civil code. The cleric, Ayatollah Makarem-e Shirazi, called for parliament to consider passing legislation that would require all temporary marriages be subject to civil law.

Registering the marriage contracts could offer temporary wives greater legal protection, including the right to alimony. Under Shiite religious law, all children born from temporary marriages must be recognized as legitimate and can claim a share of inheritances. But the temporary wife and mother has no legal privileges.

Our correspondent contacted a high-ranking cleric in Tehran to learn more about why religious authorities are now looking for ways to encourage -- and regularize -- temporary marriages. Hojatoleslam Akbar Ghanbari, who publishes Critique and Opinion magazine, said that the measure is a religiously acceptable solution to a social crisis and protects women.

"There is a coincidence of lawful practice and social exigency. It is possible that men will be the beneficiary of the situation, but fundamentally it keeps a woman from being left without a guardian or protection. I don't want to defend this but you must show me another solution to solve this social crisis."

He continued:

"Lots of matters have been propounded by religious law, but to make them part of commonly practiced law they have to go through civil law and be legitimized. It is possible [for example] for a person to do something which is not a crime under religious law but still would be prosecutable under civil law."

But many in Iran oppose encouraging more temporary marriages because they see the practice as threatening family stability. During the 1960s and 70s, family protection laws were passed to restrict both temporary marriages and polygamy by requiring a man to obtain the consent of his first wife to take a second wife. Today, temporary marriages and polygamy are generally limited to poorer and very religious segments of society.

Our correspondent also spoke with Nayereh Touhidi, an expert in women's issues at California State University of Northridge in California. She said when Rafsanjani publicly proposed encouraging temporary marriages, also known as "Sigheh," the idea was widely criticized in Iranian women's magazines and other publications.

"About 10 years ago, when Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani, the then president, promoted the idea of legitimizing further the Sigheh practice, many women opposed the idea, and in the [Iranian] women's press and other newspapers there were heated debates against the practice. Because the main concern among women was that this may jeopardize the security and sanctity of the family."

Touhidi continued:

"The argument of people who opposed [Sigheh] was that this may be a solution for some young people but what about the majority of people who want to have an ordinary long-term marriage? This may jeopardize the whole institution of marriage and family. Then many people are going to find it easier to go for consecutive temporary marriages rather than establishing a long-term family."

Touhedi said many women feel that temporary marriages benefit only men and discriminate against women because the practice requires temporary wives to later refrain from entering another relationship for a period of three months and 10 days. The waiting period is intended to determine if there is a child and to establish its paternity. There is no restriction on men.

This kind of heated debate over temporary marriages looks set to begin again, as one of the country's leading dailies -- Iran -- ran a wide-ranging discussion of the issue in its pages during the past several weeks. The paper invited commentary from clerics, sociologists, and lawyers.