/ 11 June 2007

Iran: minister’s alternative to pre-marital sex

Iran’s interior minister has challenged a social taboo by urging the revival of the ancient Shia practice of temporary marriage to give young people easier legitimate access to sex.

Moustafa Pourmohammadi, the minister, said the tradition, known as sigheh, should be promoted to offset a trend towards later marriage, which he said was depriving Iran’s youth of sexual fulfilment.

The custom of sigheh, which allows couples to establish unions lasting from a few minutes to 99 years, is permitted under Shia Islam but has been likened in Iran to prostitution.

But Pourmohammadi, a conservative cleric, described it as “God’s rule” and said it was an acceptable alternative to pre-marital sex, which is forbidden under Islamic law.

“The increase in the marriage age in this country has caused many problems,” he told a conference in Qom. “Is it possible that Islam is indifferent to a 15-year-old youth into whom God has put lust? We have to find a solution to meet the sexual desire of the youth who have no possibility of marriage. Islam is a comprehensive and complete religion and has a solution for every behaviour and need, and temporary marriage is one of its solutions for the needs of the youth.”

He called on religious schools to study the possible side effects of an increase in the practice.

Roughly half of Iran’s 70-million people are under the age of 30. Increasing numbers are delaying marriage because of monetary pressures, including rising inflation and house prices.

Pourmohammadi’s plea echoed a similar call in 1990 by Iran’s president at the time, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who said temporary marriage was preferable to being “promiscuous like the Westerners”.

However, the idea has been attacked by women’s groups. Rafat Bayat, a fundamentalist female MP, said the custom had to be limited. “Do you accept, yourself, to tell to your daughter’s suitor that your daughter has already made temporary marriage several times?” she asked Pourmohammadi.

As it clashes with a cultural tradition favouring women being virgins until marriage, sigheh has been unpopular among Iranians. It allows Muslim men to have temporary marriages with non-Muslim women, but Muslim women can only have such relationships with co-religionists.

The custom is thought to have originated among pre-Islamic Arab tribes. The Prophet Mohammed recommended it to his companions and soldiers, though it was later banned under Sunni Islam. — Â