The official research center of the Iranian parliament recently conducted a study on "the best way to resolve the sexual issues of young Iranians," and published its results on June 14, concluding the answer was temporary marriage. The 82-page study, titled "Temporary Marriage and its Impact on Lowering Illegitimate Sexual Contacts" argues that temporary marriage can end most of ‘the sexual ills.’
"We should fight against the widespread propaganda of those who promote free sexual contact and show society the benefits of temporary marriage," the study reads. "Temporary marriage would meet the emotional and physical needs of opposite sexes to one another and would end the sexual irregularities within Iranian society."
Although temporary marriage is widely shunned by the vast majority of Iranians, who have historically viewed it as a cover for illicit sexual activity while on piligrimage or as a front for prostitution, the government has periodically revisited plans to make this long reviled practice freshly acceptable.
Shia Islam allows a man and woman to marry for a fixed period of time, ranging from an hour to a century. A man can also have any number of temporary marriages—or sigheh, as they are known. Iran’s Islamic government first started promoting temporary marriage as an alternative to "living in sin" in 1985.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then president, suggested temporary marriage as a way for men and women to satisfy their sexual needs. He even said there was no need for a cleric to officiate, and that the couple could read out an oath in private in order to marry. But despite Rafsanjani’s support for this religiously-sanctioned route to casual sex, the government never really took up the plan in earnest.
More than 10 years later, Iran's Interior Minister, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, started once again promoting temporary marriage again as a solution to the country's social problems. "Islam cannot be indifferent to the natural lust of a 15-year-old person", Pour-Mohammadi said in June 2007. "Our young people cannot marry due to economic problems, so promoting temporary marriage can be seen as a solution."
Pour-Mohammadi’s suggestion, like Rafsanjani’s a decade earlier, generated much social controversy—many Iranians found the proposal regressive and took offense—and was quickly forgotten.
Hossein Ghazian, a Washington DC-based sociologist and researcher of Iranian politics, gender and culture, believes cyclical promotion of temporary marriage reflects the government’s chaotic and unorganised approach to managing the country’s pressing social challenges.
"Social policy making is not centralized in Iran. Whenever some new statistic gets published that worries officials, they start thinking they should do something. That’s why their solutions are so random and are not usually followed up."
The Iranian parliament’s report warns that "80 percent of female high-school students in Iran have boyfriends and even sexual contact" and "88 percent of Iranian students think it is OK to chat with the opposite sex."
The report also refers to the rise of the average age of marriage in Iran, 27 for men, 22 for women, as a crisis. It concludes with this alarmed point: "Marriage is becoming more and more difficult and if we don’t find an alternative for that, people would satisfy their sexual urges in other ways including masturbation, homosexuality, adultery and rape. The solution to all these sexual irregularities is temporary marriage."
"The wording of this report shows those behind it don’t even have a thorough understanding of sexual issues," says Ghazian. ‘When they view masturbation and homosexuality as sexual irregularities, it is clear they don’t have a clue about sexual issues and they cannot come up with a proper solution either."
The practice of temporary marriage is said to have existed during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad, who is believed to have recommended it to his companions and soldiers. The majority Sunni sect in Islam banned it, but minority Shiites persisted with the tradition. Some Sunni Muslim countries such as Egypt have an informal equivalent, called muta’a.
Historically, the practice has been used most frequently in Iran by pilgrims to Shiite shrine cities like Mashhad and Qom. Pilgrims who travelled had sexual needs and temporary marriage offered a legal way to satisfy them.
Hassan Fereshtian, a religious scholar and jurist based in Paris, believes temporary marriage has been legalised in Islam to make contact between men and women easier.
"Temporary marriage was mainly for those who could not afford getting married. We have the similar institutions in modern legal systems, for example engagement or cohabitation without marriage. The financial commitment of such relationships is not as strict as marriage."
However much of Iranian society still looks down on temporary marriage as a cover for prostitution. Many young people, especially the educated and urbanised middle classes, shun and avoid sigheh, which they view as too religious or even backward.
A few years ago when a temporary marriage website, "Asheghoon" (Lovers), sent mass text messages to advertise its services, many protested and called it indecent.
"Temporary marriage is still a taboo in Iran. This is a cultural taboo not a religious one," says Fereshtian. "It is because many have abused temporary marriage over centuries. Also, many modern people, Muslims or non-Muslims, don’t follow their relations through family or marriage anymore, and consequently temporary marriage has lost its function."
But can this parliamentary report and promotion of temporary marriage by the government change the norms?
"Young people won’t wait for the governments to solve their problems or create norms for them," says Ghazian. "Sexual relationship outside marriage is more accepted among new generations compared to temporary marriage. But the government doesn’t want to accept this and it considers the behaviour of the majority of the society abnormal; while abnormality is the behaviour of the minority."
The government, should it try to promote temporary marriage one last time, might have some success among highly religious Iranians—who are not culturally or socially dominant in the mainstream—but it won’t have much luck creating a new norm among young Iranians who have long ago move beyond such notions.