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On Representational Paralysis, Or, Why I Don't Want to Write About Temporary Marriage

[Image from unknown archive] [Image from unknown archive]

For the past few years, I have been working with a colleague on a collaborative project about leisure in the southern suburb of Beirut. Along the way, there was a moment when we thought that new ideas about temporary marriage among Shi‘i Muslim youth would be a significant part of it. We eventually abandoned that possibility, for reasons that included changes in our primary interests and the difficulties of interviewing young people about what remains for the most part a socially stigmatized practice in Lebanon. But the most powerful reason impacting our decision to write less about temporary marriage has to do with our hesitance to contribute to an ever-growing body of sensationalist representations of Islam, and Shi‘i Islam in particular, in Lebanon or elsewhere. As my colleague just reminded me in an email, we already face the common reaction, “Oh, so Shi’a do have fun as well!” when we are simply speaking about young people hanging out in cafes. Singling out temporary marriage as an example of shifting social norms regarding leisure would undoubtedly amplify that response.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about our retreat from the topic as sadly typical of the double-edged sword problem faced by many of us who write and teach about the Middle East and/or Islam: how can we produce honestly critical work about gender and sexuality without fueling racist stereotypes? One hopes that shedding light on an issue will dispel stereotypes, as they thrive on ambiguity and categorical judgments, but fears that audiences will hear only what they are listening for. This is an old problem, one that has graced myriad conversations at conferences and workshops, the kind of simultaneously ethical, contextual, and methodological problem that refuses to expire. It’s also a multi-faceted problem, where orientalist exoticism, Islamophobia, colonial feminism, and the limits of political alliance combine into a repulsive and sometimes paralyzing mix.

Very briefly, temporary marriage is a Shi‘i-specific practice that allows for (often) undocumented marriages between a man and a woman for a specified time period. There are other restrictions and rules that may vary depending on which interpretation one follows, and there are a plethora of sources, academic and otherwise, available out there for those who want to know more (a good place to start is Shahla Haeri’s work). In Lebanon, temporary marriage has probably been around for centuries, and has been stigmatized for much of this history. A recent move to replace the common term zawaj mut‘a (pleasure marriage) with zawaj mu’aqqat (temporary marriage) highlights keen awareness of the moral stigma and connotations of uncivilized hedonism associated with the practice. Its permissibility is one of the things that people often mention as distinguishing sects within Islam. As a divider, it plays on accusations of doctrinal inflexibility on the one hand, and dubious or loose morality on the other.  

There is a surprising (or perhaps, decidedly unsurprising) amount of English-language press on temporary marriage. Based on a quick google search, surges in reporting on the practice seem to accompany surges in military interest in places with significant Shi‘i populations, e.g., during the Iran-Iraq war, following the first U.S. invasion of Iraq, and recently, as an effect of the current U.S. occupation of Iraq. Much of this work depicts temporary marriage solely as a form of religiously-legitimated sex work (though it does take other forms depending on the context) and some of it fosters ridiculous panic. These articles lament its increasing prevalence as symptomatic of gender oppression and inequality and the corruption of Shi‘i clerics. In the best of these pieces, temporary marriage is used as a lens onto the gendered conditions of war and post-war poverty. Yet even then, all too often there remains a whiff of unveiled sexual exoticism accompanied by a persistent desire to save the Muslim women (from their men, their societies, their culture, their religion, you name it). 

Some of this press goes so far as to suggest that temporary marriage is used to motivate soldiers for war. Most notably in recent years, a 2009 Foreign Policy article, “The Militarization of Sex” described temporary marriage as a Hizbullah ploy to keep its constituents happy and sexually satisfied, as though Hizbullah’s Islamic Resistance would lose all its fighters and supporters if they were not drugged with hash and licit orgasms. This argument should sound absurd to anyone who has heard about the history of Israeli invasions, occupation, and attacks on Lebanon, as well as Hizbullah’s history fighting those attacks and providing sectarian support for its community. It seems stunningly obvious why many young Shi‘i men support and sometimes choose to fight with the Resistance and truly bizarre to read accounts that posit drugs and sex as a viable explanation. And this absurdity is by no means limited to the United States. In Beirut, mentioning temporary marriage all too often led to people sharing stories they had heard about “Shi’i dens of iniquity” in the southern suburb. “After midnight, all the young men go Hizbullah cafes where they are given hash and drugs and young women for pleasure marriages, this is how they get them to fight for them,” explained an acquaintance, who, by the way, has never been to this area of the city. “Just like the Assassins, they give them drugs and women so they will do whatever they tell them to do.” That this man was unable to imagine other motivations for loyalty to Hizbullah speaks to an inability to understand other Lebanese experiences, as well as longstanding racist stereotypes that cast Shi‘i Muslims as morally bankrupt, irrational, and less civilized than other Lebanese.

None of this is to say that temporary marriage has not increased among youth in Lebanon in recent years; I’m fairly certain that it has. It’s also accurate that some religious leaders are suggesting that the practice is permissible in new ways for young people. But these changes don’t stem from Hizbullah’s efforts to cultivate a support base. The greater visibility (which does not necessarily mean greater prevalence) of temporary marriage has to do with the emergence of a generation of young people who are looking for ways to live moral lives while also dating. Whether or not they are affiliated with Hizbullah, these youth may use temporary marriage as a way to date (not necessarily involving physical intimacy) or to get to know a potential spouse without violating their religious values. 

So why then, is the idea that Hizbullah uses temporary marriage as a motivating opiate apparently a sound notion in some circles in both the United States and Lebanon? Ignorance is not a satisfactory answer, because I find it difficult to believe that the authors of such articles or my Lebanese interlocutor don’t know the context and history that provide a far better explanation for Hizbullah’s popularity. Indeed, emphasizing sex here is a way to “explain away” the party’s popularity and diminish the consequences of confronting it directly. Focusing on temporary marriage shifts attention away from arguments about political issues and legitimacy towards essential sexual and moral difference. It’s also a way to counter Hizbullah’s claims to trustworthy politics by suggesting that its religious ideology is tainted by immorality, question the authenticity of its partisans’ loyalties, and present the party as barbaric and backwards (hence the comparison to the Assassins of centuries ago). These arguments set the Shi‘i community apart from the “civilized world” into which both the rest of Lebanon and the United States are folded. Shi‘a, instead, are cast as inherently different, in ways both alluring and dangerous. This kind of discourse of difference related to morality and sexuality has been part of colonial history across the world, ranging from the display of Sarah Baartman’s genitalia to panics over the threat posed to white women by nonwhite men in a variety of colonized places. When people opposed to Hizbullah – whether in Lebanon or the U.S. – talk about temporary marriage in dismissive, instrumental, or disparaging ways, they establish themselves as moral and civilized.

In the U.S. context, these discourses are also infused with a long history of fascination with the exotic sexuality and assumed submissiveness of Arab women (check out Amira Jarmakani’s book on this history). The stereotypes are not new, though they take on different hues at different times. A recent example is Nancy Botwin asking a young Arab bartender “Why do you do that? That whole sexist thing, that whole oppression thing?” (as with all the racist dialogue on Weeds, one hopes the writers intend social critique while doubting the efficacy of their methods). While academic audiences are much better, they are not immune from (hopefully unconscious) eruptions of discrimination. Talks we’ve given that included temporary marriage as an ethnographic example of how youth are reshaping moral norms sometimes lead to questions like “But where do they have sex?” While as an ethnographer I fully appreciate an interest in detail, this seems ludicrous. Is it not obvious that people all over the world find ways to do all sorts of things in secret, including youth who live with their parents? Why is the idea of Muslim youth dating so unexpected, unthinkable, and, well, fascinating? 

At this point, it’s probably worth addressing the question of why it might be important to write about temporary marriage at all. At the most general level, I think deconstructing ideas about sexuality is an important aspect of critical social analysis (as in this jadaliyya post). The rationale for writing about temporary marriage in Beirut is that it is an excellent example of youth-driven social change and the conflict between religious tenets and social norms. In my teaching, I’ve also found temporary marriage to be the kind of example that works to stun undergraduates into grasping the possibility that Muslim youth are not so different from them, and might in fact want to date and be good moral people at the same time, which for many of our young interlocutors in Beirut and undergraduates in the U.S. alike includes a concern for the state and future of one’s soul. There are problems with using the example this way, however, because it falls into the trap of assuming that similarity is necessary for empathy or solidarity, a topic I will leave for another post. 

There are also other reasons for writing on temporary marriage, including the importance of examining gender inequalities, and the health and social consequences for women in particular, especially but not exclusively in situations of war or poverty. But again the catch is to figure out how to do this without providing fodder for an increasingly absurd and vociferous Islamophobic political machine. The world of rhetorical authority on gender and Islam is populated ever more loudly by Ayaan Hirsi Alis and Irshan Manjis. And while ideas about women’s oppression at the hands of Muslim men, religion or culture have long been used to light Western societies by shadowing Muslim ones, this kind of civilizational dichotomy has been put in service of new wars and new political-economic projects in the region during this century. 

Many of us spend a good deal of time and breath undoing the damage of Islamophobes, and insisting over and over again that people’s lives must be understood within political, economic, and historical contexts. This labor compounds the hesitation to provide evidentiary fuel for these voices. I know I’m not alone in feeling like we are bashing down demons every time we write. And it’s not just about gender and sexuality. A parallel is the desire to take authoritarian regimes to task without letting colonial and mandate histories or contemporary occupations and neoimperialisms off the hook. Representational paralysis can result. How do we responsibly counter stereotypes without giving them importance, quell liberal desires to save the world without denying social problems where they exist, and produce writing that is critical of the politics of neoimperialism without being dismissed as merely polemical? Like I said, this is an old story of a double-edged sword, or perhaps, especially when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, about a hesitation to “air our dirty laundry” in a climate where it may be thrown violently back. I don’t have any answers to the dilemma, short of continuing to produce critical and contextualized analyses… but perhaps this can serve as an impetus for a virtual brainstorm . . .

13 comments for "On Representational Paralysis, Or, Why I Don't Want to Write About Temporary Marriage"

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thank you for this article. i have had a struggle with writing about sexuality (esp homosexuality) in the arab world because i do not want that to add even more western feminist imperialism.

perhaps the answer is not only our work being honest, but our READERS and students being honest about their experiences. american society isn't so free, they must be aware of that! hate crimes still exist in the states....when an american scholar/feminist wants to "help" us, i always ask "why? your problems are all solved??"

lia wrote on December 02, 2010 at 01:11 PM
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Thanks for this... and the rest of your work on South Lebanon as well.

nhaider wrote on December 02, 2010 at 02:56 PM
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I drink every sentence you write like a thirsty traveler. Please keep writing and researching and pondering about all of this. Your insight is invaluable and you ability to express it well is genius.

I think the general feeling about temporary marriage among Shi'as is that they understand the need for it, but they'd never engage in it themselves, which is where I assume the social stigma comes from, despite the religious permissibility. It's almost the same feeling we have for multiple wives. There has to be some extraordinary circumstance for it, and even then, most ppl avoid it

liberal fundo wrote on December 02, 2010 at 03:46 PM
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I hope your reference to 'comparisons' made to the Assassins doesn't intend to refer to them as "barbaric and backwards".

Such fantastic tales of hashish gardens, suicide jumps etc. seem to be more the product of the medieval traveller's imagination - uncritically adopted by early western orientalism (and even now by many) and deployed by the adversaries of the Ismaili movement at different periods of time. (See the book by F. Daftary). I do not wish to gloss over their actions, but we just need to be careful on sources and mindful of historiography - contextualising them just as we do to Hizbullah.

In the contemporary period, I would be extremely curious to hear your thoughts on the use of the Assassin legends and the ways in which they are understood in Lebanon. Do they play a role in the popular imagination - or imaginations - and how is knowledge on them spread?

Thanks for a wonderful article. Despite Hanin Ghadar's distasteful and spurious machinations, I am glad that you are outlining a framework in which this issue can be studied and not sensationalised!

SK wrote on December 03, 2010 at 03:35 AM
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we have to find a way to engage in deep, honest self-criticism without letting the shadow of orientalism and western imperalist fantasies hang over our heads, otherwise we will continue to remain stuck in this dilemma.

sunbula wrote on December 03, 2010 at 12:45 PM
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I too drink your writing like a thirsty traveller. please keep writing

shobhana mukhi wrote on December 03, 2010 at 03:00 PM
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I understand the conundrum you face, but ultimately I think the only solution is to simply write about things as they are without worrying that the consumers of your work will read into it their preexisting prejudices. They will. But if you don't, a future interlocutor (say, a Robert Spencer clone) will find your hand-wringing pieces (like this one) and use them to pummel you for being a relativist, for being willing to massage the truth, for being duplicitous, for being an apologist for barbarism, etc. Given that that will be the forum in which your work is most likely to reach the people who will read their prejudices into your work, the interlocutor's ability to pummel you in that way will require so much clarification on your part that you'll never be able to attack his arguments. Believe me: I've read hundreds of posts at Jihad Watch, and this is how the script plays out every time.

rukn wrote on December 03, 2010 at 06:48 PM
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Thanks for all your comments. A few quick thoughts: Lia: I think you point to another important critical tool, which is to remind audiences in the U.S. of persistent gender inequalities here, the “clean your own house first” argument. SK: My reference to “comparisons” to the Assassins was meant to suggest that my Lebanese interlocutor who brought up the comparison was referring to them as “barbaric and backwards,” not that I was supporting that description. I don’t know much about how the Assassin legends are understood and used in contemporary Lebanon. Based only on anecdotal memory, I have heard the “fantastic tales” adopted uncritically by a few Lebanese across the political spectrum in different contexts, but I can’t speak to how dominant that particular imagery actually is. rukn: I think there is a question of audience that matters here. You’re probably right when it comes to the Robert Spencer types. But I’m also thinking about people whose prejudices are less blatant, like liberal feminist colleagues and students who truly believe that they can do good in the world; people who might listen to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and hear a woman speaking from “experience,” and lack the knowledge or tools to hear through that to the Islamophobia underlying it. Then again, given the ways media work today, taking specific audiences into consideration may be impossible.

Lara Deeb wrote on December 05, 2010 at 01:27 PM
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Thanks for all your comments. A few quick thoughts: Lia: I think you point to another important critical tool, which is to remind audiences in the U.S. of persistent gender inequalities here, the “clean your own house first” argument. SK: My reference to “comparisons” to the Assassins was meant to suggest that my Lebanese interlocutor who brought up the comparison was referring to them as “barbaric and backwards,” not that I was supporting that description. I don’t know much about how the Assassin legends are understood and used in contemporary Lebanon. Based only on anecdotal memory, I have heard the “fantastic tales” adopted uncritically by a few Lebanese across the political spectrum in different contexts, but I can’t speak to how dominant that particular imagery actually is. rukn: I think there is a question of audience that matters here. You’re probably right when it comes to the Robert Spencer types. But I’m also thinking about people whose prejudices are less blatant, like liberal feminist colleagues and students who truly believe that they can do good in the world; people who might listen to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and hear a woman speaking from “experience,” and lack the knowledge or tools to hear through that to the Islamophobia underlying it. Then again, given the ways media work today, taking specific audiences into consideration may be impossible.

Lara Deeb wrote on December 05, 2010 at 01:30 PM
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Great piece, Lara. Rukn is right -- the only way to resolve this dilemma is to strategically forget it. The likes of Spencer will always be bigots and will always find "supporting evidence." Many of the mushy liberals will always have their misguided do-gooder ideas, at least as long as they retain their own privileged positionality as citizens of an empire that actually can (and might) "do something." The public, whatever that is, will remain susceptible to persuasion by this or that Islamophobic or sensationalist approach. In order to be persuaded by genuine knowledge, which is honest, critical and rich with nuance and cultural sensitivity, they must be able to read it. In other words, those who have such knowledge, like you, must share it. Those scholars -- and Middle East studies is sadly rife with them -- who abstain for fear of being misunderstood or misused -- only guarantee that the field will be left to the propagandists and racists.

Chris Toensing wrote on December 13, 2010 at 04:41 PM
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I admire your piece- you must be from South Lebanon-Khiam perhaps ? Cecil Hourani

cecil hourani wrote on February 28, 2011 at 06:41 AM
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thought provoking,a little mention of the relevent islamic aspect of the practice was necessary,like shiites say it was practiced by the prophet and disbanded by the second caliph. maalish

dr. hussaini wrote on March 01, 2011 at 04:06 PM
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Well, that serious project having been spiked, you could always go and do research just a few hundred kilometers east from Scripps--and then do a piece on, ahem, temporary marriage in a (nearly entirely) non-Islamic context. Remember, what happens in Vegas...

WndlBee wrote on March 01, 2011 at 09:49 PM

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