A rise in the incidence of "temporary" marriages among Shi'ite Muslims is causing concern among women's rights activists. According to women's NGOs in the south of the country, more than 300 temporary marriages occur daily in Kerbala, Najaf and Basra, Iraq's three main Shi'ite cities.
"The poverty, especially for women who have lost their husbands in the years of war, is the main reason for them accepting such agreements," said Salua Fatihi, head of two non-governmental women's rights organisations in southern Iraq. "It's an easy way to protect their children and put food on the table."
"They [men] use them as sexual objects under the guise of a religious belief," Fatihi added.
According to Shi'ite religious law, unmarried women may enter into temporary marriages for periods ranging from hours to an entire lifetime. A payment is made to the woman, often around US $1,000 or the equivalent in gold.
The practice, known as Muta'a, was banned during the Saddam Hussein regime, but has re-emerged since 2003.
"I've been in a difficult position since my husband died during the war in 2003 and my children were hungry, so I decided to accept this temporary marriage," said Um Hassan, a widow. "I was his sexual slave for one month and than he just said my time had expired and left."
Karima Abbas' marriage lasted less than a week: "He slept with me every day for a week and then went back to his wife, leaving me pregnant without any help," said Abbas.
"Today, I'm considered a prostitute by society," she added.
Rules governing temporary marriages differ from those of normal unions in that only men are permitted to dissolve them. Men may also marry more than once and can have several Muta'a arrangements simultaneously.
Marriage ceremonies are officiated by a sheikh and must have a witness, but – in contrast to typical marriages – do not require the presence of family.
"If you say it's a bad practice, the sheiks will answer that, on the contrary, it helps these women," said Fatihi. "But we think financial problems should be dealt with by the government and not by sexual practices."
Sheikh Hussein Abdul Kader, a Shi'ite cleric in Najaf, who presides over at least five temporary marriages a day, defended the practice.
"We're like animals, which require sexual activity, but religion prohibits this before marriage," he said. "So you can have a woman for this prospect without affecting her honour because normally she is a widow; she is not a virgin anymore."
"In the mean-time, we're helping these windows to support their families," Kader added.
The new Iraqi constitution, which guarantees freedom of marriage according to religious beliefs, has been criticized by women's activists who want equal treatment for men and women independent of religion, ethnicity or origin.
We shall see how far those of us who have been criticizing the overwhelming Shi'ite and Iranian influence over the legal, social, and political developments in Iraq will actually get with our objections! Something tells me that unless Iran is somehow prevented from exerting the type of control and influence that it is currently enjoying in Iraq, Iraq will have as much of a chance for democracy as a snow ball in hell.