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 . . .