'Temporary Marriage' and the Economy of Pleasure
by FATEMEH SADEGHI in Tehran | translated by FRIEDA AFARY
15 Mar 2010 20:45
This article was first published on the Alborz website on January 9, 2010.
In Iran, "temporary marriage," which was originally called sigheh [a renewable contract of marriage for a defined duration] or mut'a, [Arabic term for a temporary marriage] has long been one of the challenging aspects of the culture of Ithnā'ashariyyah' Shi'ism in contrast to other branches of Islam, whether Sunni or Shi'i. [Ithnā'ashariyyah', or Twelver, Shi'is believe in twelve divinely ordained leaders, or imams]
During the first decade after the  revolution, problems such as young people's sexual needs and delayed marriages due to economic difficulties prompted some officials to renew and promote "temporary marriage" as a solution for the problems of the youth. At that time, this issue prompted opposition from many women. They expressed their views in journals such as Zan-e Rooz [Today's Woman] and Zanan [Women] and the newspaper Salam. Many of these women considered the revival of the custom to be harmful to women and their rights in society.
During the past few years, the ninth government [Ahmadinejad's first administration, 2005-9] and the seventh and eighth parliaments have turned the revival of this custom and its promotion as "temporary marriage" into one of the foundations of their sexual politics. The government and the parliament went so far as to ratify the new family law bill despite women's strong opposition. This bill gives legal justification to conditional polygamy, including multiple [permanent] wives and sigheh. It no longer even requires permission from the first wife.
The opponents of the practice of sigheh, as well as its supporters, have criticized it from a variety of perspectives, both intra-religious and extra-religious. Here, I do not intend to engage in a critique of the defenders of sigheh in the manner of scientific articles and from a specific perspective. More than anything, my goal is to raise questions related to this topic in our society today. Therefore, I will make use of different perspectives without directly citing them.
First, it needs to be said that the use of the expression "temporary marriage" for sigheh is in fact new. More than anything, this expression has been used to sanctify the custom. Based on jurisprudential views that defend this custom, the goal of sigheh or mut'a is only sexual pleasure. The philosophy of marriage, however, goes beyond sexual pleasure. In the beginning of this article, I put temporary marriage in quotation marks, in order to emphasize this point. In the rest of this article as well, I will continue to use the term "sigheh" instead of temporary marriage.
In summing up the views that defend sigheh, several attitudes can be discerned. Some defend sigheh from the vantage point of men's sexual rights, and some defend it from the vantage point of women's sexual rights. The latter view has defenders in Iran as well as other Muslim countries. The recent statement of a Saudi Arabian woman who asks why women cannot have multiple husbands if men can have multiple wives attests to this point. After summing up the viewpoints inside Iran, three distinct attitudes can be discerned:
First, traditional Twelver Shi'i jurisprudents defend this custom and believe that Islam has designated certain rights for men in the Qur'an, one of which is mut'a or sigheh. Basing their position on certain verses and interpretations, they believe that the prophet [Muhammad] considered this custom permissible for men.
The second group consists of some Religious Revisionists who claim that "temporary marriage" can even be interpreted in such a way as to observe women's sexual rights.
The third group consists of some members of the political elite. Many statesmen and members of the current parliament fall into this group.
Each of these attitudes is based on different foundations. Therefore, in order to offer a critique, I will base myself on the very foundations upon which these viewpoints rest. Nevertheless, given that all of these views reach a common conclusion, I will end by critiquing the general attitude that pervades these viewpoints. I shall begin with the first viewpoint.
Traditional Jurisprudence and Sigheh
Based on the assessments of some traditional Twelver Shi'i jurisprudents, sigheh is permissible based on religious teachings. This viewpoint is rare among Muslims. Not only the majority of Muslims [Sunnis] but also the many branches of Shi'ism, with the exception of the Twelvers, are opposed to it. Even among Twelver jurisprudents, there is no agreement on whether this custom is considered marriage or mut'a. Therefore, many of them do not consider it permissible...
First, if sigheh is considered marriage, then the conditions of marriage need to apply to it. In other words, based on the text of the Qur'an, polygamy has been limited to four wives, provided that all are treated equally. Therefore, if sigheh is a type of marriage, it cannot be unlimited. However, if sigheh is not considered a type of marriage, what will become of all the verses and interpretations [of the Qur'an] that speak of piety and self-restraint. It seems that both situations produce contradictions that traditional jurisprudents cannot explain.
Of course other criticisms are also in order here. For instance, concerning why traditional jurisprudence gives men more rights than women. Traditional jurisprudents have no clear and convincing answers about the patriarchal discourse of jurisprudence. Instead they turn to identity statements. Some argue that men have a God-given and innate right to be favored over and to have more rights than women. Others argue that women are bearers of men's sperm and [sexual exclusivity] is necessary to determine paternity.
Both of these answers are problematic. Concerning the jurisprudents' patriarchal defense of men, the following critique has been issued: If Islam is supposed to speak to all human beings in all times and all places, how can it be patriarchal and presume the innate or legal superiority of men over women? And if it is true that men have greater God-given rights than women, how can we explain the verses stating that women and men are made out of the same act of creation and are equal? The argument offered by traditional jurisprudence concerning bearing a man's sperm also seems invalid. Today, technology can determine paternity.
Aside from these issues, it seems that the Achilles' heel of traditional jurisprudence in its defense of polygamy consists of its lack of concern for ethics. If religion is to be reduced to a set of rites in which the believers (men) find a variety of ways to make permissible the satisfaction of their libido, then the question is the following: What place do ethical attitudes have in religious law and jurisprudence?
Religious Revisionism and Women's Sexual Rights
As the second group of defenders of sigheh, Religious Revisionists attempted to respond to some of the misgivings that traditional jurisprudence has not been able to resolve. In the opinion of some Religious Revisionists, sigheh is permissible. They believe that a dynamic jurisprudence and exegesis can turn sigheh into a progressive policy. This group believes that sigheh is one of the most progressive principles of Islam and addresses needs that other religions have ignored. According to some of these thinkers, based on this practice, even women will benefit from sexual rights that tradition has taken away from them. Others go even further and interpret [Islam's] commandments as a type of sexual freedom for women and men.
Some Religious Revisionists believe that tradition and common law have denied sexual rights to unmarried women. Therefore, sigheh is considered one of the solutions that would allow women to also benefit from these rights. On the other hand, according to the views held by some of these thinkers, limitations that derive from sigheh, including the 'idda requirement [waiting period for a woman after divorce or husband's death] can be overcome through the use of technology.
First, according to many Religious Revisionists who defend this practice, Islamic jurisprudence, if based on exegesis that takes into consideration contemporary problems, can offer progressive solutions to society's ills. However, experience and knowledge have still not proved that jurisprudence is essentially capable of solving social problems.
On the other hand, those Religious Revisionists who defend sigheh mostly ignore the legal, social, and cultural aspects of the policy. In our society, women are not equal to men from a legal or social standpoint. The legal system and common law do not consider them equal to men. In such a society, the additional sexual rights for which Religious Revisionists give sigheh credit are more formal than real.
For example, in our society many women agree to become sighehs mostly because of distress due to economic pressures and the inability to provide their own means of subsistence. When a woman becomes a man's sigheh under such circumstances, she is in essence engaging in a fundamentally unequal exchange. It is her distress over providing her means of subsistence that forces her to agree to become a sigheh. On the other hand, given the disagreeable character of sigheh in our culture, many of these women are compelled to keep the relationship a secret from neighbors and family members. It is even worse when an unwanted child results from the relationship.
Therefore we can say that what is being interpreted as women's sexual rights is, more than anything, an unequal and unreliable relationship in which women agree to be subjected to sexual exploitation because they lack economic rights and a sense of security.
So long as women are not considered legally equal to men and do not receive the economic benefits and legal rights that men enjoy, so long as they are not backed by the law and the government, sexual rights are reduced to a useless appendage from which only men benefit. On the other hand, even if we consider that not all the women who agree to become sighehs are economically impoverished, the problem of the decline in social status associated with sigheh remains. A practice that is mostly judged negatively by society cannot simply be repackaged and forcibly sold.
Furthermore, the approach of the Religious Revisionists, similar to the first approach, leaves the questions regarding foundational ethics unanswered.
The Principle of Pleasure in Politics
The third group of defenders of sigheh are statesmen who not only consider the practice as the solution to the "problems of the youth" but also encourage it among their co-thinkers and colleagues in a way that reveals the intervention of the principle of pleasure in politics. They write laws and ratify amendments to promote the practice. In contrast to the first two groups, it seems that the statesmen's defense of the practice is based on a different set of principles and foundations. The conservatives' approach in other areas reveals that their goal is not in any way a defense of women's rights. Furthermore, considering the pressures to which young people have been subjected during recent years, and considering the violation of their rights by the statesmen, one can hardly attribute the statesmen's defense of sigheh and polygamy to addressing the problems of the youth. It seems that their aim is on the one hand the granting of a privilege to their fellow men, and on the other hand the humiliation of women.
Based on the above, the customer-centered approach of the current ruling establishment cannot be simply explained as the granting of economic privileges to their supporters and the possible trickle-down effect among the economically disadvantaged masses. The customer-centered approach includes the granting of privileges in the economy of pleasure. Specifically, we need to consider the fact that a large portion of managers, ministers, statesmen, members of parliament, heads of security forces, etc. have turned sexual wealth into a way of life and expect their representatives in the polity to leave them unrestrained both in the realm of the economy and the realm of the economy of pleasure.
The strong efforts made by political institutions to ratify the family law bill and promote polygamy seem to be tied to similar efforts in the arena of economic privileges and redistribution for the purpose of preserving the interests of the ruling establishment. This assumption mostly arises from the fact that women from a variety of social classes, groups, and beliefs, surveyed in many studies of women performed over the past few years, have strongly opposed the principle of polygamy. They have continued to demand that the government limit the practice and defend women whose rights are violated through polygamy. The persistent efforts of the supporters of sigheh to ignore women's demands cannot be attributed to a lack of awareness...
Most women in our society have long been opposed to sigheh and polygamy. They have only accepted the practice out of distress and necessity. Among families, traditional as well as modern, religious as well as secular, and among women as well as men, sigheh has always been associated with shame and regarded as a stigma. It seems that this will continue to be the case in the future. Opposition to the practice has been reflected clearly in various studies that have been conducted during the past few years by governmental institutions and independent researchers...
In other words, public opinion in our society considers sigheh to be an unethical behavior that falls under the category of the economy of pleasure. Although some practice it, sigheh is not considered sanctifiable. Therefore, defense of the practice of sigheh, under any justification or basis, represents an undemocratic and patriarchal attitude contemptuous of the demands of the majority of Iranian women and the ethical judgment of society...
If we subscribe to the arguments presented in defense of sigheh and ultimately base ourselves on the economy of pleasure, then we can revive any obsolete practice and make it palatable, using aesthetic and even beautiful feminist justifications and modern rationalizations, in order to make women believe that the only path to emancipation is through the Harem. If that is the case, then why not revive slavery in order to free all of humanity from the misery that it suffers on a daily basis for the sake of being free?
Translator's note: Fatemeh Sadeghi has a PhD in political science and has taught at the Islamic Azad University of Karaj near Tehran. Soon after the publication of her controversial article "Why We Say No to the Compulsory Hijab" in May 2008, she was suspended from her teaching post at the university.
The material presented above reflected extended excerpts from a recent article in which she critiques both conservatives and Religious Revisionists who defend the practice of temporary marriage. To find English equivalents for certain terms, I consulted the glossaries in Shahla Haeri's Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shi'i Iran (Syracuse University Press, 1989) and Janet Afary's Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Following Daryoush Ashouri's advice, I have translated the term no-andishan-e dini as Religious Revisionists. My glosses are interpolated in square brackets. -- Frieda Afary
Frieda Afary runs the blog Iranian Progressives in Translation. Photo by SusanSprach (via Flickr).
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