Fatima Ali was a 24-year-old divorcee with no high school diploma and no job. Shawket al-Rubae was a 34-year-old Shiite sheik with a pregnant wife who, he said, could not have sex with him.
Ali wanted someone to take care of her. Rubae wanted a companion.
They met one afternoon in May at the house he shares with his wife, in the room where he accepts visitors seeking his religious counsel. He had a proposal. Would Ali be his temporary wife? He would pay her 5,000 Iraqi dinars upfront — about $4 — in addition to her monthly expenses. About twice a week over the next eight months, he would summon her to a house he would rent.
The negotiations took an hour and ended with an unwritten agreement, the couple recalled. Thus began their "mutaa," or enjoyment marriage, a temporary union believed by Shiite Muslims to be sanctioned by Islamic law.
The Shiite practice began 1,400 years ago, in what is now Iraq and other parts of the region, as a way to provide for war widows. Banned by President Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led government, it has regained popularity since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq brought the majority Shiites to power, said clerics, women's rights activists and mutaa spouses.
"During Saddam's time, there was no religious freedom," said Faris al-Shareef, a sheik who lives in the mainly Shiite city of Hilla.
Opponents of mutaa, most of them Sunni Arabs, say it is less about religious freedom and more about economic exploitation. Thousands of men are dying in the sectarian violence that has followed the invasion, leaving behind widows who must fend for themselves. Many young men are out of work and prefer temporary over permanent wives who require long-term financial commitments. In a mutaa arrangement, the woman is entitled to payment only for the duration of the marriage.
'A cover for prostitution'
"It's a cover for prostitution," said Um Akram, a women's rights activist in Baghdad. "Some women, because they don't want to be prostitutes, they think that this is legal because it's got some kind of religious cover. But it is wrong, and they're still prostitutes from the society's point of view." Um Akram, like the mutaa spouses interviewed, asked that only parts of her name be published.
Many intellectuals consider ancient traditions such as these an obstacle to Iraq's effort to become a more modern, democratic society. In recent years, extremist religious groups have gained more power in Iraq.
"These steps are taking the whole country backwards and are definitely hurdles to the advancement of the country," said Hamdia Ahmed, a former member of parliament and a women's rights activist in Baghdad. "The only solution is to separate Islam from politics."
Shiite clerics and others who practice mutaa say such marriages are keeping young women from having unwed sex and widowed or divorced women from resorting to prostitution to make money.
They say a mutaa marriage is not much different from a traditional marriage in which the husband pays the wife's family a dowry and provides for her financially.
"It was designed as a humanitarian help for women," said Mahdi al-Shog, a Shiite cleric.
According to Shiite religious law, a mutaa relationship can last for a few minutes or several years. A man can have an unlimited number of mutaa wives and a permanent wife at the same time. A woman can have only one husband at a time, permanent or temporary. No written contract or official ceremony is required in a mutaa. When the time limit ends, the man and woman go their separate ways with none of the messiness of a regular divorce.
Although the temporary arrangements are becoming more common, they are still controversial, and people usually conduct them secretly.
Ali had a normal marriage once. It lasted only three months because the couple did not get along. Her chances for another permanent marriage, she said, were slim. Men often prefer virgins over widows and divorced women, she said.
She welcomed Rubae's proposal because he was a well-known sheik in her neighborhood. Her family was fond of him. "He was a good guy, and he was a religious man," she said.
Rubae had been in 15 mutaa marriages before. A year ago he entered into a permanent marriage with a woman who had been his mutaa wife for a day. When she became pregnant eight months ago, she suggested he take a temporary wife but asked him not to tell her if he did. She does not know about his involvement with Ali.
"As a pregnant woman, she cannot give me my needs," Rubae said. "She treats me real good and she wants me to be happy."
He chose Ali partly because her blond hair, light brown eyes and petite figure had always attracted him. "When she puts makeup on, it destroys her beauty," he said.
He also liked that she was religiously devout, and he said he wanted to keep her from a relationship outside of marriage.
Ali didn't think of him in a romantic way at first. "After we got married, I started loving him," she said.
The money he gave her helped. Her father owns a bakery but money has always been tight, so much so that she had to end her education after elementary school. But money wasn't her only reason for entering the enjoyment marriage. "I have needs just like any other woman," she said.
Both Shiite and Sunni Muslims allow men to have more than one permanent wife, but they disagree over mutaa.
Most Shiites believe that the prophet Muhammad encouraged the practice as a way to give widows an income. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, has sanctioned it and offers advice on his Web site.
Um Ahmed, a 28-year-old woman from Najaf, lost her husband in 2005 when he was caught in the crossfire of a fight between two Shiite militias.
Soon after his death, she had her first mutaa relationship, with a man who was in a permanent marriage. He paid her 50,000 Iraqi dinars upfront — or $38 — and gave her money whenever she needed it during their six-month relationship.
She said she needed it often. She is a tailor and the only one in her family of 10 who works.
"When a human being needs money, the need will make a person do anything," she said. "It's better than doing the wrong things. This is religiously accepted."
Many Sunnis believe that the practice is outdated and ripe for abuse. They also see it as more evidence of Iranian influence on Iraqi life. Mutaa is widespread in Iran's Shiite theocratic state.
'Big insult to women'
"It is a big insult to women," said Ibtsam Z. Alsha, a Sunni lawyer and the head of the organization Women for the Common Good of Women.
Women's rights activists also bemoan what they say is an increase in mutaa on college campuses. Some female students do it for money. Others do it for love when their parents forbid them to marry a man from another sect.
Amani, a 22-year-old Baghdad University engineering student, said she is a Sunni but agreed to enter into a mutaa relationship with her Shiite boyfriend because her parents disapproved of him. "I hated my family because they did not allow this marriage," she said. "I did this to spite my family."
Still, she has not told them about the relationship. "If they find out, it will be my end," she said.
A woman cannot terminate a temporary marriage before it expires unless the man agrees, said four sheiks interviewed for this article.
Once the marriage is over, she has to wait at least two menstrual cycles before she can have another relationship so that paternity can be easily determined if she becomes pregnant, they said.
Most mutaa contracts stipulate that no children be produced. If a woman were to become pregnant anyway, Islamic law would require the man to support the child, the sheiks said. But the clerics disagreed over how much power they have to impose that rule.
Rubae said the man who refuses his child would be whipped or even killed. "We as the sheiks should be sure this thing will stay legitimate," he said.
Shareef, the sheik from Hilla, said some men take advantage of their rights under religious law but refuse to accept their responsibility when a child is born. In some of those cases, he said, a sharia court, using Islamic law, is not as effective as a secular court in enforcing the rules.
"I am supporting the idea of the government regulating mutaa marriages, just like the permanent marriages, so these man cannot run away," he said. "Otherwise the women are losing their rights."
Um Akram, the women's rights activist in Baghdad, said more women are asking her organization for help in getting national identification cards for children born of mutaa relationships. Parents must present a marriage certificate to obtain the identification cards, which are required by schools and employers.
Um Akram said some single women have given up their children for adoption to married couples who can use their marriage certificates to register them.
"The men just hit and run, and they don't want to have a family," she said. "The children are paying the price."
Ali and Rubae agreed not to have children. They simply wanted to enjoy each other.
On the days he could see her, he gave her flowers, perfume, clothing and a watch. They had meals together. Sometimes he could spend the whole day with her. Other times, just five or six hours.
Ali said she cried when the marriage ended early last week. "It's just like a permanent marriage," she said. "When he leaves, I become sad."
Her sorrow did not last long. Rubae said Jan. 12 that he had decided to marry her again. This time, he said, he would marry her for a year, enough time for his wife to fully recover from childbirth.