‘Are You a Virgin or No?': Marriage in Liberated Iraq

BAGHDAD–The office was not hidden, but it was hard to find. It was across from the gold-domed shrine of Kadhim mosque in Kadhimiya, past the street vendors selling candy bars and Pepsi and blow-up toys and pistol-shaped lighters. Then a right-hand slice into the slow sea of pedestrians, and past several jewelry-store windows hung heavy with gold. Finally, a left through an entryway into a dark, damp maze of lower-rent enclosed shops and up a grimy, twisting stone staircase.

The office being that of an important Shia official, its walls featured gentle, virile images of Shia martyrs Ali and Husayn. In fact, its walls featured so many images on so many posters of such florid presentation that the overall effect was that of an army of Alis and Husayns gazing softly down on the proceedings.

The proceedings were momentous. Three Shia-a thirtysomething veiled woman waving a palm-shaped fan close to her face; an older, gray-bearded man fingering a set of prayer beads; and a younger, black-bearded man in a flat-topped maroon hat that Americans would call a fez, albeit one with a swirl of emerald-green felt around it-were having an intense, and sometimes tense, exchange.

Even for those who know ahead of time exactly what goes on in this office, coming face to face with it is quite a shock.

The conversation was not about jihad , or occupation, or the radical Islamic cleric Moktada al-Sadr, or any other radical Islamic cleric. It was not about the pros and cons of supporting or thwarting the incoming interim government, or the tensions that had long since arisen between the Shia who lived in this area and the Shia pilgrims (and smugglers, and terrorists) now flooding in from Iran.

The conversation was about marriage; specifically, whether the marriage of this man and this woman could be saved.

On the eve of Iraq’s transition from occupation to sovereignty, the man in the fez was arbitrating one transfer of power after another. His name was Rafid Kadhim Al-Ruthaway, 35, and it was his job to grant and deny permission to Shia couples who wished to marry and divorce. Rafid sat behind a desk, and on the desk sat a loose-leaf pad. Each sheet amounted to a quickie prenuptial agreement form, with blank spaces left for the couple’s names, and the amount of money or gold to be given to the bride’s family upon marriage and in the event of a divorce. Rafid’s task was, in short, to fill in the blanks.

A few days later, on June 28, Iraq administrator Paul Bremer, after filling out some quickie forms of his own, eloped: In one of the only unambiguously intelligent acts of its tenure here, the Coalition Provisional Authority officially ceded authority to the Iraqi interim government two days ahead of schedule. Although it was clearly motivated by security concerns, the sleight-of-handover served as a reminder of an entirely different, and equally essential, reality of life about Iraq. Oddly enough, it was the same reality called to mind by the sight of Rafid at work: It was all just a photo op. June 30 was just a date. Bureaucratically, the American presence here has been winding down for months. Militarily, in many ways, it’s only gearing up. Realistically, it is just one fact of the whole of life here-and not, for everyone all the time, the most urgent fact by a very long shot.

The gray-bearded man and the thirtysomething woman had been married for 20 years. In the present drama, the man had clearly cast himself as the soul of reason; he was willing to stay home and work things out, or to move out, leaving his wife in the house with the children, during a trial separation. She, on the other hand, just wanted out.

“Once I hate you, I hate you,” she explained, with no particular venom.

Then again, she had her reasons.

“The wife says he has taken another wife,” Salaam, my fixer, murmured in translation. “The husband swears he has not. The wife says she does not believe him.”

When Salaam and I had entered the office a few minutes before, the conversation had already been in full swing. At the sight of two total strangers intruding on their private crisis, both parties simply moved down two seats from the host’s desk, as if being joined by later guests on Letterman , and kept right on talking. An older man entered with a tray of glasses and frosty cans of 7-Up.

“Wait, please!” interjected Rafid. “God hates divorce!”

And Iraq, it seemed, refused to exist on only one level at a time. Outside, assassinations and explosions had taken on the steady but uneven rhythm of an erratic bus schedule: One never knew exactly where or when to expect the next one, but sooner or later it would be coming. Iraq’s competing interests seemed engaged in a terrible, coincidental cartography, with every group drawing its own map to civil war. Ordinary criminals were emboldened to commit more and more extraordinary crimes. In here, though, all that just seemed like so much white noise.

“She says he’s lost his power,” Salaam narrated.

“Huh?”

“He does not sleep with her.”

Paul Wolfowitz would have gotten a lot out of this meeting. So would Michael Moore. If those who sell the Bush administration’s Iraq policy have anything in common with those who castigate it, it is their inability to conceive of Iraq as a habitat for humanity. Not everything that happens here happens as an intended or unintended consequence of what America decides. Many things happen here that cannot be counted as a point for or against Team W. With their insistence on shoehorning this place into their fight, such advocates dehumanize Iraqis and obscure Iraq. At no moment more than the moment of transition is it crucial to bear in mind: Many of the most important changes that have come over Iraq in the past year and a half have not come at the stroke of a pen, or even the blast of a bomb. Other changes are coming, all the time in the form of ripples, and trends, and tectonic plates that shift, imperceptibly but importantly, beneath the surface of life.

“Now, more than before the war, men are marrying more than one wife because they have freedom,” Rafid told me, dragging on one of his many Gauloises. Under Saddam Hussein, many Shiite men were so poor and locked into their lives as Iraqi Army conscripts that they could not marry at all, let alone marry in multiples. Before the war, Rafid estimated, he considered fewer than 10 marriage proposals per week. Now that number runs between 25 and 45.

This crowds Rafid’s schedule, and should complicate the optimistic thinking of those Americans-not all of them Kool-Aid-drinking Bushies-who are confident about the future of Iraq because of its comparatively secular, progressive, well-educated Arab society. That’s because many of those well-educated, secularized Iraqis bitterly resent the war and all that has come with it, and hope to use their money and education not to rebuild Iraq, but to leave Iraq as soon as possible. As for ultra-oppressed Iraqis-those who are indeed grateful to be liberated from the shackles of enforced poverty and ignorance that they wore under Saddam Hussein-the first right that many of them wish to exercise is the right to cast the new Iraq in very old shades of Islam.

“I check on the woman more than the man,” said Rafid, who wore an ivory dishdasha , gold-rimmed glasses and an Omega wristwatch. “I ask about her age, I ask, ‘Are you a virgin or no?’ If I feel she is not a virgin, I make her swear on the Koran.”

Some of the brides that Rafid green-lights for marriage are as young as 12 years old. The average age, he estimated, is about 15. The men are often 18-although lately, as never-married men try to make up for lost time, he is also seeing a lot of teenage brides with grooms in their mid-40’s. Sometimes the woman who comes to vouch for the bride’s virginity is not really her mother. If in doubt about their relationship, Rafid puts one in a room above the office while keeping the other in the office, and questions the mother closely about the information on the girl’s identity card. If, for instance, the older woman is not entirely certain of the name of the younger woman’s father, Rafid knows that the pair of them are frauds, and out they go. The man, too, faces issues of suitability, but these tend to be financial.

“Sometimes they come and he offers 100,000 dinars [$70] for now, 100,000 for later,” he said. “I ask her, ‘What do you think? For 100,000, he can’t buy even the ring.’ I am not happy from that.”

Even more accelerated than the rise in conventional marriage among the Shia has been the rise in a form of limited marriage called mutah . Such marriages can be as short as the couple likes.

“The girl says, ‘I marry myself to you for one month,'” explained Rafid. “He says, ‘I agree.'”

No real contract is executed, and the fact of the mutah is often kept secret from anyone other than the couple.

“They get married in the mosque, in the street,” said Rafid. “He invites her for lunch or dinner.”

The word mutah comes from the verb meaning “to enjoy.”

You get the idea.

These marriages, which Sunni Muslims reject as haram , or forbidden, were illegal under Saddam and punishable by seven years in jail. (Shia accept them on the grounds that the Prophet Muhammad, in the context of constant warring, allowed them.) Likewise, under Saddam, a man could only take a second wife if the first wife agreed. If she did not agree, she had grounds for divorce. These days, for many people, a decree from a civil court carries far less weight than a word from the likes of Rafid. Thus, a first wife who is not happy at the appearance of a second wife has grounds only for displeasure. And no matter what the Prophet Muhammad said on the subject, even Rafid has to admit: First wives are almost never happy to countenance a second wife.

Rafid’s own second wife, a pretty young woman, was sitting at a chair by his desk. So soundlessly and seamlessly had she introduced her presence that one couldn’t say when she had come in, only that she must, at some point, have done so.

For Rafid’s first wife, this woman’s appearance was not quite so unobtrusive.

“Yes, she made a problem for me,” said Rafid of his first wife when he took his second. “After, I made an agreement with her. She likes me now.”

In fact, for Rafid, angry first wives are nothing short of an occupational hazard. Many is the time, he said, that a wife has suspected that her husband has gotten approval from him to marry again, found Rafid’s business card among his things, and shown up at this office with a piece of her mind.

I presumed that Rafid’s response in such cases would be a no-brainer: exhort such women with Koranic provisions for a man to take up to four wives, provided that they are treated equally. As it happened, however, Rafid favored a more pragmatic, less veracity-challenged approach.

“I tell her, ‘He’s not married,'” he said, adding that he explains away the presence of his business card in her husband’s wallet with the claim that he and her husband are friends.

Divorce, rarely a bed of roses in any country, can have some particularly prickly thorns around here. “Sometimes the husband hears that the sister of his wife is a whore or a prostitute,” Rafid explained. “He’s not divorcing her so much as the family.”

Other complications can come from the female side. Sometimes, for instance, a previously married woman produces a document from the civil court saying that she is divorced, but there is no evidence that her husband is aware of the divorce. In many cases, her husband will have been lost in the shuffle of war or of political killings by the old regime-but not in all cases. To be sure, she is referred to a local ayatollah.

In another place, at another time, it might be depressing to contemplate the idea of child brides, polygamy and open-air virginity verification. But not here, not now. With so many forms of death everywhere, it was nothing but a relief to come across people grappling with life.

Iraqis are doing that. No matter what happens on any given day, the world must bear that in mind: Iraqis are grappling with life.

Last week, no question, a new government got sworn in, and Baghdad braced itself for bloodshed. But every afternoon, the Saj Al Reef restaurant was packed with engineering students from the nearby branch of Baghdad University, chattering away with their mouths full of wrap sandwiches and deep-dish pizza. At the Farah beauty salon, half a dozen women sat in all stages of wash, cut and color, with glossy magazines in their laps; the only source of male energy was a fat baby boy, sound asleep on a plush sofa, happily oblivious to the hair-spray fumes he was inhaling. And in his office across from the shrine, Rafid was bringing order to marital chaos.

At one point, Rafid and the husband disappeared up the stairs, to the little room above the office. Some time later, he bounded back down again, with a spring of certainty in his step. Civil war might break out. The government might crumble. Al Qaeda might strike again at any time. But whether any or all of those things ever come to pass, Islamic law will still dictate the requisite number of days from sex to severance, so as to pre-empt a child’s being born as a child of divorce.

“I can’t give you a divorce now, because he said you slept with him 10 days ago,” he pronounced to the wife. “Come back when your period starts.”