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Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shi’i Iran


Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shi’i Iran by Shahla Haeri (first published in October 1988) is a scholarly account related to the practice of temporary marriage within the community of Shi’ite Muslims. The author aimed to explain how “contractual” or temporary marriage provided the Muslim community with an efficient and practical solution for fulfilling their basic human needs. What is very valuable is that Haeri offered a critical view on the topic and showed how the practice of temporary marriage diminished the role of women. Despite the fact that children conceived in a temporary marriage were considered legitimate, women remained victims to misogynistic ideologies prevalent in the majority of Muslim cultures. Moreover, the practice of temporary marriage did not offer any level of freedom to women, and the widowed or divorced women remarried only to become subjected to the domination of their husbands. While the book received some critique that will be mentioned later, overall, it provided an insight into the practice of temporary marriage among Shi’ite Muslims and did so with a balanced view and a diversity of opinions.

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Thesis and Purpose

To give a better evaluation of the book, its main ideas, and arguments, it is important to give a brief definition of temporary marriage practiced by Shi’ite Muslims. Temporary marriage (mut’a) is a contract, in which the unmarried woman and a man decide how long they want to stay with each other, as well as how much money a temporary wife will receive (Haeri 1). In forming of such contract, no witnesses are needed since the marriage is not registered; furthermore, the duration of such marriages, however long or short they may be, should be strictly specified. With some requirements as to the role of women and the birth of children, the concept of temporary marriage can be considered a unique practice that had both positive and negative effects on the society.

The author hypothesized that despite being convenient and supported by the laws of the Iranian society, the practice of temporary marriage was abusive to women and could be equaled to the legalization of prostitution. Moreover, Haeri stated that within the institution of temporary marriage the connections between religion, morality, sexuality, and cultural practices came together into one. For example, women that formed a temporary marriage did not have to be virgins; they could be widowed or divorced. However, the popular demand for a first long-term marriage for a woman was that she had to be ‘pure.’

Support of the Key Arguments

The author supported her arguments by dissecting the notion of mut’a into separate components that included traditional morality, religious laws, sexuality, and cultural practices. In her writing, Haeri strongly contested that these components contradicted each other in the practice of temporary marriage. Received an education in anthropology, Haeri underlined the complexity of the created practice and pointed out at the paradox that resulted from pressure between the moral and the religious. While stating that temporary marriage had some tremendous similarities with prostitution, the author put in extra effort into explaining the differences.

Despite acknowledging the differences between prostitution and temporary marriage, the author did not cover up the similarities, which contributed to the objectiveness and the truthfulness of the presented material. When structuring support for her arguments, Haeri did not make an attempt to apologize for the oppressive practices nor did she condemn the system. Therefore, the presentation of the material occurred in a scholarly manner. On the other side of the argument, the author also explained how women managed to manipulate the system to gain some interest, although the unequal treatment of men and women inherent to the Iranian society prevented them from having the same rights men had in the context of temporary marriage.

Strengths and Weaknesses

If to assess the weaknesses of Law of Desire, it is important to mention that the author did not provide enough information about two key principles of marriage: children and intimate relationships. While Haeri went into great detail to distinguish between temporary marriage and prostitution in an unbiased manner, she did not pay enough attention to the relationships established in temporary marriages nor did she address the mutual rights and obligations of two people in a consensual relationship. Therefore, despite dissecting the notion of ‘temporary’ and presenting a variety of social, religious, and moral perspectives regarding it, the author failed to address the concept of marriage in the same manner. It would have been more effective if the author explained the nature of family relationships as well as sexual obligations of the married parties since these two aspects make up the core of marriage. By offering insight into how children in a temporary marriage were treated and whether there was a possibility of personal growth in the context of mut’a, the author would have been more successful in providing readers with a ‘full picture.’

As to the positive aspects of the book, one of the strongest points of the author was the ability to present material in an unbiased way. The entire piece of literary work was written in scholarly manner, which allowed readers to form their opinions about the notion of temporary marriage in Shi’i Iran. What is valuable is that Haeri preferred not to draw many interpretations of temporary marriage from religious writings and instead focused on the lives of real people that experienced mut’a. By directly connecting with people, the author was successful in uncovering some stereotypes about temporary marriage that prevailed among the practitioners of that time. She also managed to disprove the misconception that women pursued temporary marriage for a mere financial gain.

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On the contrary, she concluded that the motivation for women to seek temporary partners was complex in nature and could be perceived as double faceted. On the one hand, women desired “attention, affection, and belonging, which they all […] so desperately lacked” (Haeri 150). On another hand, they wanted to have some support within the community and establish “meaningful, enduring, and humane relationships in which pleasure and friendship would be reciprocated” (Haeri 150). Although the author did present a point of view with regards to why men chose temporary marriage, one of the strongest points of Law of Desire is the attempt to give women in such relationships a voice and try to understand their perspective.

Audience, Methodology, and Sources

The audience for which Law of Desire was intended are the scholarly circles as well as any other people interested in the topic at hand. The book could be used in gender studies, religious studies and theology, history, sociology, as well as many other courses. Although the author contemplated the method of participant observation for writing the book, there was no possibility to just observe personal interactions between a temporary husband and his wife. Thus, the author chose to collect bibliographies and life stories that served as main sources for the presented material. Moreover, Haeri conducted interviews with the members of the community to get a better insight into the practice of temporary marriage from the ‘first hands’.

Concluding Remarks and Questions Answered

Haeri brought up some important questions regarding the notion of temporary marriage and managed to answer them to the fullest extent. The author explained why women agreed to temporary marriages and pointed out that monetary gain was not the only valid answer. Moreover, Haeri explained the difference between temporary marriage and prostitution. While many critics stated that the two were practically the same thing, the author proved that mut’a is a specific form of marriage; a “different form of marriage” (Haeri 157) and not just a practice where a woman receives monetary gain from offering herself to a man.

To conclude, Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shi’i Iran is a valuable source of scholarly work that presented a unique perspective on the practice of mut’a in a Muslim society. The author managed to disprove the misconceptions about temporary marriage and explained that women agreed to it because of their desire to be valued and loved. Despite the fact that Haeri did not dig deep enough into the nature of relationships in temporary marriage families, she conducted an extensive analysis of the practices and presented readers with valuable insights into the nature of the concept of mut’a.

Work Cited

Haeri, Shahla. Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shi’i Iran. Syracuse University Press, 2002.

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