The undercover video shows a man sitting across a table at a restaurant, but the conversation he is having is stomach-turning. The man being filmed is a Shia cleric giving detailed instructions on what an adult man is allowed to do sexually to a 13-year old girl in a temporary “pleasure marriage.”
“Just be careful she doesn’t lose her virginity,” the cleric says, stubbing out a cigarette. “You can have foreplay, lie with her, touch her body, her breasts. You can’t penetrate her from the front.” He then clarifies, “Anal sex is fine. But don’t go to the front to take her virginity.”
Reporter Nawal Al-Maghafi first heard about these mutaa [pleasure] marriages from an Iraqi woman. For a fee, some clerics were willing to officiate a quickie short-term marriage so that sex would be allowed under Islamic law. Sometimes, the clerics are willing to even help find the bride. More horrifyingly, they were sometimes willing to procure brides as young as 12 or 13 years old-essentially, child sex trafficking facilitated by clerics. “There are restrictions for women,” one cleric says on camera. “A man can marry as many women as he wants. You can marry a girl for half an hour and as soon as it’s over, you can marry another one straight away.”
Nawal didn’t know whether these were just rumors so she and colleagues went undercover to find out. “When we first set out, I didn’t imagine it to be of the scale that we saw,” Nawal told Women in the World. “I thought it would be impossible to find these clerics. But out of ten clerics we randomly approached, eight of them agreed to do it.”
Nawal’s turned her reporting into a film “Undercover with the Clerics: Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade.” Its shocking scenes of secretly-taped transactions for young girls caused an uproar in Iraq where pleasure marriages had already been outlawed. Ayatollah al-Sistani, the most powerful Shia cleric in Iraq, put out a statement condemning the practice. The marriage offices of three of the clerics shown in the film were shut down. There was also backlash against Nawal and the filmmakers. “There were protests outside the BBC,” Nawal said. “I had to have security for a while.”
Nawal is used to putting herself in harm’s way to get a story. That’s how she became a journalist. Nawal, who is Yemeni, had just gotten her degree in economics and politics at the University of Nottingham when the Arab Spring broke out. She decided to go back to Yemen to film it. Her videos caught the attention of the BBC and she has been reporting for them ever since.
For Nawal, what adds to the outrage of the story in Iraq is that the women and girls being exploited were already victims of 15 years of war that left an estimated 800,000 children orphaned and more than a million women widowed. “It was so shocking to see what war can do. I’ve covered Yemen, Iraq, Syria- it’s always the women and girls who pay the highest price and who have to deal with the hardest stuff.”
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