Profile | Maryam's Temporary Matrimonies: A Story of Sigheh
by ABI MEHREGAN
23 Nov 2012 23:01
[ dispatch ] Along the western edge of Tehran, skyscrapers and slums stand side by side. Here, in the district of Punak, Maryam lives with her younger sister, Zahra, in a tiny house.
Past a windowless foyer, there is a kitchen with a single gas burner and a sink held up by a knot of rusty pipes, plates piled beneath it. It is separated from a doorless lavatory by nothing but a thin curtain. Beyond lies a spartan bedroom. A sheetless bunk bed stands across from a makeshift free-standing closet. A rug-weaving beam sits in a corner, surrounded by mounds of wool in an array of colors. A half-completed rug hangs on the beam. The roof has caved in and a large chunk of it is missing -- the hole to the sky is shaped like Asia.
Maryam is 36 years old. She speaks softly, with a tired demeanor. Her skin is pale over a bony frame. Wearing thick, black-framed glasses, she works away at the rug on the beam during our conversation. Zahra, a 17-year-old high school senior, has gone to her aunt's house in Qom for the weekend.
"All of my troubles began with the death of my mother. Before her death, I was a happy and carefree young girl, and didn't know what hardship was like. I was a student of Persian literature at a public university in Arak [southwest of Tehran]. In college, I met a man named Ahmad. He was studying civil engineering. We quickly became a couple and after three months we were engaged." In fact, they registered as a husband and wife with the local government office so as not to run afoul of the morality police. Maryam was then 19.
She explains that they planned to have a formal, more fully binding marriage ceremony "six months after graduation, but my mother died from a heart attack. I was 21 years old, and my mother had been the rock of our family. My father was a construction worker; he worked one day and relaxed for ten. He was always out and about with his friends. My mother paid all of my university tuition. She took care of the house, and also worked at a sewing shop nearby. I remember my mother's last words. She told me to take care of my sister, Zahra, and make sure that she is never without a mother figure."
As tears fall down her cheeks, Maryam continues in a sad monotone.
"When my mother died, my sister was only two years old. My father remarried 40 days after my mother passed away. Initially, my father's new bride took care of my younger sister, but after three months she sent her to my aunt's house. I also didn't have money to pay for tuition for my last semester of school. My father was completely ignoring the two of us. He was only interested in his new life. He had forgotten that my wedding was approaching. He didn't give me any money for my tuition. He could care less about what could happen to my sister or me.
"I returned home and brought my sister with me. Not having a mother was the source of our problems, and so my father insisted that my sister and I move in with my mother's sister, but I didn't want to make my sister move from house to house all the time. I asked my fiancé, Ahmad, if we could move into our own house more quickly, and told him that I had decided to raise my sister. He never complained, but never gave any suggestions either, and slowly started drifting away, disagreeing with me often. He stopped showing any interest in us moving into our own home. In the Iranian culture, when a woman marries, her family must give her a dowry [jahizieh] in the form of kitchen appliances or furniture to take with her to her new home. But in my situation at the time, I didn't have enough money to even buy a cup."
We're interrupted by the ringing of Maryam's phone. As soon as she puts the receiver to her ear, her dismal mood transforms. On the other end of the line, the voice of a man can be heard. All of a sudden, Maryam bursts into laughter. She walks around the room, speaking loudly on the phone, then disappears into the kitchen with it. Thirty minutes later, after saying goodbye multiple times to the man on the phone, she returns to the bedroom. She resumes her story, once again morose.
Maryam eventually became frustrated by the fact that her father would not pay her tuition or help her buy supplies for her new home. They constantly fought over money. Ahmad no longer wanted to go through with the formal marriage ceremony, and his family was opposed to it as well. The idea of being responsible for Zahra made him uneasy. He began discussing the possibility of a divorce, picking on Maryam due to the fact that she had no dowry. She, in turn, was pushing for Ahmad to rent a house for her and her sister to live in. Ahmad suggested that he would give Maryam her mehrieh -- the bridal surety from the groom that becomes the women's property in the event of the marriage's dissolution. But instead of giving her the equivalent of 350 gold coins, as had been agreed when they registered their marriage two years earlier, he wanted to give only five million tomans, roughly equivalent to the value of five gold coins. Maryam was shocked, but accepted the offer.
And now, Maryam begins to recount her first experience as a "bride" in a sigheh, or muta, relationship -- "temporary marriage," as permitted in the Shia tradition.
"Two days after I divorced, I went looking for a home. They don't rent homes to single women in Iran easily, so I had to convince my dad and loan him two million tomans to help me rent a house. But he never returned the money. I eventually rented an apartment in a suburb of Tehran and took my sister with me. After I moved in, nobody, not even my father, visited me, and as a result I was sad and couldn't work.
"My neighborhood was full of drug addicts, and as a single women I was afraid all the time. The money that I had saved was slowly being spent. I reached the point that I couldn't even buy food. I was able to find a few jobs, such as selling flowers and dolls. Both jobs required long hours, but the pay was bad. Eventually, I saw an ad in a newspaper for a rug-weaving class that guaranteed a paying position after the class. The class cost 200,000 tomans.
"Three months after our divorce, Ahmad decided to reconsider our separation and wanted to get back together, but not as a formal marriage. According to the Islamic teachings, a husband can come back to a marriage within three months of the divorce [a period called oddeh] to be with his wife by declaring that he wants the divorce to be nullified. Some clerics say that the man does not even need legal documents to do so, and can do so by simply stating verbally that he wants to return to her, in which case the divorce is reversed, and the wife has no say. Therefore, when Ahmad wanted to come back to me, I accepted. Our relationship was purely physical, and nothing else. He would also give me an allowance after every time we saw each other. Even though he treated me disrespectfully, I still liked him, and missed him when we weren't together."
Without telling her husband, Maryam opened a bank account and saved some of the money he was giving her. She paid for her rug-weaving class in installments. Soon, she bought a rug-weaving stand. Legally, Maryam at this point was still Ahmad's wife, but they did not have a valid marriage certificate. Again, to avoid trouble with the morality police and have a sexual relationship, Ahmad and Maryam had to be able to demonstrate that their union was religiously sanctioned. She thus became his "temporary wife." In Shiism, the sigheh relationship is not recorded in the same way that a permanent marriage is, but on a special document, a sigheh nameh. This allowed them, for instance, to get a shared hotel room when they traveled.
After the 1979 Revolution, Janet Afary writes in Sexual Politics in Modern Iran,
the state encouraged polygamy (multiple aqdi [permanent] wives) and temporary marriage, as well as the return of repudiation [talagh, a man's prerogative under sharia law to divorce his wife by simple repudiation]. While these measures weakened conjugal bonds of affection, they also served to compensate men who had acquiesced to the rules of the new theocratic state. In the name of morality and the preservation of women's honor, men of all social classes gained easier, cheaper access to sex, both inside and outside of marriage.
The age of aqdi marriage for girls was lowered from 18 to nine (it has since been raised to 15), and the state poured resources into the promotion of child-bearing and large families, even as it restricted or eliminated many career opportunities for women. Decades of creative struggle by the women of Iran have gradually expanded their opportunities again, though many obstacles remain. And while permanent polygamy is rare, many men -- both single and married -- take advantage of sigheh.
Maryam continues, "From early morning, I would sit by the rug-weaving stand to work as much as I could. I would stop working only for food and prayer. I would see Ahmad a few times a week. My sister would go to my dad's house the day before Ahmad would visit. Ahmad would always come with a brand new car to pick me up. In order to avoid our neighbors' whispers, we would always meet outside of the house. He would wear cologne that cost as much as a few months of the rent for my house.
"After I while, I realized I was pregnant. I asked Ahmad to keep the baby, but he made me get an abortion. He didn't want his family to know anything about our relationship. Even though the doctor asked him to stay with me after the operation, he left me and didn't come back for two weeks. After a while, I realized that he had gone to Thailand.
"I suffered from depression for two years."
Maryam tried to convince her husband to leave her. As he was satisfied with their physical relationship, he would not agree. Maryam stopped accepting his "allowances" and other gifts. Slowly, she began to hate him. "The last time I saw him, he accused me of sleeping with his friend. I got so upset that my blood began boiling, and I attacked him and his car. I broke his radio and windshield. I threw as many things as I could out of the car. I screamed and screamed and was filled with rage. All the bad memories I had with him went through my thoughts like a video clip: him leaving me, abusing me, my baby that he didn't let me have. He eventually agreed to leave me. "
Maryam started to sell her rugs, very cheaply. Meanwhile, her father had a baby, remortgaged the family's assets, and went to stay with his wife's family in Qom. Maryam, finding it increasingly difficult to put together the money to care for her sister, became a nanny for a wealthy family. The man of the house soon expressed his affection for her and made various promises. Because she didn't want to enter into an irreligious relationship, she was fired and never paid for the work that she had done.
"When you are a divorced woman, everyone looks at you differently, from the baker to intellectuals. You practically cannot have a conversation with anyone. Women think that you are always trying to steal their husband. Mothers think that you are always trying to take their sons. Every man you speak to judges you differently when they find out you are divorced. Every move of yours is always under the watchful eyes of the neighbors and society. Although I was not interested in marriage, in order to put an end to my situation as a single divorced woman, I started looking to marry."
But who would want to marry a divorced woman who lives with a younger sister?
Maryam found work as a secretary at a private company. After five months, she entered into another sigheh relationship. This one was with the company's 31-year-old owner, Khosro, who claimed he was single.
"I was 26, and he wanted us to be friends. Considering that he was well spoken, well dressed, and good looking, I didn't mind him. For some time, though, I was uncertain. He suggested that we go on a trip together. I agreed to do so only if we were religiously permitted to be together. He was disgruntled. But once he realized that I was not willing to change my mind, he agreed.
"In the beginning of our relationship, things were going well. It felt good to be with someone, and I was happy. My sister was seven years old, and I could spend more time with her now. I bought her new clothes, and took her on trips. I made some changes as well. First, at the request of Khosro, I started working at his friend's company part time. Later on, Khosro started experiencing financial troubles, to the point where we barely saw each other.
"Most of the time that we did spend together he was worried. Every time we wanted to be together we would go to a hotel. Both of us had kept our relationship hidden from our families. One day when we were together, Khosro went to buy a pack of cigarettes. His phone rang, and went to voicemail. The voice of a young woman could be heard. I was curious to figure out who that lady was. The woman said, 'My dear, I just wanted to tell you that the meeting that you had was postponed. So you can take care of your business.'"
It turned out that, in addition to Maryam, Khosro had a wife, two small children, and another sigheh bride. Neither of the women knew about the others. After she figured out the truth of the situation, Maryam said she ended her relationship with Khosro. She becomes very emotional as she talks about this period of her life.
"One time my former husband called me and wanted to get back with me, but I told him I was with someone else. He yelled at me, 'You idiot, they only want you for sex.' I yelled back, 'Just like you.' And then I slammed the phone against the wall."
For a minute or two, Maryam sits silently and stares at the colorful yarn she has assembled for her rugs.
"When I was alone, I felt severe emptiness. I would take my sister to school in the morning and then come back home. I didn't have any appliances. I would sit at the rug-weaving stand until my sister would be released from school, and then I would go to pick her up. The only issue was that I lacked good skills in rug weaving. I couldn't speak the language of the bazaar merchants to make deals with them, so they would buy my rugs very cheaply. I would help my sister with her homework at night. No one would visit us, and we wouldn't visit anyone either. Once a month, my father would take my sister to his home in Qom for the weekend. And once a year, my sister would go to my aunt's house. Row after row, I would make more rugs."
Zahra, her sister, started to weave as well, but the economy was worsening and they were making even less money for their rugs. So Maryam took a part-time job.
"Two years ago, I started working at a manufacturer of dental equipment. I took orders from offices around Iran. I wasn't very happy then. One of the customers had done something wrong in his job, and I was forced to tell his boss. This was the start of my relationship with Amir.
"For two months we spoke on the phone. He was worried about what people would think about his relationship with a girl from Tehran, and frequently tried to end our relationship. After a while, I felt as though I was starting to like him. I just asked him if we could speak on the phone, until one day he came to Tehran and we met each other. We wanted to become intimate. We were both lonely and understood each other. I didn't even let him touch my hand. The next time we met, we went to a registry and started a sigheh relationship."
Amir, 34 years old, lives in Ahvaz in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. He has black hair, light skin, and broad shoulders. Never married, he began going to prostitutes when he was 17. Maryam is his first sigheh relationship, and it was formalized even to that extent only at her insistence. Initially, Amir visited Maryam once a month in Tehran. However, as inflation rose and the cost of travel mounted, they started to see each other only every other month.
Maryam hopes that she can take care of the man whom she says she now loves. She likes the fact that Amir does not live in Tehran with her. He does not have to worry about her work, and he can continue living his life. She wishes that Amir would ask her hand in marriage. However, she worries that their relationship could end at any moment. In Maryam's opinion, even if Amir is interested, his mother will not agree to their marrying, because of her history of divorce.
Maryam doesn't let anyone get close to her and Zahra because she doesn't want her own life to affect how people view her sister. She doesn't allow Zahra to have a boyfriend because she strongly believes men will take advantage of her, both emotionally and physically, and she wants to protect her from that. In Maryam's opinion, the troubles that she has experienced can be attributed to not having a stable and healthy family. In Iran, the status and history of your family are crucial considerations for a marriage. Maryam can plan a better future for her sister only if she can start a family of her own. She wants for her sister something other than the doomed life of a sigheh.
Abi Mehregan is a pen name. The author is on the staff of Iran Labor Report and covers poverty for Tehran Bureau. Photo credit: Amin Nazari via akkasee.com.
Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau