Anecdotal evidence suggests certain types of informal marriage are on the rise in sexually conservative Iraq. Unwilling to enter more formal marriages, young Iraqi couples are entering secret relationships that some critics describe as no better than prostitution.
Informal marriages – some call them “secret marriages” - have been becoming more popular in Iraq ever since 2003, when US-led forces toppled the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
In Iraq marriage comes in three basic forms. Firstly the regular, or official, kind of marriage which happens in a more standard way – the husband and wife are seen as a couple in the eyes of the law. The man is also seen as being responsible for his wife and any children they may have and the relationship is ongoing.
Up until 1959, Iraqi family law was governed by religion and tradition. After this, a new, more secular law – albeit based upon religious law and legal precedents – was established in Iraq.
As the US State Department describes it, as part of information on how to spot a forced marriage (as opposed to an arranged one): “Iraqi law provides two legitimate bases for marriage – mutual life and procreation. There are several necessary conditions that must be fulfilled in order to validate a marriage: offer and acceptance; mutual understanding of the marriage intention; verification of two witnesses; and draft of a condition-free contract.”
And then there are the more controversial, informal forms of marriage. One is called the “mutah” marriage and another is the “misyar” marriage.
While, in practical terms, the various conditions of these informal arrangements are potentially very similar, in reality they are perceived very differently.
The mutah marriage also involves a contract between a man and a woman, with certain conditions set in the contract. A mutah, or pleasure, marriage can last for half an hour or for several years. When the contract ends, so does the marriage. No witnesses, officials or family members need to get involved.
It’s also true that some female sex workers use mutah marriage as part of their jobs. A mutah marriage allows the women to exchange their services for money without putting any pressure on religious men who may visit night clubs, bars and brothels in secret. The women simply repeat the mutah vows that make their pious customers feel less guilty; as they see it, their God allows this.
Meanwhile a misyar marriage is also a contracted arrangement between a man and woman – yet somehow it is seen as more seemly than the latter. If formal marriage at one end of the scale and mutah marriage at the other, then misyar is in the middle.
In this arrangement, the parties may give up certain privileges demanded by a traditional marriage, as usually arranged by the husband and wife’s families. It is generally thought to be considered a more permanent arrangement than the mutah, although in practical terms it could also involve a short term contract.
One example of a misyah-style arrangement might be a relationship between two Iraqi university students. Say, the pair wishes to get married but the male student cannot afford to maintain a household and a wife while he is studying. So the wife gives up her rights to financial support and a domestic arrangement.
This kind of contract may also be utilized by divorcees or widows and widowers who prefer to live in their own households but wish to have a relationship. It’s becoming more common in Iraq, in a society where years of violent conflict have led to an imbalance in the ratio of males to females. For many older Iraqi women, this is the only way they will have a relationship.
A misyah marriage may well be witnessed and documented a way similar to the most formal weddings. Family members and community leaders may, or may not, be involved. However in the eyes of the Iraqi law, it remains a “secret marriage”.
For obvious reasons, there are no official statistics to show how many secret marriages there are in Iraq. However anecdotal evidence suggests the numbers are growing.
“I don’t have any figures on the number of secretly married students there might be,” Farida Dara Jassim, sociology professor at the University of Baghdad told NIQASH. “But because I know a lot of the students personally, I feel certain that there are many such marriages.”
“While I was studying, I saw between ten and 20 marriages between students at my college,” Nimeh Idan, a 27-year-old graduate from teacher’s college, recalled, adding that he’d also heard of many other educational institutes where the same thing was happening.
“Usually these types of marriage are entered into by young, religious men who are not allowed to meet the girls they love in a public place,” Idan continued. “Usually both the men and women in these relationships keep their relationships secret.”
In a mostly Muslim society, where young men and women cannot meet in private unchaperoned, both of these kinds of informal marriages are seen as problematic by some.
Jassim acknowledged that, in the eyes of the law, the secret marriages would be seen as illegal and also that some religious parties would also disapprove of them. Another problem with the various temporary marriages is also Iraqi society’s expectation that a woman marrying for real, will be a virgin.
“The Islamic religion is more lenient on these issues,” Ala Hamid, also a sociology professor at the University of Baghdad, explained. “However our society has its own cultural norms and standards when it comes to relationships between men and women.”
In fact, mutah and misyah marriages are also entered into by the non-religious in Iraq. This is simply because of the more exacting rules and familial customs around formal weddings.
For example, Ahmed Jassim, 26, tells how he wanted to marry a local girl he was in love with. “But her family wouldn’t accept me,” he says. “So I challenged them by marrying her informally, getting a local cleric to draw up a marriage contract. I wanted the family to change their minds about me.”
The tradition of the mutah marriage is over a thousand years old and is sanctioned by some Shiite Muslim clerics. For instance, historically it was seen as a practical step to take for men – nomadic herders, for example, or traders - who had to live away from their homes and wives for a long time; this meant they could establish other relationships, and have a woman to take care of them and their households, without being forced to live in sin.
Mostly mutah has been considered a Shiite Muslim practice and during Saddam Hussein’s regime, a Sunni Muslim government, the practice of mutah was banned. During Hussein’s reign, mutah marriages could see the participants end up in prison or fined. However after 2003, and especially since the Iraqi government has been led by mainly Shiite Muslim politicians, mutah has become more common again.
Despite its growing popularity though, some still describe mutah as exploitative and see it as an excuse for prostitution. Staunch Sunni Muslims have always criticised mutah, in part because it is seen as a Shiite Muslim tradition.
And while misyah is seen as more acceptable – perhaps because of its potential to be a longer term relationship and the fact that there are witnesses - some see this as worrying too.
Although the witnesses to a misyah marriage can give the relationship more legitimacy – especially if they are community leaders or clerics - Iraqi law really only acknowledges formal marriage contracts. And, if for example, the woman has a child, then the father has no legal or financial responsibility for that offspring.
“Society still considers these marriages shameful acts,” Hana Edward, a civil society activist, who heads one of the biggest women's rights networks in Iraq, says. “Additionally, in these marriages the women usually lose their legal rights because the marriage contracts are not registered in the courts. And not only the women lose their rights. Children also do. There are usually no official documents or papers to prove that there was a marriage relationship. This means the children cannot get their own official papers, which allows them to do things like register in the education system.”
Local woman, Jinan Abdul Rahman, who is in her 30s, married a local man, Nimah Salman, with an informal misyah-style contract that was drawn up by a cleric. As a result of their union, the couple had a baby girl. However when the relationship broke up, Salman refused to acknowledge his daughter. Rahman needed this so that her child could have official documents.
However Salman failed to appear in court and his family also failed to acknowledge the baby girl’s background. And she only received her official documents when her mother married another man.
Lawyer Khalil Farhan says that women should take this kind of case to court and try to get justice. But, as Farhan notes, lawyers may well be reluctant to take on the cases and judges equally reluctant to trial them.
“Usually women and their children are the victims of these marriages,” Farhan concludes.
This story was prepared as part of the Media Academy Iraq’s mentorship programme for young Iraqi journalists, together with NIQASH’s regular correspondents around Iraq. The mentor for this story was journalist Layth Ahmad.