The phenomenon of temporary marriage in the Islamic Republic of Iran is explored in the documentary In the Bazaar of Sexes. The film's female director, Sudabeh Morterzai, gives viewers a rare insight into a very complex society. Marian Brehmer watched the film
It is said that Muhammad once advised his followers to enter into temporary marriages while travelling. According to tradition, the Prophet approved of such short-term alliances under certain circumstances, such as during wartime or while on pilgrimage. In Arabic, this practice of temporary marriage is called mut'a (pleasure); in Farsi it is known as sighe.
A quick panning shot to Tehran. A middle-aged mullah in a black turban and cloak sits behind a desk. He seems to be extremely well versed in the matters he's being questioned on. The man leans back and launches into his explanation: "A virgin may only enter into a non-sexual type of temporary union, and there mustn't be any penetration, either front or back." Slightly embarrassed, he scratches his ear and laughs, revealing some missing teeth. "All of this is provided for by the holy law of Islam."
Authentic encounters such as this one in a cleric's office are the hallmark of the film In the Bazaar of Sexes. For this documentary, which probes the phenomenon of the sighe in contemporary Iran, the Austrian-Iranian filmmaker Sudabeh Mortezai met with members of the clergy and the middle class as well as young people and interviewed them on a topic with which all of them are very familiar.
From the Shia point of view, temporary marriage was already practised before the advent of Islam, and then also during the Prophet's lifetime. The Sunni orthodoxy, however, quickly abolished the mut'a. It was the third caliph, Umar, who regarded temporary marriage as condoning fornication and declared it banned. In the eyes of the Shia, this was an intentional intervention in a tradition endorsed by Muhammad. For their part, the Sunnis accuse the Shia of encouraging prostitution under the pretence of sighe.
A little legal loophole
Temporary marriage is hence practised today only in Shia communities, mainly in Iran and occasionally also in Iraq. Originally, sighe in Iran was geared toward widows. Although frowned upon by society, it today constitutes a loophole in the often rigid law, which young people often take advantage of. Theoretically, a young couple with a sighe can pursue their love life even without conventional marriage vows.
For every temporary marriage, the man has to pay a pre-determined sum to his short-term wife. The duration of a sighe is set out in the marriage contract. From just a few hours to several years; anything is possible. There is only one restriction: after each sighe, a woman must wait two menstrual periods before marrying again.
An aged mullah in the film finds this rule sensible: "If a woman is constantly getting married, then what is the difference from prostitution?"
Whenever clergymen speak in the film, they seem to be speaking from their own private universe. Their statements stand alone, without commentary. The viewer also rarely gets to hear the questions asked by the director, which lends the film greater immediacy.
With great subtlety, Sudabeh Mortezai manages to capture a number of different situations that reveal the alienation of society from the clergy. There is, for example, the young mullah on a taxi ride from Tehran to Qom, the city known as a training ground for clerics in the Islamic Republic. When the driver puts on a pop music CD ("move your hips"), his passenger requests silence. "That is problematic," the mullah says hesitantly, unable to suppress a grin as he points out the moral issue at stake.
The problems facing middle-aged men like the taxi driver from Isfahan are the focus of another scene. He must be over forty, but is unmarried and childless. As an older single, he has difficulty renting an apartment. This is why his ex-sighe wife advises him to enter into another temporary marriage.
Dismal state of mind
Later, we meet the bachelor again, this time with another man. They are standing in an empty apartment and talking about women. The friend is already divorced. Next time, he says, he wants an uneducated woman, "a housewife type". Says the taxi driver: "I know someone. My aunt. She is 70 and unattached. Totally uneducated!" Cigarettes are lit and a love song wails out from a mobile phone. The two men gaze at the barren apartment, which looks just as dismal as the current state of mind of many Iranians.
It is important to note that In the Bazaar of Sexes was shot over three years ago, at a time of crippling sanctions and tremendous inflation that further increased the already enormous pressure on Iran's population. The film makes palpable how Iranians are torn between the conflicting demands of the law, private life and social conventions.
At the same time, however, it sheds a more nuanced light on the Iranian clergy, introducing us to a wide range of different characters: from the young cleric who is often unsure of himself, to the smug mullah in the robe, to the bearded ayatollah in Qom. In the course of practising their tradition-steeped profession, they are all confronted with a reality that increasingly challenges their leadership.
The final scene demonstrates this all too clearly: a clutch of giggling women in a restaurant – made up like Barbie dolls, smoking a hookah, their headscarves pushed as far back as possible – loudly pokes fun at a young mullah at the next table. The poor cleric is obviously at a loss. With difficulty, he focuses his eyes on his plate, mustering a tormented smile.
Is this a victory of modernity over the medieval clergy? Even if Western commentators would sometimes like to think so: Iran is just not that simple.
Sighe could be regarded as the peg on which the director has hung her image of Iran. It is a cheerless but honest picture. We must remain aware, though, that even this picture is ultimately nothing more than a single part of what can be called the "reality" of such a complex country.
© Qantara.de 2013
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de