EHRAN, Iran — For five years, Maryam, the hairdresser, and Karim, the home appliance salesman, carried on a love affair, meeting secretly at the house where Karim lived with his parents. The young couple's relationship was officially sanctioned by Iran's Islamic Republic, even though unmarried couples who have sex or even date and hold hands can be arrested, fined, even flogged. That is because Maryam and Karim were married.
They had a valid contract of temporary marriage.
Iran is a country where rules are fluid, where people of all classes and degrees of religiosity pride themselves on finding loopholes in the Islamic system. Temporary marriage, or sigheh, is one of the oddest and biggest.
The practice of temporary marriage is said to have existed during the lifetime of Muhammad, who is believed to have recommended it to his companions and soldiers. The majority Sunni sect in Islam banned it; the minority Shiite sect did not. Historically, the practice was used most frequently in Iran by pilgrims in Shiite shrine cities like Meshed and Qum. Pilgrims who traveled had sexual needs, the argument went. Temporary marriage was a legal way to satisfy them.
Maryam and Karim chose temporary marriage for a practical reason. "We went out a lot together, and I didn't want to get into trouble," Maryam, 31, said. "We wanted to have documents so that if we were stopped on the street we could prove we weren't doing anything illegal."
Their "marriage" ritual was simple. Even though they could have sealed the contract privately, they went to a cleric in a marriage registry office in Tehran with their photographs and identity papers. Maryam had been forced into a loveless marriage at 15 to an opium-smoking, womanizing factory owner nearly two decades her senior who divorced her nine years later; so she brought along her divorce decree. If she had been a virgin, she would have needed her father's permission to marry.
The couple could have gotten married for as short a time as a few minutes or as long as 99 years. They could have specified whether and how much money Maryam would be paid as a kind of dowry, or how much time they would spend together. Instead, they decided on a straightforward contract of six months, which they renewed again and again.
What was unusual about Maryam's situation was her willingness to talk about it. Despite its religious imprimatur, temporary marriage has never been very popular in Iran. Tradition dictates that women be virgins when they marry; even when they're not, they should pretend to be. Many Iranians regard sigheh as little more than legalized prostitution, especially since it is an advertisement that a woman is not a virgin. In some circles, even illicit sex is considered better — as long as it can be kept secret.
But now an odd mix of feminists, clerics and officials have begun to discuss sigheh as a possible solution to the problems of Iran's youth. An extraordinarily large number of young people (about 65 percent of the population is under 25), combined with high unemployment, means that more couples are putting off marriage because they cannot afford it. Sigheh legally wraps premarital sex in an Islamic cloak.
"First, relations between young men and women will become a little bit freer," said Shahla Sherkat, editor of Zanan, a feminist monthly."Second, they can satisfy their sexual needs. Third, sex will become depoliticized. Fourth, they will use up some of the energy they are putting into street demonstrations. Finally, our society's obsession with virginity will disappear."
Even conservatives like Muhammad Javad Larijani, a Berkeley-educated former legislator, favor temporary marriage. As Mr. Larijani put it: "What's wrong with temporary marriage? You've got a variation of it in California. It's called a partnership. Better to have it legal than have it done clandestinely in the streets."
Though most of Iran's reformist publications have closed in recent months, newspapers and magazines that remain have begun to discuss the issue. A recent front-page article in a weekly tabloid, "World of Medicine," about a chador-wearing, AIDS-infected prostitute who took pleasure in infecting her clients included a recommendation on avoiding infection: take a temporary wife.
Advocates of temporary marriage also point out that children of such unions are legitimate and entitled to a share of the father's inheritance.
More rarely, unrelated couples have used nonsexual "temporary marriage" in order to live or work in close quarters.
But the popular response to such a sweeping societal solution has not been favorable. After "The Hope of Youth," a weekly, ran an article in favor of sigheh, readers called and wrote in with scathing attacks.
"I am 23 years old," one unnamed young man told the paper. "If I temporarily marry a young woman for three years and then divorce her, would anyone be willing to marry her? It would be impossible that any man would want to have a family with this woman."
Another unidentified caller was quoted as saying: "Those who want to promote temporary marriage don't understand that they would be promoting prostitution. Who would be there to be a father for the children from temporary marriage?"
The paper wrote back: "The reality is that young men and women do have sexual relationships. If these relationships are defined within an Islamic framework, we will not have the danger of prostitution."
As for what to do about children of temporary marriages, the editor added, "It is not so complicated to use birth control anymore."
This is not the first time that people in the Islamic Republic have tried to promote sigheh. The first person to discuss it openly was none other than Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani when he was president. In a sermon in 1990, he called sexual desire a God-given trait. Don't be "promiscuous like the Westerners," he advocated, but use the God-given solution of temporary marriage.
That sermon brought thousands of protesters to Parliament, in part because a married man can have as many temporary wives as he wants, and up to four permanent ones, and can break the contract anytime he wants, whereas women cannot. Many secular Iranians are irked by what they perceive to be the hypocrisy of clerics, who have made ample use of temporary marriage over the years but are adamantly opposed to premarital or extramarital sex.
Clerics seldom talk about their experiences. But in the book "Law of Desire," Shahla Haeri, a Boston University cultural anthropologist and granddaughter of an ayatollah, cited interviews with clerics.
One proclaimed that because God banned alcohol, he allowed temporary marriage.
Ms. Haeri, who lectured on the subject in Iran, said that neither the clerics nor leading thinkers had begun to analyze its implications in a coherent way. "If they are really serious," she said, "they should study the matter in the context of sexuality, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, morality, religion and gender relations."
But what of Maryam and Karim?
He gave her clothes and a little money from time to time during their "marriage," but not the gold coin he had promised her with each renewal of their contract. He told her she was beautiful, something her husband had never done. She cleaned his house occasionally and even met his brothers. He met her mother — who, twice divorced, had married (permanently) for the third time. They kept their temporary marriage a secret, even from her.
"She knew that I was with a man," Maryam said, "but would have preferred I was with him illegally than his sigheh."
In fact, Maryam and Karim are not the couple's real names. Maryam remains so ambivalent about what she did that she asked that not even their first names be used.
In the fifth year of their relationship, Karim began to call less frequently. Maryam went to a fortuneteller, who told her that Karim was to be married. When she confronted him, he said that it was over. After their contract ran out, he married a virgin chosen by his parents.
Because of her divorce, she said, "he told me right from the start that he couldn't marry me permanently. But he treated me so nicely that I thought things would change."
Maryam was so much in love that she even offered — half jokingly — to become Karim's temporary wife again after he was permanently married. He refused.
"I think sigheh is good, very good," she said, but added that she would not do it again. "I want to get married permanently now, as soon as possible."