*quoted by Ruhollah Khomeini, founder and president of the Islamic Republic of Iran from 1980-1988
Covid cases are reaching an all-time high in the Islamic Republic of Iran during the “5th wave” hitting the country as of August 2021. One of many factors playing into the ever-lasting persistence of the virus is Iran’s infamous custom of temporary marriages, also ‘Sigheh’ in Farsi, facilitating and legalizing religiously sanctioned sex tourism at major Iranian pilgrimage sites. Due to, inter alia, governmental mismanagement of coping with the crisis, temporary marriages are becoming a focal point of sexual abuse and exploitation of women in the country. It is becoming more important than ever to place the lethal consequences of the custom particularly for Sigheh women on top of our political agendas. Article 1075 of the Iranian Civil Law defines two strands of recognized forms of marriage: Nikah marriage on one hand, which is the formal marriage between husband and wife with the intention of establishing a family and procreating. The second recognized form of marriage is Sigheh (in Arabic Nikah Mut’a), which, simplified, is a temporary legal contract between man and woman for a predetermined period of time with the main purpose of sexual gratification and in some, yet not all cases, financial compensation. Boys at the age of 15 and girls at the age of 13 are legally allowed to enter a Sigheh. However, if the girl has not yet lost her virginity, she must attain the legal approval of her father (or the next male guardian in line) to enter the contract. At the end of the specified time period, no formal divorce is required and temporary spouses can part ways without further legal consequences or obligations for one another. Sighehs can have a timespan of a few minutes up to several decades, depending on whether the man decides to renew the agreement after the contract has legally come to an end. The woman has no divorce rights during the period of time the contract is in place. Originally mainly widowed, divorced or unmarried women were encouraged to enter Sighehs with the purpose of controlling their allegedly unbridled sexuality. Due to a constantly increasing marriage age in recent times, however, Sighehs are becoming more and more popular amongst Iranian youth. This is because sex outside the two recognized forms of marriage is culpable with a minimum of 50 years in prison, while Sighehs create leeway for sexual freedom. While entering a Sigheh is often justified on moral-religious grounds, others define it as a loophole for “halal” prostitution within Islam. A deeply paradoxical idea, to say the least. The irony is that many who celebrate Sigheh for the prevention of prostitution and creating a “clean and safe community”, frown upon women who entered temporary marriages due to the cultural tradition favouring women being virgins until marriage, hence becoming unfavourable to potential suitors if they were to enter a Nikah union after having been part of Sigheh. Consequently, despite the legality and legitimization of both marriages in Shi’i Islam, Sigheh marriages carry a social stigma that permanently marks particularly the women, thereby marginalizing them further and reinforcing the classic patriarchy in place.
Certificates of temporary marriage (Sigheh or Nikah mut’ah) filed in a registry office run by a clergyman in Tehran, October 2000. (Getty)
The concept of Sigheh has existed in the Middle East since pre-Islamic times. Nowadays, however, the custom has become a main point of contention between Sunni Islam and Shi’ite Islam. The two branches diverge over the tradition on the basis of different interpretations of the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. While the majority Sunni sect banned Sigheh, the minority Shi’ite sect did not. Many scholars claim that Shi’ite Islam favours the custom on the basis of being a persecuted minority, pilgriming from one place to another, hence creating a necessity for a form of marriage that is suitable for fulfilling the sexual needs of pilgrims while remaining halal. Historically this claim holds firm, as the practice is most prevalent in Shi’ite shrine cities like Mashhad, located in northeastern Iran, and Qom, located in the south of Tehran, travelled through mostly by Shi’ite pilgrims. This is confirmed by Masoud Faridi, former Director-General of the Injured Department of the Welfare Organization of Iran in June 2012, who stated that “the cities of Mashhad and Tehran are hosting the largest number of sex workers in the country.” One could argue that it is conflicting, almost ironical, to think that religiously sanctioned prostitution is thriving in the holiest of places in the country. Yet, some Imams have clothed Sighehs in holiness to the extent of ruling that a person who has not participated in this form of marriage has not completely fulfilled the precepts of Islamic marriage. There was unanimous agreement amongst Sunni authors of the Hadith (the records of words, actions, and silent agreements of Prophet Muhammed) that the prophet forbade these marriages. However, on the basis of the interpretations of various Hadiths, Shi’ite sages like Iranian interior minister Mostaffa Pourmohammadi claim that Sighehs are “God’s rule” and weren’t only allowed but actively advocated for by the religion, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the practice should remain permitted within the rulings of Sharia, the Islamic law.
At a conference in Qom, the conservative cleric made the claim that:
“Islam is a comprehensive and complete religion and has a solution for every behaviour and need, and temporary marriage is one of its solutions for the needs of the youth. Is it possible that Islam is indifferent to a 15-year-old youth into whom God has put lust? We have to find a solution to meet the sexual desire of the youth who have no possibility of marriage.” (Mostaffa Pourmohammadi, 2012)
Considering the problems caused by the steady increase in marriage age in Iran, Sighehs could present a solution to providing the youth with a sexual outlet without the risk of facing decades of imprisonment. Hence, next to its moral-religious purpose, Sighehs could also be understood as a governmental tool of controlling the frustration of the younger generation and preventing potential revolts, especially in the challenging times Iran is currently facing in terms of the response to the Covid-19 crisis, poverty, and the fragility of global relations. Sighehs have thus been abstracted from their “original” purpose of satisfying widowed and unmarried women as well as pilgrims to a broader purpose of satisfying and controlling the youth by granting them a religiously-sanctioned legal form of sexual interaction under the pretext of modesty, especially when taking the context of the ever-increasing liberalized and sexualized West into account. There has never been a single presumably Western or Islamic modernity separate from other discourses, rendering it inevitable to assess the current happenings within Iran through a lens acknowledging the hybridization with global history. Sighehs can hence also be understood as a global ideological countermovement to the West, especially in times when Iran is framed as an antagonist to the West and vice versa. This development is echoed by the words of the former president and one of the founders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hashemi Rafsanjani who in 1990 claimed Sighehs to be the “god-given solution to promiscuity and are in every way preferable to being promiscuous like the Westerners.” There is a clear inclination of post-revolutionary Iran to morally alleviate themselves from Western promiscuity by moving towards chastity, which is created in the confines of marriage. To make this stance against homogeneity with the promiscuous West, the Shiite clerics headed by former Supreme Leader of Iran, Khomeini, executed a number of female sex workers, closed brothels and replaced them with Sighehs after the Islamic revolution in 1979. But what the clerics really did was to provide a legal and official cover to prostitution while increasing government control within the private sphere. As a consequence, this furthered gender inequality, silencing women when facing problems of sexual violence and exploitations, as these acts are committed in the frame of the institution of marriage, hence not being subject to legal persecution. The problems for women associated with Sigheh are rampant, but there is almost no research or data about this legalized form of sexual exploitation and about the lives of its victims in Iran. This is becoming especially relevant in times of the intense crisis Iran is currently grappling with in response to Covid-19, pushing marginalized and stigmatized groups such as Sigheh women even further into extreme vulnerability in the public and private sphere. Sigheh women’s situation has been constricted between religious identity, social stigma, cultural pressure, and individual requirements for decades, but right now the situation is turning into a matter of life and death – A situation that direly deserves global attention.