Warning: Some readers may find some of these details upsetting
Rusul woke to find herself alone. Her new husband had gone. The marriage had lasted just three hours.
It wasn’t the teenager’s first marriage. It wasn’t even her second, third or fourth. In fact, she’s been married too many times for her to count.
Rusul’s harrowing way of life was triggered by an encounter when she was at work.
She would watch as girls not much older than her in tight clothing and bright make-up came in to wait expectantly. Older men would soon come in to pick them up.
“They were such beautiful young girls, I couldn’t understand why any girl would sell herself like this,” she says.
She herself was also vulnerable – estranged from her family and supporting her sister Rula.
But despite her hardships, she had made a promise to herself that she wouldn’t depend on a man for survival. When men sneaked their number into her hand, she always ignored them.
One day, a man came into her workplace and started chatting to Rusul. They talked about her past, about why she was working, rather than in school, and where she was from. She felt he actually cared.
Life had become increasingly tough for Rusul. Living in Baghdad on her meagre salary was a struggle.
Despite her initial vow to remain independent, she found herself dreaming of a husband – one who would take care of them both.
The man would come to her place of work every day to do what he could to grab her attention. Rusul gradually developed feelings for him.
After just a few weeks, he proposed. He took her to Kadhimiya in Baghdad. As they walked into a religious marriage office, Rusul felt a flutter of excitement.
The ceremony itself was brief – the cleric recited a few words, asked her whether she agreed with the $250 [£200] dowry she would receive and presented her with the contract. Rusul couldn’t read, but even if she could she might not have realised anything was amiss.
Within minutes of the cleric’s blessing, her new husband had taken her to a nearby apartment in an apparent rush to consummate their marriage. Although Rusul was nervous, she was looking forward to finally having a proper home for her and her sister. She followed her husband into the bedroom and, as she closed the door behind her, prayed that this man would treat her well, that their life together would last.
And indeed the first few days seemed like a fairy tale to Rusul.
“I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Finally, I didn’t have to provide everything,” she says.
But after just a few weeks her husband disappeared.
Little did Rusul know that their marriage had an end-date before it had even begun. It was a special type of Islamic marriage – a “zawaj al-mutaa” or “pleasure marriage” – and that it was a way of allowing religiously approved sex. Hers had now expired.
She decided to visit the cleric who married them. She says he seemed to be expecting her.
Mutaa marriages are derived from pre-Islamic tradition in both Iran and Arabia. Today they are sanctioned by Shia clerics in Iraq and neighbouring Iran, where most Shia adhere to what is known as Twelver Shiism.
“You can marry a woman for half an hour, and as soon as it’s over, straight away you can marry another one,” says one of these clerics, Sayyed Raad, who uses the honorific title of Sayyed because he claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad.
He also says he can arrange a “first-class” hotel suite for the reporter and his mutaa marriage bride, despite it being illegal for a couple to rent a hotel room in Iraq unless they are married under civil law.
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