Wednesday, May 04, 2005

"Pleasure Marriage" in Iraq under the Occupation

Shiite Islam appears to tacitly recognize that marriage and prostitution exist on a continuum, giving religious sanction to an intermediate category of "pleasure marriage" (also called "temporary marriage" and "fixed-term marriage").
Al-Zaidi hopes to soon finalize his third muta'a, or "pleasure marriage," with a green-eyed neighbor. This time, he talks about it openly and with obvious relish. Even so, he says, he probably still won't tell his wife.

The 1,400-year-old practice of muta'a -- "ecstasy" in Arabic -- is as old as Islam itself. It was permitted by the prophet Mohammed as a way to ensure a respectable means of income for widowed women.

Pleasure marriages were outlawed under Saddam Hussein but have begun to flourish again. The contracts, lasting anywhere from one hour to 10 years, generally stipulate that the man will pay the woman in exchange for sexual intimacy. Now some Iraqi clerics and women's rights activists are complaining that the contracts have become less a mechanism for taking care of widows than an outlet for male sexual desires.

The renaissance of the pleasure marriage coincides with a revival of other Shiite traditions long suppressed by the former regime. Interest in Shiite customs has accelerated since Shiite parties swept Jan. 30 elections to become the biggest bloc in the new National Assembly.

"Under Saddam, we were very scared," says Al-Zaidi, 39, a lawyer from Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. "They would punish people. Now, all my friends are doing it."

A turbaned Shiite cleric who issues wedding permits from a street-side counter in Sadr City says he encourages permanent marriages but gives the OK for pleasure marriages when there are "special reasons." The cleric, Sayid Kareem As-Sayid Abdullah Al-Mousawi, says he grants licenses for muta'a in cases where the woman is widowed or divorced, or for single women who have approval from their fathers.

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"Clerics who blessed them were hounded by security during the previous regime," he says. "I can assure you, these (muta'a) marriages are flourishing in (Shiite cities) Najaf, Karbala and Kadhamiya in an amazing way. There are a lot of hotels (patronized) by Shiites who approve of such marriages."

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Most Shiite scholars today consider it halal, or religiously legal. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority in Shiite Islam, sets conditions and obligations for muta'a on his Web site. ("A woman with whom temporary marriage is contracted is not entitled to share the conjugal bed of her husband and does not inherit from him ...")

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and other Shiite lawmakers have said they want Iraq's new constitution to use the sharia, or Islamic law, as its basis. That could give muta'a formal legal protection. Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who are mainly Sunni, oppose the idea. But the practice is growing among Sunnis and Shiites alike.

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A woman agreeing to a pleasure marriage that involves a one-time encounter might be able to count on about $100. For a muta'a that runs longer, she might be paid $200 a month, though the amounts vary widely and can depend on whether she has children.

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Contracts for pleasure marriage strongly favor men.

Married women can't enter a muta'a, although a married man can. Men can void the contract at any time; women don't have that option unless it's negotiated at the outset. The couple agrees not to have children. A woman who unintentionally gets pregnant can have an abortion but must then pay a fine to a cleric. (Rick Jervis, "'Pleasure Marriages' Regain Popularity in Iraq," USA Today, 4 May 2005)
The status of women in Iraq was the highest in the 1970s: "In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, Iraq enacted mandatory education for women and equal pay for equal work. And by the 1980s women constituted almost 40 percent of public sector workers" (Andrea Buffa, "Iraqi Women Under Siege: Unemployment, Violence Rising," War Times 14, December 2003). It's been downhill ever since, the resurgence of "pleasure marriage" being just one indication of the decline in Iraqi women's economic power.

Unequal relations between nations aggravate the already unequal relation between men and women, especially men of richer nations and women of poorer nations. Everywhere the military goes, the sex industry that caters to it flourishes, thriving upon the interlocking systems of gender, class, and national oppressions. The US military, with its imperial reach, has become the biggest john of all militaries in the world. Take South Korea, Okinawa, and the Philippines, for example, where their respective national power elites have served as pimps for Americans.
The evolution of camptowns and camptown prostitution as permanent fixtures in American-Korean relations began with the Korean War and the arrival of U.S. troops. They are no less a part of the history of U.S. involvement in the Korean War than General Douglas MacArthur's successful push of North Korean troops back beyond the 38th parallel. . . .

Prior to the Korean War, the sex work of camp followers was informally organized and unregulated. The women who sold sex to U.S. occupation forces from 1945 to 1949, who like other camp followers in other lands at other times, followed or greeted troops with willingness to wash laundry, run errands, and provide sex for some form of remuneration -- money, food, cigarettes. Prostitution took place in U.S. military barracks in the early years of U.S. military occupation (1945-46) and in shabby makeshift dwellings called panjatjip (literally, houses made of boards). By the late occupation period (1947-49), simple inns or motels (kani hot'el) also became the loci of sexual exchange.47 . . .

The Korean War and the U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty (effective November 1954) provided the raw materials for the kijich'on R&R system. The war, with its accompanying poverty, social and political chaos, separation of families, and millions of young orphans and widows,"mass-produced" prostitutes, creating a large supply of girls and women without homes and livelihoods.49 Fleeing bombs and gunfire and seeking food, shelter, and work, camp followers flocked to areas where the UN/U.S. forces were bivouacked. The majority of the strategic areas (close to the border with North Korea) developed into R&R boomtowns beginning in the mid-1950s. Most of these areas had been sparsely populated agricultural villages. For example, Tongduch'on sprouted from agricultural fields into one of the most notorious camptowns, having housed four different U.S. infantry divisions since the end of the Korean War (3d, 1st, 7th, 2d). During its"golden age" in the mid-1960s, Tongduch'on boasted approximately 7,000 prostitutes.50 . . .

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The economic power that U.S. servicemen represented and wielded in the camptowns easily translated into social and sexual clout over Korean kijich'on residents. South Korea in the 1960s became the"GI's heaven"; it was a time when an average GI could live like a king in villages"built, nurtured and perpetuated for the soldiers of the U.S. Army,"56 a time when things American, especially the dollar, were almighty. Men and women danced and drank to their hearts' content with cheap liquor and loud music; over 20,000 registered prostitutes were available to"service" approximately 62,000 U.S. soldiers by the late 1960s. For $2 or less per hour ("short time") or $5 to $10 for an"overnight,"57 a soldier could revel in sexual activities with prostitutes. Servicemen purchased not only sex mates but maids, houseboys, shoeshine boys, errand boys, and other locals with ease. Bruce Cumings characterizes the 1960s as a time when"[o]ne could be born to a down-and-out family in Norfolk . . . and twenty years later live like the country-club set" in Korea, a time when the"highest Korean ultimately meant less than the lowest American in the entourage."58

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The U.S.-Korean history of military prostitution shares many of the characteristics and tensions present in other sites of overseas U.S. bases, especially in Asia. The economic dependence of local camptown residentson the presence of U.S. troops is not unique to South Korea. For example, Takazato Suzuyo, a political activist on Okinawa, reported that Okinawa, which served as a R&R area to U.S. troops in Vietnam, lived off U.S. dollars:
In its heyday, there were more than 1,200"approved" bars, night clubs, and restaurants on Okinawa, and soldiers spent money freely. B-52 bombers were taking off from Kadena [US Air Force] base almost every day to bomb North Vietnam, while returning soldiers from Vietnam, with their chest pockets filled with dollar bills, sometimes spent all their money in one night.67
In Olongapo and Angeles in the Philippines, where the U.S. Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base were respectively located (until the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1992),"[t]here was virtually no industry except the 'entertainment' business, with approximately 55,000 registered and unregistered prostitutes and a total of registered 2,182 R&R establishments.68 By 1985 the U.S. military had become the second largest employer in the Philippines, hiring over 40,000 Filipinos. . . . The sum of their salaries amounted to almost $83 million a year."69

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[Hyoung] Cho and [P'ilhwa] Chang's 1990 study of forty years of discussion on prostitution in the ROK National Assembly (the legislature) highlights a"pragmatic permissiveness" toward kijich'on prostitution on the part of its members. The authors state that from 1948 to the late 1980s, members of the National Assembly focused on GI prostitution among the different types of prostitution they mentioned.137 Assemblymen made a sharp distinction between domestic and foreign-oriented prostitution, advocating strict control and/or abolition of domestic-oriented prostitution but sup porting, tongue in cheek, U.S.-oriented camptown prostitution.138 One Assemblyman in October 1959 stated bluntly:
It's inevitable that there are prostitutes who cater to foreign soldiers. . . . We should distinguish between those prostitutes who cater to domestic customers and those who cater to U.S. soldiers and train those catering to the foreigners on American customs, [entertainment] facilities, or language and etiquette.139
The Korean legislators held the view that man's nature necessitated prostitution as a"necessary evil" among troops:
As long as the U.S. continues to stay in the ROK, we must acknowledge that the majority of the troops are single and by human nature want entertainment (sex). It's better to provide special facilities for them than discuss the problem of prostitutes alone. For example, we could provide luxurious accommodations/facilities around Seoul for these men so that they don't have to go to Japan [for R&R].140
Cho and Chang conclude that the legislators viewed U.S. camptown prostitution"as rather functional for national defense and/or for GNP growth" and therefore supported"policies that promote[d] prostitution, in compensation [for the U.S. soldiers' presence in Korea]."141 (footnotes omitted, Katharine H.S. Moon, Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S./Korea Relations (Columbia University Press, 1997)
The sex industry that caters to US troops has emerged in Iraq, too, though to a lesser extent than in the examples cited above because Washington doesn't fully control any part of Iraq beyond the Green Zones and checkpoints. Listen to Christian Parenti: "It [Iraq] is like an extreme version of the Wild West. There is a lot of drug use and prostitution. Drugs, especially Valium and other sedatives, are readily available throughout the urban centers. Prostitution is rampant because women are hungry, women are widowed, and there is a type of lawlessness that encourages it. Most of the prostitution caters to Iraqi men, but it also involves many U.S. soldiers" (qtd. in Tucker Foehl, "What Kind of Freedom? An Interview with Christian Parenti," Mother Jones, 26 Jan. 2005). For better or worse, prostitution that depends on vastly unequal international relations of military and economic powers is more likely to become an explosive political issue than prostitution based on garden-variety inequality between men and women of the same class and nation or between men of higher and lower social classes (or strata within the same class). A huge international scandal that would embarrass Washington, as well as its Iraqi collaborators, is just waiting to happen.


ow said...


Can you please shoot me an e-mail - I have a couple of questions for you.


Anonymous said...

The Shite Muslims are supposed to have very high respect for Ali bin Abi Talib, Allah be pleased with him. The Tradition numbered 527 in Volume 5 of Sahih Al-Bukhari is quoted below:

Narrated Ali bin Abi Talib, Allah be pleased with him: On the day of Khaibar, Allah's Apostle, peace be upon him, forbade the Mut'a (i.e. temporary marriage) and the eating of donkey-meat.

I am rather surprized at your article claiming that Saddam Hussein forbade the temporary marriage. If anything, Saddam Hussein showed his respect for Ali bin Abi Talib, Allah be pleased with him, by obeying the above Tradition.

Are we to believe that the current Shite Muslims do not respect Ali bin Abi Talib, Allah be pleased with him?

Anonymous said...

Where did you get that the prophet Muhammad gave permission for widowed women to prostitute themselves for money? Please be very careful when you are speaking on behalf of an Islamic decree straight from the prophet. The issuance of the permissibility of muta'a by the prophet was ONLY during wartime battle where husbands were away from their wives for long periods of time. It was not considered prostitution but a legitimate marriage. It was later forbidden by the prophet as a practice at all allowable.