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'Temporary Marriage' and the Economy of Pleasure

by FATEMEH SADEGHI in Tehran | translated by FRIEDA AFARY

15 Mar 2010 20:4523 Comments
mterowoman.jpgFeminist Political Scientist Condemns "Temporary Marriage" as Exploitation

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 [1979] 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...

Final Observations

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).

Copyright © 2010

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Sigeh was originally used for homosexual 'boy-toys' of Qajar era courtiers and pedophile mullahs.

Its was documented in a recent book on history of homosexuality in Iran; highlighted at Iranian.com

This sigeh was their version of the Black community's "on the Down low"...where 10-20% of black men in USA are actually gay, but describe themselves as straight for fear of the mainstream thug black culture. Google or see Oprahs stories on it.

Its another collective denial ruse

Anonymous / March 16, 2010 12:35 AM

Heres a simple solution for those opposed to it, just don't do it!

I'm sick of hearing opponents of Mut'ah complaining that it is exploitation and so forth. Women are not compelled to do it. You are free to choose whether you want to engage in it. Just because it may be misused by some doesnt mean that it should be banned.

The increasing rates of divorce in Iran (as well as in the western world) has also been recently highlighted as an issue.
It is permissable but does this give the green light to anyone and everyone to divorce their wives? The church decided to take the position to ban divorce however we all know this is not the answer.

The ultimate solution to the issues surrounding Mut'ah and divorce for that matter is education.

Carlos / March 16, 2010 4:49 AM

Abuse of a rule does not make a rule bad. And it is better for a state to regulate a practice that happens and will continue to happen regardless, then to leave it unregulated with the potential for abuse as highlighted. Temporary marriage can be a useful institution with appropriate safeguards to prevent exploitation in a society where traditional marriages are becoming ever more difficult and where almost 50% of marriages are heading for a divorce. Most Muslims would want a religious sanction for their sexual relationships and would feel uncomfortable and guilty of any relationship outside marriage. So it seems mutah or sigeh is an appropriate remedy which is available to both men and women who do not want to commit themselves to a 'permanent' marriage. Of course there must be a public debate on how best to regulate it.

rezvan / March 16, 2010 5:50 AM

The only opinions I have heard regarding sigeh from my religious feminist friends are good ones.

The author talk about jurisprudence a lot without actually referencing any of the laws of sigeh. First of all, it should be noted that, according to the jurisprudence pertaining to sigeh, ONLY a woman can suggest it. Also, if you read the rulings of Imam Sadiq (a.s), most of the laws relating to sigeh are in place to safeguard women engaged in this practice (like putting the burden of supporting a child that may be born from a sigeh on the man instead of the woman) Also, the author talks about the waiting periods as if they were put into place, but once again, if you read the writings of Imam Sadiq (a.s) these waiting periods are in place so that if a woman gets pregnant, she will know who the father is to make sure the financial burden of supporting the child is on him, not her.

If the author wanted to attack sigeh from a religious standpoint, she should have shown some familiarity with the religious laws pertaining to the practice.

Ali Abbas / March 16, 2010 7:30 AM

I find it amusing that all the positive comments cited here are written by men. This only supports the author's thesis that Sigeh by definition is a patriarchal institution. Kudos to Fatemeh Sadeghi for exposing the level of Zan Setizi even among supposedly educated Iranian men.

I have a question from Frieda, is it true that the author is the daughter of Sadegh Khalkhali? If so Iranian women have come a long way, so proud of her and shame on sigheh apologists!!

fariba / March 16, 2010 10:11 PM

I noticed the same thing -- that they're all men writing to support this practice. They want to **** around, yet feel pious about it.

aroos / March 16, 2010 11:37 PM

fariba, like the author, you've said a lot without saying anything.

Just because I am a man, may mean I don't deserve as much of a say in feminist matters, that's true--I'll concede to that. But rhetoric and jurisprudence are things that I do understand and those are the things I was basing my comment on. I was pointing out concrete inadequacies in what the author was saying. Also, saying that since only men have commented, it means that it is by definition a patriarchal institution is a total non sequitur.

If one wants to make valid points, they need to back them up with something... anything... You can't just say I am a man and claim that I am uneducated on these matters to disregard what I have said. you need to offer something concrete in response to be taken seriously.

Ali Abbas / March 17, 2010 12:02 AM

aroos- nothing wrong with that provided it is consensual and between responsible adults. In western 'democracies' which some in these columns aspire to, it is considered the norm to have pre-marital sexual relationship(s) prior to committing to one partner in a more permanent and committed marriage.

rezvan / March 17, 2010 5:54 AM

@Rezvan, in Western societies, women and men are far more equal than they are in Iran. For that reason alone, your comparison is not valid. Factor in economic duress, and ask yourself again how 'consensual' the sex really is.

Even though you would probably not admit it here, perhaps you will in your heart. At least call it what it is -- prostitution -- all the more hideous for the cloak of religion to legitimize it, in the eyes of so-called Shi'ia men, that is.

Otherwise, if it's okay, then you wouldn't mind if your daughter consents and engages in this consensual act of religious pleasure, right?

aroos / March 17, 2010 7:13 AM

Fariba had asked whether Dr. Fatemeh Sadeghi is Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali's daughter. Yes she is.

Anonymous / March 17, 2010 9:57 AM

Sigheh has proven to be a successful tourist attraction for the Muslim World. I personally know of 3 men (Egyptian) who have travelled to Iran to relieve their sexual desires.

Simply put, sigheh is religiously sanctioned prostitution. It is just one of many examples of religion legitimising barbaric acts, in order to maintain a core support base of "pious" men who are often not pious at all and need legitimacy to fulfil their desires in a sexually repressed society.

Pak / March 17, 2010 5:51 PM


If you follow your own reasoning sigeh isn't the issue then. It's other social factors. And for you to call sigeh legitimized prostitution is to spit in the face of the women who do use to date in a more intimate way.

Am I the only one here that thinks it's possible for two adults to have consensual sex without it being rape.

The emphasis you put on a woman's chastity puts you right up there with the most conservative of ayatollahs and 19th century Victorians.

Ali Abbas / March 17, 2010 9:29 PM

It is not only MotAh (Sigeh) permitted in Islam, beating of your wife is also permitted, as witten in Koran, Sureh Al-NesaH:34.

Koorosh / March 19, 2010 6:39 PM

So if I have a husband in Iran, he can contract an endless series of "sigheh" without my approval or consent, possibly bring home disease or create a financial drain on my family by conceiving a series of love children?

And the men here see no problem with that. Lovely. How would the men here feel if their wives did the same?

Does IRI seriously encourages old-style polygamy? I don't see Iranian women buying into that, no way. They're just too strong to tolerate it.

A thought, patriarchy has never seems unjust to the men born into it. Its a serious blind spots for the gents.

gunjeshk / March 19, 2010 8:21 PM

If we are to use extremes and abusive behaviour to denounce sigheh and call it' legitimised prostitution' (although this could be said of 'permanent' marriage or marriage of any sorts where the consenting parties are bound together by a contract and the most important of these is the right to have sex with one's spouse) than due to domestic violence, emotional abuse and marital rape, this should be outlawed too. But most people in Iran or indeed elsewhere would not want to abolish traditional 'permanent' marriage and almost all young aspire one day to find a partner with whom they would like to share life's journey and have a family of their own. But unfortunately (or fortunately depending on what angle one wants to look at the issue) the impact of modernity & western style individualism is having a devastating impact on relationships within a traditional family system. More 'permanent' marriages are breaking up and there seem to be some serious incompatibility issues between partners. Combine this with the teenagers desire the world over to sexually experiment and therefore opening themselves up to potential sexploitation, a properly regulated combined with promotion of good practice could actually make sigheh a benign solution to some of these social ills in Muslim societies. Even legalised brothels using sigeh are not a bad idea as they would remove the potential for abuse, enable the provision of good healthcare, bring the sex industry that operates in the shadow of every society out in the open, provide income for sex workers and could make Iran the sex tourist hot spot of the Middle East and boost national revenue at the same time!!

rezvan / March 20, 2010 1:18 PM


"In western 'democracies' which some in these columns aspire to,"

'democracies' in quotes cuz they're not real democracies like the utopia known as the islamic republic? LOL.

You should pay a visit to the embassies of these 'democracies' in the middle east and see how many muslims/iranians begging for visa are lined up outside.

GeneralOreo / March 20, 2010 8:24 PM


" Most Muslims would want a religious sanction for their sexual relationships and would feel uncomfortable and guilty of any relationship outside marriage."

So you slap a relationship outside marriage with the label marriage, problem solved!? No need to feel guilty, hypocrisy comes to the rescue. Fooling allah is so easy!

Do you realize that you just destroyed your entire institution of marriage and what islam stands for with that sentence? Of course that's only what islam pretends to stand for. Those values are easily exposed with practices like this.

GeneralOreo / March 20, 2010 8:28 PM

Male chauvinism under the guise of religion is intolerable.

I propose a fatwa that we apply the principles of Solomonic justice to married men who wish to engage in religiously-sanctioned erotic adventure.

The spouse of the polygamist should be released from her own vow of sexual fidelity, and title to all of the husband's assets accrued prior to the act of polygamy pass forthwith to the cuckolded wife. Furthermore, she shall have the right to summary divorce, custody of the children and lifetime alimony.

For pious unmarried men who cannot resist the urge to spread their seed widely among female believers, why not develop a new sacred institution called Holy Gigolo?

Ali from Tehran / March 21, 2010 4:37 AM

One of the main arguments of the author for abandoning sigheh is that women often conclude a
sighe-contract due to economic necessity. I would like to ask the author, whether abondoning sigheh would solve economic problems of women. If sigheh would not be possible, such unmarried women, who cannot "provide their own means of subsistence", would do the same thing or maybe even walk the streets searching for customers. However in the latter situation, religious people would commit
- out of necessity - a great sin. Another benefit of sigheh over illegal sexual relation is that the childeren from a sigheh-relationship are legally accepted according to Shia law. As the Iranians say, the childeren would not be 'Haram-zadeh'. I acknowledge that sigheh is a taboo in the Iranian society, however, I am convident that 'Zena' (sexual intercourse outside mariage or sigheh) is a greater taboo.

Amin / March 21, 2010 5:36 PM

In this debate the focus is too much on married men who misuse sigheh. Abandoning sigheh just because some married men misuse it, is not the right solution. To my opinion the rules of sigheh should be reinterpretated, as to allow it only for unmarried men. If that is possible I don't see any problem with sigheh. However it has many advantages for the society.

For the religious rules on sigheh, I suggest you to read the book 'temporary marriage in islamic law' written by Sachiko Murata.

amin / March 22, 2010 6:42 PM

reality is, a woman who partipates in sigheh will ruin her reputation forever. it will be almost impossible for her to find a permanent relationship. the motivator for a woman in sigheh is money, the possible worst reason to marry, even temporarily. Iranian men still abide by the dualistic credo of desiring a virgin for family building and having a "slut" in the bedroom. the problem can only be solved by going much deeper into the politics of keeping women subject to discrimination. sigheh to me, is legalized prostitution, a tragic debasement of women in which religion is used to legitimize exploitation.

Anonymous / March 22, 2010 11:43 PM

the assumption that the only reason for women to conclude a sigheh-contract, is money, is absolutely baseless. Don't women have also sexual necessities?
even if it was true, that most women practiced sigheh due to economic harshness, we should fight poverty and create social equality, instead of banning sigheh.
I also have one comment with regard to the remark about sigheh ruining girls reputation. It is imporatant to note that virgins are not allowed to practice sigheh, because it would harm the family's honour (except if the father gives his permission, which is unlikely in an islamic society). So sigheh can't be the reason of ruining the reputation of girls.
And for the very reason that men often hesitate to marry a widow or a divorced woman, sigheh is a good solution for them. In this way they still can meet their sexual needs without commiting 'Zena'. Let me make clear that I regret this contempt of widows and divorced women in Islamic societies. But the solution is to try to change that way of thinking and not denying all their rights to pleasure by abandoning sigheh.

Amin / March 23, 2010 1:58 AM

According to all religions in Iran, sex is always conjugal (marriage based). The purpose of marriage is to allow for family stability, not just sexual pleasure. Sex is not another considered a physical need like sleeping or eating; it has a spiritual side that finds its best expression in marriage.

Pleasure is not a right guarantee in any religious Book, marital rights are guaranteed by granted in Quran. Foregoing earthly pleasure is a goal of all the religious traditions in Iran, be it Zarashti, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim.

I will go further and suggest that encouragement of sigheh is intentionally purposed to passify men within the partiarchal society engendered by the IRI, a theocratic construct that openly denies equal rights to women and which devalues them further with sigheh. The avoidance of "Zena" through sigheh is another religious canard; another construct intended to gloss over the problem of rampant prostitution in Iran.

Instead of addressing the problem of women's advancement, we have the most decadent solution imaginable offered by IRI: allow men to procure sex with women in the name of Allah without the existing lawful wife having a say in the matter.

BTW - A solid women's movement exists in Iran. The leaders of the movement constantly face prison. The movement in Iran opposed the Family Law bill strenously. I hope men who argue for sigheh will reread the last a paragraphs of this excellent article and realize that this is not an appropriate solution for modern women, even in Iran.

Anonymous / March 25, 2010 8:13 PM