Rewriting Gender in Post-revolutionary Iran. HOW COHABITATION COMES TO EMBODY THE AFFAIR BETWEEN LAW AND SOCIETY
Rewriting Gender in Post-revolutionary Iran
HOW COHABITATION COMES TO EMBODY THE AFFAIR BETWEEN LAW AND SOCIETY
By Maral Sahebjame
Abstract: Marriage practices in the Islamic Republic of Iran have evolved in the twenty-first century as unfulfilled expectations of emotional intimacy in marriages which have caused an increase in divorce rates and the tendency to postpone marriage and engage in unsanctioned sexual relationships. Over the past decade, the emergence of white marriages, or cohabitation, has made some of these unsanctioned relationships more visible. In response, clerics and state actors publicly condemned the practice because it violates Islamic values, and potentially the law, given Iran’s hybrid Islamic-civil legal system. Still, some Iranians prefer this conjugal arrangement to sanctioned marriages. While scholars who address the question of gender and sexual politics in post-revolutionary Iran have addressed temporary marriage, Iranian women’s mobilization of the law, and the relationship between women, shari’a (Islamic law), and the state in negotiating rights, they have yet to examine white marriage. Through an analysis of narratives from legal experts and practitioners of white marriage in Iran, this article reveals the motives for electing this practice, and the ways in which it is made legally and socially navigable. This article finds that through their everyday practices, white marriage practitioners have sparked a public discussion on the politics of intimacy and have forced state actors, clerics, and law makers to revisit legal and Islamic debates about gender and rights. When situated within official state discourses and implementation of gender laws, this analysis brings to light the power and agency that Iranians have in controlling gender and sexuality norms and discourses.
“I prefer to be in a white marriage because it is built on love. When you love someone you do not have to tolerate them. If I feel that either of us is no longer in love, I can end the relationship without having my decision validated by a judge. It is an insult to my intelligence as a woman, to have a judge, who, by the way, is a man, determine the fate of my intimate relationship.” Iranians coined the term “white marriage” to describe cohabitation with an intimate partner, in order to distinguish it from sanctioned or rasmi (official) marriages. Whereas a record is kept in the couples’ birth certificates when they officially marry, in a white marriage that space remains unmarked or white.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, white marriages have increased over the past decade, at a time when divorce rates have doubled due to unfulfilled expectations of emotional intimacy in marriages and the tendency among couples to postpone marriage and engage in unsanctioned intimate relationships. A weak economy, shifting gender norms, and high costs of weddings have contributed to what the state has long called a marriage crisis. In a state that incentivizes marriage by offering social services to newlyweds, this unsanctioned cohabitation exacerbates the marriage crisis. Forty years after the Islamic Republic’s adoption of founding documents on Shi`a Islamic marriages, through their everyday conjugal arrangements, Iranians challenge the state’s legal frameworks of aqd and siqeh(permanent and temporary marriage), and force state actors such as clerics and law makers into public conversations about gender norms and practices.
While white marriages are more visible in urban cities, statistically documenting them remains a challenge due to the recent emergence and illegality of the practice. Because white marriage is not sanctioned by Islamic principles, leading clerics, including Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamene`i, have publicly condemned it. In a hybrid Islamico-civil legal system, the legal codes conform to shari`a (Islamic principles), as they are interpreted by the heads of state. Therefore, violating shari`a would ostensibly have legal consequences. However, within this legal framework, white marriage cases reveal that enforcing legal consequences for intimate relationships is more nuanced and, indeed, forgiving of the couple engaged in unsanctioned cohabitation.
The question of gender and sexual politics in post-revolutionary Iran has been examined through analyses of the relationship between gender, shari`a, and the state in negotiating marriage and divorce rights. Scholars have discussed evolving courtship and marriage practices, as well as the rise of divorce as a deterrent for official marriages. They have examined the politics of motherhood and reproduction and offered thorough analyses that historically situate current trends in conjugal arrangements. Socio-legal work has exposed how women’s embodiment of national identity has raised their position in the new state such that women are a marker of the state’s legitimacy, inadvertently granting them power in the new state.
This article builds on the arguments previously put forth by scholars as it focuses on the current practice of white marriage. It builds closely on Haeri’s ethnography on siqeh. While white marriage in Iran has made visible unsanctioned intimate relationships amidst a marriage crisis, it remains absent from academic literature. Through the lens of white marriage, this article examines the nuanced relationship between societal demands, laws,and jurisprudence of the Islamic Republic, which otherwise regulates both public and private behavior. By analyzing data from ethnographic fieldwork with white marriage practitioners and non-state actors, this article explores the impact of white marriage on new understandings of intimate partnerships. In so doing, it shows how Iranians become agents in claims-making beyond official gender discourses and transform the very legal structures that they navigate in a Shi`a Islamic republic.
I draw from twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork I have conducted in Mashhad and Tehran, Iran between 2016 and 2019. In Tehran, white marriages became visible nearly ten years ago. I conducted semi-structured interviews with middle to upper-middle class self-proclaimed white marriage practitioners. In addition, I engaged in participant observation at social, educational, and family functions to which I was invited. Furthermore, I conducted semi-structured interviews with attorneys, judges, and family therapists, in order to provide social and legal context for white marriages. Participant observation has helped create an intimate familiarity with my interlocutors. Investigating intimate relationships requires a level of rapport, and participant observation was integral to establishing relationships of trust before my interlocutors were comfortable to share details of their intimate relationships.
I am aware of the limitation of sample size in ethnographic work, but the goal of this analysis is not to offer generalizations about the prevalence of white marriage, but rather, thick description, to capture nuances of individual experiences through multiple in-depth interviews. I triangulate my data with an analysis of clerical and state discourses about white marriage, which are prominent in Iranian media and comprise an important public debate on intimacy and the role of the state, in order to bring to light how “moral norms and everyday practices are co-constituted in relation to one another.”
Marriage and the State
Gender was central to the colonial project in the Muslim world, and used in Orientalist discourses that essentialize Muslim societies. The legacy of colonialism produced local forms of patriarchy that replaced the former colonial control of the state and social structures. The construction of modern states in the Middle East raised the gender question as states began “mothering the nation,” and women entered public spaces where they developed social and political organizations that gave them bargaining power in the patriarchal state apparatus. Women worked and entered educational institutions in order to adequately equip themselves to raise citizens with ‘proper’ national identities. While nation-building brought women into the public, social dynamics were challenged as leaders of post-colonial states used gender as a site to negotiate new national narratives. For post-revolutionary Iran, the state’s dilemma was a paradox that placed the state between its support for the “high status of women in Islam” and its restrictive version of shari`a law. Over time, women challenged patriarchal interpretations of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) as they navigated the law using‘dynamic fiqh’. Through individual acts of agency, not only did women continue to embody national identity, but gender issues served as a measure of the state’s legitimacy. When the Islamic Republic attempted to restructure the moral fabric of society through sex segregation, it institutionalized siqeh (temporary marriage) as a means to regulate intimate relationships.
“Isn’t White Marriage in Essence, a Siqeh (Temporary Marriage)?” 
White marriage has sparked a conversation about the institution of siqeh,which legally and religiously sanctions intimate relationships with emphasis on mutual consent and terms of a contract. While siqeh is a viable option for men and divorced women seeking temporary relationships, it is avoided on the grounds that it enforces gender inequality. Prior to 1979, temporary marriage was stigmatized as it was pursued by married men seeking polygamous arrangements. By the twentieth century, monogamous marriages were increasingly desired for being modern, and when Iranians were educated on marital hygiene, polygamy rates declined out of the fear of spreading venereal diseases. By 1979, although the new government institutionalized siqeh, public opinion hardly shifted in favor of it.
In declaring her criticism of white marriage and advocacy for siqeh reform, a Tehran-based women’s rights activist claims that Iranians have a negative perception of siqeh because most of its practitioners are sex workers who legalize their behavior, or married men who engage in extramarital affairs. Due to the disadvantages of a white marriage for women, Valimorad calls on the government to change the popular perception of siqeh through legislative reform, so that women will be inclined to use it. In my interviews with several family practice attorneys, they all advised that women achieve greater negotiating power and legal rights in a siqeh, which are nonexistent in a white marriage. According to Bahar, a siqeh benefits women more than a white marriage because the existence of a contract holds men accountable to an agreement whereas a white marriage has no such guarantee.
When asked about the legal consequences of a white marriage, Bahar responded, “When you deceive the judge there is no punishment.” If a couple faces charges of engaging in a namashroo (illegitimate) relationship, they are counseled by their attorneys to admit to being in a siqeh, which absolves them of a legal violation. Furthermore, a siqeh with a woman who has never been married will not be registered, but a verbal acknowledgement is sufficient for the court. Legal experts including Bahar reiterate that in intimate relationships cases, the court is required to avoid probing for details and hard evidence. While white marriages may be categorized as punishable namashroo relationships, the legal approach to transgressions of this nature is far more nuanced and in fact, creates opportunities for avoiding legal consequences.
Public and Official Discourses
In 2014 the Tehran-based publication Zanan e Emruz, ignited public debates of white marriage. It presented narratives from young men and women in Tehran about the types of conjugal arrangements that they engage in. Both men and women express that a white marriage provides a sense of commitment that is greater than a relationship without cohabitation. For practitioners, a white marriage resembles a permanent marriage, minus a formal wedding and recognition by family members. While the men reported few negative consequences when ending a white marriage, women suffered greater social and emotional consequences.
State agencies have published articles warning of the dangers of white marriage. In a speech targeting young people, Supreme Leader Khamene`i called white marriage the “darkest kinds of marriages” and “a plot by the west to bring the end of humanity, by destroying modesty, sexual reserve, and the family unit.” The Office of Fertility and Health claimed that white marriage practitioners have contributed to a declining birth rate. While statistics on white marriage are scarce because they are unregistered, the state claims that it causes a disturbance to the health of individuals and society. Most Iranians in a white marriage do not plan to have children, but the possibility raises the state’s concern for the birth of illegitimate children. Health experts and clerics propose that couples sanction their relationships through temporary marriage contracts privately, without formally registering them. When asked about white marriage, influential cleric Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi condemned the practice, but further stated that such illegitimate relationships can be retroactively sanctioned. That is, the moment a couple is conscious of their unsanctioned intimate relations, and recites the siqeh phrase, their former interactions are religiously sanctioned. This is telling of the extent to which marriage debates are redefined by the very clerics that control official discourses that condemn white marriage.
In 2018 I attended the second of a three-part series of conferences titled “Challenges of Women’s rights in Islamic jurisprudence.” In each city, Tehran, Mashhad, and Qom, panelists consisted of city council members, college professors, and local clerics. Mehdi Mehrizi gave a clerical perspective as an Islamic jurist of contemporary thought. He emphasized the need to practice ijtihadeh rayej, an in-depth study of religion that simultaneously studies women’s desires and lives today. Panelists insisted on narrowing the gap between reason and fiqh, and between fiqh and rights through constant questioning. The women on the panel called not only for reform and implementation of laws that favor women, but that women be included in future conversations about fiqh. Drawing from interactions with her students, a university professor called on clerics to provide guidance in formulating a response to the new generation that asks about white marriage. Conversations in the clerical arena are a testament to the claims to gender that ordinary Iranians are making through their everyday practices.
Hybridity of the Law and the Everyday
“Have you read Ayatollah Khomeini’s letters to his wife? I try to apply his passion and respect for his wife to my relationship with my girlfriend,” Hadi told me in an interview in 2017. He referenced the writings of the leader of the Islamic Revolution as his guide to navigating his unsanctioned relationship. The Islamic Republic aimed to regulate society and produce individualized modern subjects with agency, resulting in Islamic and modern subjectivities with deeply intertwined public and private lives. The hybridity of the state’s Islamico-civic legal system has produced subjectivities that are both Islamic and rights-bearing. White marriage stories of the everydayrevealIranian individuals’ agentive negotiation of hybrid subjectivities that reconcile the complex pragmatics of everyday social life.
Hadi, a twenty-eight year old man who lives in Mashhad, is the son of a former commander in chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. When he began his white marriage with his girlfriend three years ago, I asked him why he did not just officially marry her, given that he had a stable income and his own apartment. His response was, “I don’t have the mental maturity to get married. In addition, while my girlfriend does not expect a nice car or house, my wife would. I am unmarried now, but I am committed.” For Hadi, just as for other practitioners, a white marriage is expected to last longer than an ordinary relationship because when you cohabit, your girlfriend is the woman of the house. Cohabiting with his girlfriend stems from Hadi’s desire for a deeper relationship, or “amighshodan.”
For 40-year-old Susan, who has spent ten years in two different white marriages, the story is different. After a brief arranged marriage at 21 on which her mother had adamantly insisted, she decided to forego the route of rasmi (official) marriage. “At first, I love the feeling of having someone with whom I get to share my all. After the second year, I begin to wonder about my future. How can I introduce him to my family? I know that I initially told him I don’t want kids, but what if I do?” Referring to a white marriage that began a decade ago with a man with whom she is still deeply in love, Susan said, “After the first year, I started to think “Khob ke chi?” (So what?), as I looked down at my hand and my ring-less finger.”After a brief pause as she looked down at her hand, Susan continued, “Sometimes I would daydream about our wedding, about putting rings on each other’s fingers.” She let out a sigh. “Maybe because I was raised in a traditional household.” Susan wants a relationship that is visible to everyone; a common challenge for women in white marriages, who sometimes secretly refer to their partners as fiancés. Citing loneliness, sexual desire, and the desire to be monogamous as the reasons why she engages in white marriages, Susan says, “At the end of the day, if all Iranian women who are in a white marriage would set aside their pride, they would admit that they actually want a rasmi marriage.”
Shiva, the woman whose story I opened this article with, disagrees with Susan. Shiva is roughly ten years older, has a daughter from her first marriage, and lives in Tehran. She has cohabited with her partner, a criminal court judge, for over ten years. Shiva prefers a white marriage to a rasmi marriage because it has fewer constraints. Several of her acquaintances who are in rasmi marriages are either unhappily living with their husbands or are engaged in extramarital affairs. Unlike Susan, Shiva is not hoping for her relationship to evolve into an official marriage because she does not want state involvement in her personal life. While a critic of institutionalized marriage, Shiva often referred to Majid as her “husband.”
These snapshots of different encounters bring to light the diversity in experiences when discussing ‘white’ marriage in Iran. When I returned to Iran in 2017, I was told that people had moved past white, and had entered conjugal arrangements of different colors and textures. In larger cities, there is more variation among white marriages and it is practiced across a wider class range. Intimate relationships are dynamic and constantly shifting in response to individual desires as well as state and societal conditions. As Iranian society evolves and elaborates the concept of marriage, white marriage in Iran is a reminder that we must move beyond narrow Orientalist views that essentialize gender in Muslim societies.
One evening at Shiva and Majid’s house in Tehran, Amin joined us for dinner. Amin was also a criminal court judge, and contributed to our conversation about the legality of white marriage. Previously, Majid had informed me that while white marriage appears to contradict the law because it violates Islamic principles, the civil legal code is actually more nuanced and allows for an interpretation that renders the practice legal. I asked why clerical narratives condemn white marriage if civil law permits it. Amin responded, “Our civil code is ahead of religious discourse. While religious discourse is ideological, lawmakers regularly observe society and update the law to meet societal needs.” Majid added that in practice, laws pertaining to family and intimate relationships are often circumstantially bent at the discretion of the judge. Attorneys including Bahar had taught me of this gap between civil law and the law as practiced.
When I asked about the gap between these legal rulings and clerical discourses Amin told me a folktale that ended with: “mujtahida muqalidashun-o taqlid mikonan” (expert scholars of Islam emulate the lay person who emulates them). Using this play on words, Amin invoked the concept of ijtihad (interpretation of the Qur’an) to drive the point that while in theory, society is expected to emulate the experts, in practice, jurists and scholars in fact change their rulings based on societal demands. Here I want to refer to earlier clerical discourses that condemn white marriage because it is incongruent with Islamic values, but also encourage practitioners to engage in informal siqeh, and even retroactively sanction an unsanctioned relationship. This relationship between clerical actors, legal texts, and society challenges the view that power is top-down in the Iranian state that is often described as authoritarian or repressive. Examining discourses about intimate relationships reveals nuances at the level of clerical and official discourses that are imperative for an understanding of contemporary Iran that breaks past essentialist representations of both state and society.
White marriage discourse and practice over the past decade has exposed the nuances of hybrid Islamico-civil state, law, and society relations in post-revolutionary Iran. Cohabitation discourse is telling of a moment when the individual is simultaneously the subject and object of power. It is telling of a young man’s engagement with his desires for an intimate partnership that are deemed un-Islamic but are also influenced by the teachings of prominent Shi`i Muslim scholars such as Motahari and Khomeini, and of a moment when unconventional forms of incremental claims-making by individuals who have similar demands can bring social change. As agentive Iranians discover new understandings of intimate partnerships that transform official gender discourses in the Shi`a Islamic Republic, they rewrite hybrid state and individual subjectivities. As we move beyond essentialist discourses about Iranian society through engagement with nuanced analyses of individual experiences, the nuanced lens must also be applied to future analyses of Iranian state and clerical discourses and practices.
Author Bio: Maral Sahebjame is a Ph.d. Candidate in the Interdisciplinary Near and Middle Eastern Studies program at the University of Washington. Using ethnographic research methods, she is interested in examining gender and marriage in the Islamic Republic of Iran through the framework of the everyday, as well as the relationship between clerics, the law, and society.