MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistanâ€”Twenty-nine-year-old mechanic Payenda Mohammad was married last month in a simple ceremony in this northern Afghanistan town, but the marriage only lasted four hours. Which was exactly what he wanted.
Nobody would give me their daughters to marry because I didnâ€™t have family or money,â€ says Payenda, who ended up in Iran after his parents and a sister were killed in a bombing raid about 15 years ago.
â€œI started doing short marriages in Iran,â€ he says. â€œWhen I came back to Mazar-i-Sharif, I continued,â€ he says. Heâ€™s now been married 20 times. In a country where most marriages are for life and all divorces are a scandal, the idea of the contract or temporary marriage is beginning to catch on.
Afghanistanâ€™s majority Sunni Muslims bans the marriages, known as fegha in the main Dari language, but the Shiites accept them and some people here, like Payenda, got the idea from Iran.
Such marriages were rare in Afghanistan before the Sunni-dominated Taliban regime was overthrown in late 2001, ending 25 years of war. But with the return of many of the nearly two million Afghans who fled to Shiite Iran during the conflict, contract marriages have been gaining popularityâ€”although they are still unusual.
The process is simple. To get married, a couple takes an oath in front of a mullah that makes them man and wife for a stipulated period of time â€” from a few hours to a few years. Afterwards they can then choose to marry each other again or move on.
Shiite clerics defend the practice as something that benefits both the men and women.
â€œFor a man it means he doesnâ€™t have to think about women or sex. For a woman, it means she has a husband to feed and take care of her and her children,â€ said Sayed Barat Ali Razawi, a Shiite mullah in Mazar-i-Sharif.
He says the Prophet Muhammad (s) himself gave permission for soldiers to have short marriages while they were away from home, and for women to marry temporarily if their real husbands had died.
Sunni Muslims say this is wrong.
â€œIn my opinion contract marriage is just for sex,â€ says Mullah Azizullah Mofley, a Sunni cleric, insisting the prophet later outlawed the practice.
Young people â€œabuse contract marriages just for sex by marrying for just one or two hours,â€ he says.
But Nader Nadery, from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, says the contract marriage is not a way to legitimise sex but an attempt to find a practical solution to difficult circumstances like poverty.
â€œIt is not a new trend to overcome a strict moral code,â€ Nadery says. â€œIt started hundreds of years ago.â€
In a normal marriage, an Afghan groom must pay a dowry that can be worth anything from 1,000 to several thousand dollars. He then has to pay for the wedding party, which can cost hundreds more.
â€œI waited for five years but no one came to our house to marry me,â€ says Nazira, whose first husband was killed by the Taliban.
â€œMy father was so poor that he couldnâ€™t feed our family. One day a man came to our house and told my father that he wanted to marry me for seven months.
My father had heard about contract marriages so he accepted,â€ she says.
Her husband Mohammad Asef, a 38-year-old shopkeeper, learned the custom in Iran, where he had gone to work for a year after his wife died, leaving him with two children.
â€œWhen I returned to Afghanistan my aunt helped me find this woman,â€ he says, gesturing to Nazira, with whom he is halfway through a six-month contract.
Mohammad is her second contract husband.
â€œShort marriages have a lot of benefits for women whose husbands have died,â€ she says, as her husband serves customers in the store.
â€œIt helps them look after their children better and they donâ€™t need to go out for sex. Also, we donâ€™t have to pay for a wedding party because with a short marriage we just go to a mullah.â€
She says a regular marriage would have cost them 3,000 dollars.
â€œIt is very difficult,â€ Nazira says. â€œWhere would we find that kind of money?â€