Connections between sex trafficking, prostitution and polygamy
By Uzma Mariam Ahmed, June 20, 2009
One of the primary reasons why Islam was revealed was to guarantee and clarify the important basic rights of women, and particularly their rights with regards to marriage, divorce, alimony, custody and related issues. We should not allow horrors such as sex trafficking, prostitution, and other sexually exploitative unions to hide within the guise of Islamic marriages.
Sex trafficking and prostitution are not unique to Muslim people or to Muslim countries. They are, however, harder to identify when they take shelter within the confines of Islamic marriages. In religions that only recognize monogamous marriages, it is easier to take the first step of categorizing a relationship as deviating from a real marriage. In Islam, however, both monogamous and polygamous marriages are considered legitimate, and Muslims from different parts of the world and from varying schools of Islamic thought have created forms of purported marriages that, in some instances, seem difficult to distinguish from prostitution. Furthermore, because some Muslims find room for debate about the rules governing marriage, as well as divorce, alimony, custody, and child support issues, there is a potential for the creation of suspect relationships labeled as marriages.
Even a cursory survey of practices existing within the guise of Islamic marriages reveals that the boundaries of legitimate marital unions have been expanded to hide within their folds all manner of exploitative relationships. These include associations which are, in fact, sex trafficking and prostitution; one partner is either forcibly used for sex or is compensated through some monetary benefit.
These relationships range from those that are relatively easy to categorize as truly exploitative to those that appear to be legitimate polygamous unions, but do not conform to the Islamic requirements of a polygamous marriage. Though they exist on a wide spectrum, these relationships share commonalities. The most fundamental is that these unions deviate from the Qur'anic rules for both monogamous and polygamous marriages. They are also generally solemnized and consummated privately, their existence hidden from public view. The Prophet was known to have said, “What distinguishes the lawful from the unlawful was the drum and shouts of the nikah [marriage day].” Because these relationships are hidden from society, they also all involve situations where the Islamic rights of monetary support for spouses and children are denied.
The relationships easiest to recognize as pure sexual exploitation are those that involve sex trafficking, a form of sexual slavery. One famous instance was brought to light by Nicholas Kristoff of The New York Times, who in 2006 covered the story of Aisha Parveen, a 20 year old Pakistani woman who was kidnapped and forced into prostitution as a 14 year old. Mian Sher, the man who kidnapped her and acted as her pimp, kept her as his youngest wife. During her six years as his slave, he beat her daily and sexually tortured her. Parveen finally managed to escape with the help of a man who was in the house doing repairs, and the two fell in love and married after their escape. Mian Sher was enraged, and he brought a case against Parveen for adultery, based on the legal argument that Parveen was his wife and had unlawfully fled with a lover. His plan was to then bail her out and take her back to the brothel.
Nicholas Kristoff began covering Parveen’s story while she
was waiting for a verdict from the court, and the Pakistani and international
press picked up on Parveen’s story. The publicity led to the court dismissing
the case, allowing Parveen to permanently escape from Mian Sher. The fact that
Mian Sher felt emboldened enough to pursue legal avenues to recover his sexual
slave, based on this fictionalized marriage, indicates the grievous state of
the law with regards to women’s rights in
While this instance is clearly sex trafficking hiding within the pretext of a marriage, there are other relationships which are harder to qualify as such, but still appear closer to prostitution than legitimate marital unions. For instance, mut’aa marriages are temporary marriages which are practiced by Shia Muslims. In a mut’aa marriage, men (and sometimes women) agree to pay their partners a certain sum of money for a marriage lasting a set period of time. The putative husband can end the contract before the expiration of the agreed upon period, but a wife must compensate the husband if she wants to end the union more quickly. Though Shia law recognizes the children of such marriages as legitimate, in practical terms it is difficult for women to prove the paternity of these children, because there are no witnesses to the creation of a mut’a relationship and no registration requirements. It is entirely a private transaction.
Similar to mut’aa marriages are urfi marriages practiced
While temporary and non-public marriages such as mut’aa and
urfi deny the partners the rights given to full-fledged Islamic marriages,
there are even “real” Islamic marriages that are used to hide sex trafficking
and prostitution. There are prominent examples highlighting this problem. One
is of men from Arabian countries in the
Another example of troubling “legal” marriages includes
unions involving Muslims who marry for immigration benefits. The couple decides
to enter into marriages with the express purpose of one spouse sponsoring the
other for legal status, and the other typically agrees to provide sexual
services in return. This phenomenon is on the rise in the
Finally, at the very end of this spectrum, there are the polygamous marriages that men carry out as a cover for an affair. Both mut’aa and urfi marriages can be polygamous, but even so-called “traditional” polygamous marriages are sometimes officiated without the consent or knowledge of the first wife, or the knowledge of the community. These are particularly easy to spot as affairs in countries that do not recognize polygamous unions, and the second or third marriage is therefore only officiated by a cleric from the community.
There is clearly a need for dialogue within the global Muslim community about the purpose and rules of marriage, and a need to soundly reject many of the unions discussed here. One of the primary reasons why Islam was revealed was to guarantee and clarify the important basic rights of women, and particularly their rights with regards to marriage, divorce, alimony, custody and related issues. We should not allow horrors such as sex trafficking, prostitution, and other sexually exploitative unions to hide within the guise of Islamic marriages.
Uzma Mariam Ahmed is Contributing Writer to Altmuslimah
For instance, mut’aa marriages are temporary marriages which are practiced by Shia Muslims. In a mut’aa marriage, men (and sometimes women) agree to pay their partners a certain sum of money for a marriage lasting a set period of time.“
Uzma, you should represent mut’a according to Shi’i self-understanding, not through the filter of your own bias. It’s not that men pay their partners a certain sum of money, they give their spouse a dowry, analogous to the dowry that is involved in nikah.
“The putative husband can end the contract before the expiration of the agreed upon period, but a wife must compensate the husband if she wants to end the union more quickly.“
I’ve never heard of such compensation. Again there are some rulings with respect to entitlement of the dowry when the marriage is broken early, but again you are construing this as “compensation,“ which shows a lack of objectivity. If its other than this, then please cite your source from the fiqh of a particular marja’.
Mut’a requires that a woman observe an ‘iddah period. This means a 3 month waiting period between partners. That’s not exactly a recipe for legitimizing prostitution.
This is not to say that some Muslim men may use such types of marriage, as you say, “as a cover for an affair.“ But that doesn’t mean that the means they use encourage or are themselves prostitution. We have plenty of affairs in our Western culture in which we uphold strict monogamous marriage as the norm.
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