Those unwilling or unable to commit to a long-term relationship can find a solution in the Shia practice of temporary marriage
By Sayed Yaqub, Afghanistan
Sardar Sakhizada is a normal 23-year-old in most respects, with one exception - he has been married four times.
“Most of my marriages lasted one or two months. My family doesn’t know about it yet. Only the woman and I go to the mullah to get married,” he said.
Temporary marriage, or “sighah”, is an accepted custom in the Shia branch of Islam. Under sighah, a couple can contract to live together for a specific period of time – anywhere from one day to a lifetime.
The practice is a low-cost alternative to the standard form of marriage, which requires the groom and his family to come up with money, sometimes thousands of dollars, for the bride price. Those who cannot afford a permanent wife but want the comforts of marriage can go the temporary route.
“I only had to pay 2,000 afghani [about 40 US dollars] each time,” said Sakhizada.
The young man said that he found his prospective temporary brides through local Shia clerics.
"Our mullahs are like property dealers. They are familiar with women who want to get married for a short time, and can introduce them to men,” he said. “The mullahs keep track of the contract termination date in their notebooks. When the time comes, the couple can go to the mullah and dissolve the contract, or they can extend it, like a passport.”
Sakhizada, who supports himself by offering private English lessons in Mazar-e-Sharif, says he is happy with his short-term liaisons. An English teacher in a private course in Mazar-e-Sharif, he is fond of explaining the advantages of sighah to his students, both men and women of all ages.
Mohammad Tahir Mofeed, a Shia cleric, confirmed that temporary marriage is accepted in Shia Islam.
“Every religion takes into account the problems its followers have in all aspects of life,” he told IWPR. “Sex is a human need, and temporary marriage addresses this need.”
The practice of sighah cuts down on prostitution, he said, because it allows short-term relationships within the structure of a sanctioned union.
“These marriages are useful,” he said. “The main point is that both sides agree on the exact timing, and a religious cleric helps them make the contract.”
Pregnancy is one possible complication. According to Mofeed, a child born as the result of such a liaison has the same rights as a child born in a more traditional marriage. The father is responsible for supporting the child and its mother.
Sakhizada said he has been careful not to impregnate any of his 40 wives.
“Women who make temporary marriages take medicine so as not to get pregnant,” he said. “The men also try not to get their wives pregnant.”
According to Mofeed, the women who enter into temporary unions are usually divorcees or widows, but unmarried girls can also make this kind of marriage if the head of their family agrees.
One 34-year-old woman, who did not want to be named, said she was very happy to be able to take advantage of the sighah. Her first husband was killed fighting the Taleban, and she is still young, she said, and needs a man.
“Just a month ago I married a man from Herat who was just passing through Mazar. But he’s gone now, and I haven’t married anyone else yet,” she said.
She would not reveal how many times she has been married, but added, “I accept these kinds of marriages. This is a good custom in our religion.”
Ahmad Aziz, 24, another Mazar resident, has been married for one year under a temporary contract. He is now deciding whether to extend his union.
“If things are going well, I will prolong the contract forever,” he said. “But if our life together is not good, I will find another wife. This kind of marriage doesn’t require too much expenditure, and I can marry many times in one year. Plus, collecting money for a regular marriage is no easy matter.”
The practice appears to be most prevalent among those Shia Afghans who fled to Iran in the years after the 1979 Soviet invasion and during the civil wars of the Nineties. They have now begun to return, bringing customs they adopted while exile. Returnees say sighah is fairly common in predominately Shia Iran.
It remains to be seen whether sighah will catch on among the Shia minority in Afghanistan, a country where sex and marriage are surrounded by taboos.
“Temporary marriage is against Afghan tradition,” said Dr Mohammad Hussain, a Shia believer who owns a pharmacy in Mazar-e-Sharif. “I know that if I entered into a temporary marriage contract, all my relatives would look upon me with contempt.”
Most couples who marry under such a contract try to hide the fact, he added.
Maulawi Ghulam Jailani Hanif, a Sunni cleric in Mazar, says temporary marriage is absolutely forbidden under Sunni law.
“If a man can marry a woman and then leave her, it violates the whole principle of marriage. The woman becomes a creature of no value,” he said. “A man has to respect his wife and look out for her rights.”
Legal institutions have been reluctant to interfere. Judge Sayed Mohammad Samie, chairman of the Independent Commission of Human Rights for the northern provinces, declined to comment, saying the issue is a religious matter.
And although serial marriage raises such issues as the possible spread of sexually transmitted diseases, health officials also refused to discuss it. “It is a religious matter,” said Dr Ghausuddin Anwari, deputy head of the health department for the northern provinces.
As for Sakhizada, he said he will not stop at four wives.
“I will get married many times in the future,” he laughed.
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.