The “Tehran Official Center for Temporary Marriage” is the name of a new site launched to propagate the concept of “sighe,” a temporary marriage arrangement sanctioned in Shiism. Over the recent years, tens of other similar sites have sprung, all with the goal of facilitating temporary marriages, and with legal permits.
Article 1075 of Iran’s civil code, sanctions temporary marriages. The conditions for issuing a temporary marriage licence are the same as those required for a permanent marriage plus a specified term for the marriage and the specification of an amount of money as alimony for the woman. The restrictions for a temporary marriage are also the same that exist for a permanent marriage.
These sites provide information regarding their members to applicants who register and submit an online application form and facilitate the establishment of such relations.
While many of these sites have been registered with the ministry of Islamic guidance and other appropriate agencies making their activities completely legal, they still at times come under criticism by some government officials.
In a most recent example, Mehr news agency on May 30 reported that the ministry of Islamic guidance had submitted a legal complaint against a site called “sighe in cyberspace” and sent the details to the special committee that looks into information technology violations.
But even though legal sanctions exist today for such temporary marriage arrangements, the concept continues to have its opponents. Seyed Mohammad Ali Mousavi Mobarakeh, a member of the Majlis who sits on the parliament’s social committee defends sighe on specific religious principles but adds that because the connection between the concept and religious edicts has been lost, temporary marriages in fact contribute to marriage breakups. Dariush Ghanbari, another MP who is also a member of the same parliamentary committee accepts temporary marriages only under “special conditions” and also believes that internet sites that provide temporary marriage services weaken the institution of family.
But the most vocal and prominent critics of temporary marriages are not officials or members of the Majlis, but women’s rights activists. Asieh Amini, a journalist and a women’s rights activist is one. Rooz spoke with her about the arrangement that she calls “unequal” and adds that its usage exacerbates discrimination against women. Here are excerpts of the interview.
Rooz: We have witnessed a rise in the number of “temporary marriage” sites in recent years and it seems that they have a pretty good number of visitors. How do you view this from a feminist and women’s rights perspective?
Amini: Before looking at it from a feminist perspective, I would like to note the term that you use for this arrangement: temporary marriage. Let’s remind ourselves why marriage was accepted by different civilizations. Why do men and women enter into a marital relationship? The only rational reason that leads people to think about a joint life and accept its difficulties is for the purpose of creating a family. By difficulties I mean the frameworks and regulations of this commitment that are imposed on people. What rationale can exist for temporary marriages in our society? A temporary marriage is nothing other than simply a sexual arrangement. This relationship usually contains a sale and a purchase as well. Its temporary aspect means the denial of the formation of a family. So family creation, which can be the most important reason for marriage - while in a society like Iran’s also carries a sanctity - does not exist in a temporary marriage.
The other question of course is who among men and women turn to temporary marriages. Can a woman with her own family use this type of arrangement to meet her sexual needs? Naturally not. But men with families can and this arrangement provides them with a means to occasionally satisfy their sexual fantasies.
The next question is whether single women who turn to sighe have any alternatives. Is sighe an emotional commitment for her? You mentioned a growth in the number of internet sighe sites but if you go to them you will not see any attention to emotional issues. But it is possible for emotional ties to develop through sexual relations within long term sighe arrangements. But in any case emotional relations are not the principal reasons for turning to sighe.
Because of these, from a feminist perspective sighe is a discriminatory relationship between a married man and woman. Sighe creates a void in personal relations and reduces it to a kind of sexual relations.
In reality, sighe is a means to freely meet the sexual needs of people which is given a religious sanctity. It is in a way the smuggling of human beings, the selling of the body. In a society where the sale and purchase of free sexual relations is negated on religious or even medical groups, sighe, which is the freest kind of sexual relations and in a way constitutes trade between individuals is permissible and even advocated.
Let’s not forget that one of the most important reasons why women resort to sighe is poverty and economic needs. The sexual need is there too of course. But we see need in all of them. But this is not the case for men. There is a distinction between single and married men. For married men, the drive is financial ability and (sexual) fantasies. Single men on the other hand desire sexual relations, like all men. But is sighe, which lacks the emotional dimension, the solution to this need?
So with this picture one can say that sighe is an unequal sexual relationship between a man and a woman. Women, who turn to it mostly because of poverty, are the multi-fold victims in this imbalanced system.
Rooz: But some point to the prevalent sexual relations in the West to justify sighe and define them as part of individual freedoms.
Amini: First of all this is not the case in all Western countries. For example in Sweden and Norway the sale-purchase of sex under any conditions is banned. But why do we go to the West? Just because the sale-purchase of sex is free in some countries does not speak for it being right or wrong. Freedom of sexual relations is a different issue. This is something that exists in the West and can be used as a criteria. This is a personal issue there but even then with certain rules and not based on a sale-purchase arrangement. In those societies sexual relations are normally the result of emotional relations. And those emotional relations too have their own rules. IN a country such as Norway there are specific ethical, legal and economic commitments required for two people to live under the same roof, even outside marriage and definitely without religious frameworks such assighe in Islam.
The sale-purchase of sex in some Western countries is the product of unequal economic conditions that has been imposed on many women. Many women who engage in this illegally do it out of economic need.
Rooz: Some social experts and even Majlis representatives have said that sighe weakens the institution of family. What is the relationship between these two?
Amini: I would like to say at the outset that I do not view marriage to be a divine institution. It is a social institution which must help human social relations. The family is the first target of sighe. Incidentally the family is viewed as a divine institution in Iran.
Family laws in the Islamic republic of Iran lay the legal foundation of unequal relations between men and women (I am not talking about the exception to this that individuals themselves create. I am talking about the law itself). A woman who goes to a marriage registrar unconditionally in fact accepts the first legal discriminations. By doing so, she relinquishes her right to divorce, the right to take custody of her children, the right to work and many other rights and in return accepts a framework called the family. Isn’t a woman who relinquishes these rights in the beginning of matrimony and then later in the course of her marriage imposed a sighe being denied even more of her rights?
So I repeat that sighe is one factor that weakens the family. I have heard and read that some women with strong Islamic beliefs accept the sighe because of its religious and legal sanctity and even advocate it. But because my views are not based on the Sharia, I am not talking about them but still believe that even they are hurt through such arrangements and relations.
Members of a family are not like passengers on a bus without emotional relations between them. When I talk of a family I mean people who live together respectfully and have emotional relations. What woman would accept her partner to buy the body of another woman? Forget about men and women. What person would accept such an arrangement?
Rooz: What efforts have Iranian women activists made in recent years to curtail such arrangements?
Amini: First of all women activists are not supposed to do miracles. The gender imbalance in our country exists because of the male chauvinistic order which will not go away simply by feminist research or even social and civil struggles. One can certainly make people aware of these issues for future plans. You will notice that our demographics and gender ratios have been disrupted after the eight-year war and also the forced immigration, and other reasons. These social ills cannot necessarily be solved by feminist activism. The causes lie in a multitude of issues.
But regarding the sighe, the best example of confronting it has been the criticism of the family bill. This incidentally resulted in the formation of the largest coalition of women. The women’s movement worked to pass on the awareness over the legal discrimination of the law to the public. I believe that most of the information that we gained on this came from feminist women activists. But the other aspects of the issue of sighe are economic imbalances, gender segregations and the disruption in the gender balance in the nation. Our country has for years now been experiencing the clash between tradition and modernism in the course of its economic development and therefore has been battling with social contradictions. These issues may be defined by feminist theories but the women’s movement can certainly not solve them alone.
That Majlis representatives view the sighe as a solution to some social problems raises hundreds of un-talked about issues. The issue is how many times must women become victims of this male chauvinistic process? Sighe is the continuation of this process.
Rooz: If awareness results in a change in the laws, will we sill witness the spread of such arrangements?
Amini: I personally do not believe that providing awareness is the only goal of feminists. Today, we talk about issues. Under existing conditions there is no special women’s party and feminist groups are not keen to engage in political activities and prefer to remain within the social realm. But this does not mean we should shut the door of dialog and criticism with politicians. If it is shut then we cannot implement anything. The law and planning are only part of the process. Just take a look at the president’s outlook for reducing the gender gap some eight or ten years ago and see how much progress has been made till today. We have regressed by the day.
So laws alone cannot help us in resolving this issue. Social traditions, institutions such as the Majlis, government, civil society, media, family, and others are all parts of this puzzle. I believe that the only society that can reduce the gender gap is one that can create harmony and cooperation between the pieces of this puzzle. And this is precisely what we do not have.