Until at the end of a predetermined contractual timeframe do us part

The official conservative and Islamic character of Iran only thinly veils (ha!) what really goes on in private. We met a Canadian-Iranian when we were arriving at Tehran airport. He was insistent that you’d find the best and wildest parties in the world in Iran, they’re just hard to find because they happen behind closed doors.

Then there’s this, a government report which reported that in a country where adultery is punished by stoning, more than 80% of young people reported being sexually active outside of marriage. 17% identified as gay. The surprising bit isn’t the findings of the report but that a government agency was prepared to talk about it openly and even that they proposed a solution, though not for young gay Iranian’s sadly.

The concern wasn’t the fact of the sex (nor the potential for unwanted pregnancies nor STDs) it was just that it was happening without religious sanction. Their solution was sigheh, an ancient religious custom wherein a cleric sanctions a temporary marriage for a predefined period of time and within it sex is acceptable. Sometimes a dowry is involved too. You can extend the period of the segheh but the default assumption is that it will lapse. And you can have multiple segheh over your lifetime, though women are expected to wait for two menstrual cycles in between to make paternity certain.

This mocktail menu seems a bit hopeful when you read than 80% of young Iranians have sex outside marriage.
This mocktail menu seems a bit hopeful when you read than 80% of young Iranians have sex outside marriage.

Segheh dates back to the time of Muhammed who is understood to have sanctioned it for his followers. It has historically been used by men on pilgrimages, including by clerics themselves. And it was seen as a legitimate way for a widow to find a new husband who could financially support her. Segheh was adopted by Shiite Muslims, but is forbidden by Sunni.

Over time use of segheh has evolved, and attitudes towards it in modern Iran are confusing. The government accepts and even encourages it. In the 1990s President Rafsanjani encouraged it as an alternative to “Western promiscuity” and now it seems the government thinks it is an anti-dote to teen sex.

Some liberal Iranians see segheh as a way to have relationships that might be commonplace in the West, but need legal cover in Iran. It’s a convenient way to live in a de facto partnership without fearing the wrath of the morality police, or that your landlord will dob you in to them if you don’t pay rent on time. Now there’s even a dating website to shack up in a segheh for a while. You can filter results by how much a man’s car is worth or the ‘veil status’ of a woman (whether she wears a chador and how much hair she shows). Apparently the site has a hundred thousand members, but only one in ten are female.

Elsewhere, in more conservative circles segheh is condemned. Not all clerics will give their blessing to these temporary marriages. Plus women who enter into segheh are often stigmatised as promiscuous, or even prostitutes, and it may be harder for them to find a permanent partner in a more conventional marriage afterwards.

Several of these attitudes and practices speak to the key themes we’re beginning to observe in our time in Iran:

  • there is a conservative Islamic orthodoxy, but people we meet seem liberal and would probably be more comfortable living in the West than many Pakistanis we met, or indeed Chinese
  • the codification of Islamic law gives ways to wiggle around it that might not be available if it were just a cultural norm to which you were expected to conform (see headscarf wear in Tehran, and now ways to have sex without being married)
  • Iran is confusing and complex, and there are a lot of things about it which are surprising – who knew their approach to marriage is arguably more flexible than ours at home?

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