On Representational Paralysis, Or, Why I Don't Want To Write About Temporary Marriage
For the past few years, I have been working with a colleague on a collaborative project about leisure in the southern suburb of Beirut.
by Lara Deeb
Along the way, there was a moment when we thoughtthat new ideas about temporary marriage among Shi‘I Muslim youth would be asignificant part of it. We eventually abandoned that possibility, for reasonsthat included changes in our primary interests and the difficulties ofinterviewing young people about what remains for the most part a sociallystigmatized practice in Lebanon. But the most powerful reason impacting ourdecision to write less about temporary marriage has to do with our hesitance tocontribute to an ever-growing body of sensationalist representations of Islam,and Shi‘i Islam in particular, in Lebanon or elsewhere. As my colleague justreminded me in an email, we already face the common reaction, “Oh, so Shi’a dohave fun as well!” when we are simply speaking about young people hangingout in cafes. Singling out temporary marriage as an example of shifting socialnorms regarding leisure would undoubtedly amplify that response.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about our retreat fromthe topic as sadly typical of the double-edged sword problem faced by many ofus who write and teach about the Middle East and/or Islam: how can we producehonestly critical work about gender and sexuality without fueling raciststereotypes? One hopes that shedding light on an issue will dispel stereotypes,as they thrive on ambiguity and categorical judgments, but fears that audienceswill hear only what they are listening for. This is an old problem, one thathas graced myriad conversations at conferences and workshops, the kind ofsimultaneously ethical, contextual, and methodological problem that refuses toexpire. It’s also a multi-faceted problem, where orientalist exoticism,Islamophobia, colonial feminism, and the limits of political alliance combineinto a repulsive and sometimes paralyzing mix.
Very briefly, temporary marriage is aShi‘i-specific practice that allows for(often) undocumented marriages between aman and a woman for a specified time period. There are other restrictions andrules that may vary depending on which interpretation one follows, and thereare a plethora of sources, academic and otherwise, available out there for thosewho want to know more (a good place to start is Shahla Haeri’s work). InLebanon, temporary marriage has probably been around for centuries, and hasbeen stigmatized for much of this history. A recent move to replace the commonterm zawaj mut‘a (pleasure marriage) with zawaj mu’aqqat (temporarymarriage) highlights keen awareness of the moral stigma and connotations ofuncivilized hedonism associated with the practice. Its permissibility is one ofthe things that people often mention as distinguishing sects within Islam. As adivider, it plays on accusations of doctrinal inflexibility on the one hand,and dubious or loose morality on the other.
There is a surprising (or perhaps, decidedlyunsurprising) amount of English-language press on temporary marriage. Based on aquick google search, surges in reporting on the practice seem to accompanysurges in military interest inplaces with significant Shi‘i populations, e.g.,during the Iran-Iraq war, following the first U.S. invasion of Iraq, and recently, as an effect of the current U.S. occupation of Iraq.Much of this work depicts temporary marriage solely as a form ofreligiously-legitimated sex work (though it does take other forms depending onthe context) and some of it fosters ridiculous panic.These articles lament its increasing prevalence as symptomatic of genderoppression and inequality and the corruption of Shi‘i clerics. In the best ofthese pieces, temporary marriage is used as a lens onto the gendered conditionsof war and post-war poverty. Yet even then, all too often there remains a whiffof unveiled sexual exoticism accompanied by a persistent desire to save theMuslim women (from their men, their societies, their culture, the irreligion,you name it).
Some of this press goes so far as to suggest thattemporary marriage is used to motivate soldiers for war. Most notably in recentyears, a 2009 Foreign Policy article, “The Militarization of Sex” described temporarymarriage as a Hizbullah ploy to keep its constituents happy and sexuallysatisfied, as though Hizbullah’s Islamic Resistance would lose all its fightersand supporters if they were not drugged with hash and licit orgasms. Thisargument should sound absurd to anyone who has heard about the history ofIsraeli invasions, occupation, and attacks on Lebanon, as well as Hizbullah’shistory fighting those attacks and providing sectarian support for itscommunity. It seems stunningly obvious why many young Shi‘i men support andsometimes choose to fight with the Resistance and truly bizarre to readaccounts that posit drugs and sex as a viable explanation. And this absurdityis by no means limited to the United States. In Beirut, mentioning temporary marriageall too often led to people sharingstories they had heard about “Shi’i dens ofiniquity” in the southern suburb.“ After midnight, all the young men goHizbullah cafes where they are given has hand drugs and young women forpleasure marriages, this is how they get them to fight for them,” explained anacquaintance, who, by the way, has never been to this area of the city. “Justlike the Assassins, they give them drugs and women so they will do whateverthey tell them to do.” That this man was unable to imagine other motivationsfor loyalty to Hizbullah speaks to an inability to understand other Lebaneseexperiences, as well as longstanding racist stereotypes that cast Shi‘i Muslimsas morally bankrupt, irrational, and less civilized than other Lebanese.
None of this is to say that temporary marriage hasnot increased among youth in Lebanon in recent years; I’m fairly certain thatit has. It’s also accurate that some religious leaders are suggesting that thepractice is permissible in new ways for young people. But these changes don’tstem from Hizbullah’s efforts tocultivate a support base. The greatervisibility (which does not necessarily mean greater prevalence) of temporarymarriage has to do with the emergence of a generation of young people who arelooking for ways to live moral lives while also dating. Whether or not they areaffiliated with Hizbullah, these youth may use temporary marriage as a way todate (not necessarily involving physical intimacy) or to get to know apotential spouse without violating their religious values.
So why then, is the idea that Hizbullah usestemporary marriage as a motivating opiate apparently a sound notion in somecircles in both the United States and Lebanon? Ignorance is not a satisfactoryanswer, because I find it difficult to believe that the authors of sucharticles or my Lebanese interlocutor don’t know the context and history thatprovide a far better explanation for Hizbullah’s popularity. Indeed,emphasizing sex here is away to “explain away” the party’s popularity anddiminish the consequences of confronting it directly. Focusing on temporarymarriage shifts attention away from arguments about political issues andlegitimacy towards essential sexual and moral difference. It’s also a way tocounter Hizbullah’s claims to trustworthy politics by suggesting that itsreligious ideology is tainted by immorality, question the authenticity of itspartisans’ loyalties, and present the party as barbaric and backwards (hencethe comparison to the Assassins of centuries ago). These arguments set the Shi‘icommunity apart from the “civilized world” into which both the rest of Lebanonand the United States are folded. Shi‘a, instead, are cast as inherentlydifferent, in ways both alluring and dangerous. This kind of discourse ofdifference related to morality and sexuality has been part of colonial historyacross the world, ranging from the display of Sarah Baartman’s genitalia topanics over the threat posed to white women by nonwhite men in a variety ofcolonized places. When people opposed to Hizbullah – whether in Lebanon or theU.S. – talk about temporary marriage in dismissive, instrumental, ordisparaging ways, they establish themselves as moral and civilized.
In the U.S. context, these discourses are alsoinfused with a long history of fascination with the exotic sexuality andassumed submissiveness of Arab women (check out Amira Jarmakani’s book on thishistory). The stereotypes are not new, though they take on different hues atdifferent times. A recent example is Nancy Botwin asking a young Arab bartender“Why do you do that? That whole sexist thing, that whole oppression thing?” (aswith all the racist dialogue on Weeds, one hopes the writers intend socialcritique while doubting the efficacy of their methods). While academicaudiences are much better, they are not immune from (hopefully unconscious)eruptions of discrimination. Talks we’ve given that included temporary marriageas an ethnographic example of how youth are reshaping moral norms sometimeslead to questions like “But where do they have sex?” While as an ethnographer Ifully appreciate an interest in detail, this seems ludicrous. Is it not obviousthat people all over the world find ways to do all sorts of things in secret,including youth who live with their parents? Why is the idea of Muslim youthdating so unexpected, unthinkable, and, well, fascinating?
At this point, it’s probably worth addressing thequestion of why it might be important to write about temporary marriage at all.At the most general level, I think deconstructing ideas about sexuality is animportant aspect of critical social analysis (as in this jadaliyya post). The rationale for writingabout temporary marriage in Beirut is that it is an excellent example ofyouth-driven social change and the conflict between religious tenets and socialnorms. In my teaching, I’ve also found temporary marriage to be the kind ofexample that works to stun undergraduates into grasping the possibility thatMuslim youth are not so different from them, and might in fact want to date andbe good moral people at the same time, which for many of our younginterlocutors in Beirut and undergraduates in the U.S. alike includes a concernfor the state and future of one’s soul. There are problems with using theexample this way, however, because it falls into the trap of assuming thatsimilarity is necessary for empathy or solidarity, atopic I will leave foranother post.
There are also other reasons for writing ontemporary marriage, including the importance of examining gender inequalities,and the health and social consequences for women in particular, especially butnot exclusively in situations of war or poverty. But again the catch is tofigure out how to do this without providing fodder for an increasingly absurdand vociferous Islamophobicpolitical machine. The world of rhetorical authorityon gender and Islam is populated ever more loudly by Ayaan Hirsi Alis andIrshan Manjis. And while ideas about women’s oppression at the hands of Muslimmen, religion or culture have long been used to light Western societies byshadowing Muslim ones, this kind of civilizational dichotomy has been put inservice of new war sand new political-economic projects in the region duringthis century.
Many of us spend a good deal of time and breathundoing the damage of Islamophobes, and insisting over and over again thatpeople’s lives must be understood within political, economic, and historicalcontexts. This labor compounds the hesitation to provide evidentiary fuel forthese voices. I know I’m not alone in feeling like we are bashing down demonsevery time we write. And it’s not just about gender and sexuality. A parallelis the desire to take authoritarian regimes to task without letting colonialand mandate histories or contemporary occupations and neoimperialisms off thehook. Representational paralysis can result. How do we responsiblycounterstereotypes without giving them importance, quell liberal desires tosave the world without denying social problems where they exist, and producewriting that is critical of the politics of neoimperialism without beingdismissed as merely polemical? Like I said, this is an old story of adouble-edged sword, or perhaps, especially when it comes to issues of genderand sexuality, about a hesitation to “air our dirty laundry” in a climate whereit may be thrown violently back. I don’t have any answers to the dilemma, shortof continuing to produce critical and contextualized analyses… but perhaps thiscan serve as an impetus for a virtual brainstorm . . .