It is the middle of winter in Bagdad, Iraq. Inside a marriage magistrate office in the Thawra district (Sadr City), couples wait inside a crowded room to say their vows. The early morning 45-degree weather was the perfect climate for marriage. Young women starting at the age of fourteen are getting married to eighteen and older men.
One particular couple stood out from everyone else. The groom is a 27-year-old African American male in his late twenties. He has a healthy physique that is displayed in his torso and biceps. He wears a black thobe that flows to his sandals’ ankle, white Kufi, and a checkered black & white keffiyeh. He is 6′3 in height and weighs about 230 lbs. His face has a clean-shaven beard with connecting sideburns. His beard luster with shea butter gives his face an ebony glow. His name is Asad Ibn An-Nas.
His bride is an Arab woman of Iraqi descent in her early twenties with light olive skin color. She is 5′7 in height and weighs 180 lbs. Her body carries the extra pounds gracefully in her breast and hips. She wears a pink abaya, white hijab, and brownish-red boots. She wears makeup to enhance the beauty she already possesses. Her emerald green eyes are beautified with dark kohl eyeliner and smokey grey eyeshadow. Her lips glistened with a magenta color lipstick, enhancing her exotic look. Her name is Zulaikah Bint Malak.
Zulaikah trembled nervously while Asad sat next to her with a firm, calm demeanor. Asad’s arms and legs are folded as he waits patiently. The couple waited for hours to see a marriage magistrate. Zulaikah notices the condescending stares she is getting from the men. One person mumbles in Arabic, “She is marrying an abd.” It is a derogatory remark meaning enslaved person, used against Iraqi citizens of African descent.
Asad and Zulaikah opportunity came to say their vows within a five-hour wait. Asad and Zulaikah stood before the middle-aged magistrate who wore a judge’s robe accustomed to the Iraqi court system. He prepares the paperwork by signing his name and date. When he is done, he grabs the Qu’ran and tells them both to put their hands on it to swear the two into marriage.
“As you know, marriage is a serious matter. There must be sincerity, trust, and, most importantly, no coercion. Zulaikah, you may state the marriage vows.”
“I Zulaikah Bint Malak offer you myself in marriage following the instructions of the Holy Quran and the Holy Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him. I pledge, in honesty and with sincerity, to be for you an obedient and faithful wife.”
“Zulaikah, do you accept this marriage to Asad? If you do, say I accept three times,” Zulaikah repeats “I accept” three times.
“Asad, you may state your vows.”
“I pledge, in honesty and sincerity, to be for you a faithful and helpful husband.”
The magistrate asked Asad to accept Zulaikah as his wife by saying “I accept” three times.
Asad confirmed as he replied three times. The magistrate requested Asad to present a dowry. Asad gives Zulaikah an envelope with $1000 inside. Zulaikah was surprised as she did not ask nor expect anything but a new life with her soon-to-be husband. After Asad paid fifty American dollars and Asad and Zulaikah signed their names and stamped their thumbprints on the page. The two were presented with a marriage license written in Arabic.
When I signed the marriage contract, I prayed to Allah that this was the man who would love me. I have long waited for a husband that Americans would call prince charming. Even though I am not a deserving bride, Asad married me anyway, knowing my past. Asad is not my first husband, as I have been married so often that I lost count. It is a very unlikable situation for a Muslim woman who has been divorced in Iraq, even if it’s the first divorce. You may ask how this was possible.
I was raised in Mansoor, which is twenty miles from Baghdad. My parents decided to marry me off at the age of 14. My husband, at the time, was a 35-year-old friend of the family.
During my first marriage, my husband and I moved from Mansoor to the Kadhimiya district in Baghdad. He sold dry goods, such as prayer rugs, clothes, scented oils, incense, and jewelry. Shortly after getting married, I was treated inhumanely and restricted to the stereotypical roles of a housewife. Cooking, cleaning, and giving my ex-husband’s rights in the bedroom was my only purpose. I was pregnant twice but had miscarriages due to his beatings, sometimes to the point that my face was unrecognizable and swollen.
When I finally fought back by cutting him with a kitchen knife, he divorced me by word of mouth.
“I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you,” were his final words before being thrown out on the street.
I was homeless for months. I slept in alleyways and any place that sheltered me from the weather. There were times I didn’t eat for days and had to steal food. May Allah forgive me. I thought I was at the lowest point of my life when I met Sheik Abdelnour. The Sheik saw me stealing food. He followed me to a secluded place where I slept. Abdelnoor offered to help me. He told me to follow him from a distance to his office. I did so. I knew it was an adverse judgment. If I was caught with him alone, I risked jail time and possibly death.
I was dead either way; instead, it was from starvation or put to death by the Iraqi estate.
I took my chances and went with Sheik to his office. He led me to an alley where no one would have seen us. He took me to a building with a door with chipping red paint.
“The streets are bustling at this time. Wait here, and I’ll go inside to open the door,” Sheik instructed.
I watched him walk towards the busy main street. I waited for about an hour. At that time, the sun was setting, and I decided to pray Maghrib prayer. I made my prayer on a used cardboard box. After twenty minutes, the Sheik opened the back door.
“Forgive me, sister. I had a few clients that needed my attention. Come in.”
The Sheik served me Arancini balls (fried potatoes stuffed with meat) and freshly made black ice tea. The Sheik inquired why I was living on the street. I told the Sheik my story. He gave me some comforting words and offered a solution to my problems.
“Sister, I can help. How do you feel about temporary marriage,” the Sheik asked.
I could not believe he was offering Muk’tah marriage as an option. Muk’tah marriage was a common practice in the Kadhimiya. Men are marrying women on short-term contracts for sexual pleasure.
“I always wanted to be married for life.”
“You are divorced. Take my word that no man wants to marry a divorced woman in Iraq permanently. You are considered used goods.”
“Then why would you offer Muk’tah marriage. I am not a prostitute.”
“You won’t be. You will be married. After you are paid a set dowry, you will pay 70 percent for the finder fee and paperwork. When the marriage is over, you’ll be richer than what you are now. Think about it. You can buy food and have a place to sleep unless you like going hungry or sleeping on the street. I tell you, it is not safe out there, especially for women who do not have a protector. I will protect you.”
The Sheik made his proposal sound simple. Simple it was not. The thought of marrying men temporarily for money was appalling, but I had no choice. Once I agreed, he gave me a key to an apartment, a cell phone, and $300,000 in Iraqi dinar, which equals close to $200 in American currency.
When I entered the apartment, I found cramping living quarters. It was a studio apartment with a bathroom, a kitchen, and a bedroom in one area. The sanitation was below living standards. The cement and paint were chipping off the wall. At least a few years of dust settled on the floor. I could not complain as I had a roof over my head and some money. Mashallah, there was a broom and some cleaning supplies available. It took me two hours to clean the apartment. After I was done, I showered and washed my clothes with a used soap bar and hung them in the bathroom.
The following morning I went shopping for all the essential supplies I needed. While shopping for clothes, I received a cell phone call from Abdelnour. He said he found someone that wanted to marry for a day. I had no choice but to accept. He proceeded with the marriage over the phone. He asked me was I doing this of my own free will. I said yes. Then he asked me,
“Do I accept,” I answered three times with the answer, “I accept?”
With those easy words, I was married. I quickly finished shopping and rushed home. I put on some makeup, some perfume, and the new clothes I bought. Once I was finished, I waited for hours for my temporary husband. When nightfall came, there was a knock at my door. I opened the door and saw a middle-aged man with a graying beard. I was very nervous and wanted to change my mind, but it was too late.
After my first night, I married countless men. The experience was tiring and detrimental to my faith as a believing Muslim. At some point, the Muk’tah marriage was becoming dangerous. The Sheik set me up with abusive men to act out their sick fantasies, such as sodomy, which is not permissible in Islam. When refused, I was forced into doing so. I beg the Sheik not to marry me to these types of men. Instead, he upset me and replied that I must please these men regardless. When the Sheik ignored my concerns, I knew I had to find a way out of this ungodly cycle.