THE BLOG
11/18/2014 08:30 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

Online "Sigheh"in Iran: Revolutionary or Restricting?

A new form of engaging in sexual relationships has sprung upon Iran's virtual scene as of late, and is being widely criticized. The significant difference? It's legal, unlike dating websites and most chat rooms. There are also Facebook pages dedicated to women who openly announce their readiness to become concubines, some of whom refer interested men to procurers.

Elham is a 32-year-old nail stylist who also works with one of these websites as a concubine candidate. In a phone interview, I ask her how she feels about the criticism that she and her peers receive from a lot of Iranians. Elham says:

I don't understand the criticism. It's religiously-accepted, it's legal, and it's consensual. Also, it's healthy and hygienic and everything is clear before the encounter. I don't see why some people are against it. How come prostitution is not under fire like this? Is that better? I am religious, I pray and fast and cover my hair. I'm divorced, but I have sexual needs and desires. I want to get to show off my body as much as the next woman does. I could not meet my sexual needs any other way. In a 50-minute session, it's not only the man who is sexually satisfied. I don't know about others, but after the sexual encounter, I am satisfied just like my sex partner is. I shouldn't be punished because I'm a divorcee. And I also get paid, so for me, it's fair; a win-win situation for both parties involved.

"Sigheh"--a temporary marriage agreement also known as having a concubine--is one of Shi'ism's most controversial regulations. What has been traditionally defined in the category of sigheh in Iran is the possibility which it provides religious families who restrict their children in their interaction with the opposite gender. This opportunity is mostly presented to young candidates of marriage as a means to enter a period of courtship prior to getting married. The other way sigheh is known to be concretized--and heavily criticized--is when religious married men desire a mistress, or enter sexual relations with a woman outside of marriage. Critics believe that this is a way for entering prostitution, despite the fact that it is allowed per Shi'ism and is considered halal.

One of these weblogs -- which became active and attracted attention in September, has been removed from its virtual address as of October 24. In the first few days after its removal from cyber space, the message was "No website found at this address." Since then, other than announcing its removal, the message says, "The managers of this website are being legally pursued."

The blog's homepage contained a picture of Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi, a prominent Iranian cleric, and a Q & A section in which relevant questions were answered by Makarem-Shirazi himself or according to his book. The main part of this blog and similar ones is the personal ads from women. The information provided in these personal ads is very elaborate; consisting of the woman's characteristics and physical features, and categorized by the city where she lives, her age, and whether or not she has gone through menopause. To make things legal and cleric-proof, instead of the price one must pay a procurer, the asking amount of money is called "Cost of introduction," which differs based on the woman's qualities, such as her age, beauty, weight, and body shape. As of now, although the weblog itself no longer exists, fragments of its contents could be found elsewhere on the web.

In Islam, "Mahriyyeh" is the gift from a man to his wife or concubine (sigheh), which is redeemable anytime throughout their marriage or at the time of divorce or the man's death, and is also applicable to temporary marriages. Now, in the virtual personal ads, mahriyyeh is code for the price of the sexual encounter itself, or the fee the female candidate charges.

Seyyed Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, former vice president of Iran (under Mohammad Khatami), believes this is a good way for sexual activities to be performed, because women are protected and men are assured of their sexual partner's health. In a phone interview, I asked Abtahi, who resides in Tehran, about this, to which he answered:

In this city and many others throughout Iran, most young people date and have sex with their boyfriend or girlfriend, which is not in accordance with Islam and the country's law. But this method provides religious people with a means to satisfy their sexual needs in a religiously-accepted way, and facilitates their introduction and courtship if they wish to get married.

In response to how he does not consider this a paradox in a society where the youth could be arrested for simply holding hands in public, the former vice-president replied:

The websites and blogs are a form of business. But interacting when you are not in an Islamic relationship is a sin. It's also illegal in our country. This is a way for those who respect their Islamic beliefs to engage with the opposite sex in a manner that is proper. A marriage is a marriage anyway: it's an agreement between two people. In this instance, the difference is in the length of the marriage. Be it an hour or a lifetime, it's still an agreement between the two parties involved. In such an arrangement, the woman's rights are preserved, and proper measures are taken in case of pregnancy. If sigheh were not accessible, Iranian Shia men would do the same as Arab Sunni men do: have four wives at the same time.

What Abtahi refers to as a sign of women's rights being preserved is "Eddeh", an Islamic precaution taken in case the woman is pregnant at the time of separation or death of the husband, be it in a temporary marriage or a permanent one. Time needs to lapse so that it could be clear if she is with child and to clarify whose child she is carrying. Most online facilitators of sexual encounters include a clause in the conditions, and that is: unless the woman is post-menopausal, there will be no penetration allowed in the sexual encounter.

In a recent interview with an Iranian website, Ebrahim Fayyaz, a conservative lecturer at the University of Tehran, expressed his concerns over the possibility of a "sexual revolution." Fayyaz is among those pro-administration scholars who strongly believe that given what they call a "sexual crisis," the continuation of the status quo in Iran's society may lead to a sexual revolution.

Some believe that the freedom of online activity of men searching for women for sexual encounters is granted by the government in order to restrict women and put them at the service of men, and is somehow related to preventative measures taken toward this so-called imminent sexual revolution.

Ali Sajjadi, an Iran culture/history expert and Washington-based writer whom I interviewed on this topic, says:

Iran's 1979 revolution was, in fact, a sexual revolution. As of now, a sexual revolution is in the works. The significant difference between these two events, however, lies in their enablers. In 1978 and '79, many religious Iranian men, and even some Iranian women, supported the execution of the Islamic Revolution, in part seeking limited freedom for women. Today, hard-liners are seeking to suppress women. But this time around, women are standing their ground.

Sajjadi's take on the warnings of conservatives such as Fayyaz:

I think Fayyaz and his peers would appreciate less social participation for women, which is not at all distant from the target of the administration. Iranian women have outnumbered men in universities, and soon enough, there will be more women than men in fields such as medicine, and perhaps even some engineering domains. Better educated women get married later in life, are more reluctant to have children due to their professional presence, and would rather have, at the most, two children. This is what conservatives strongly dislike. And the legal presence of sexual services provided by women is a more elaborate way of materializing them.

Iranian online sex facilitators have specific terms and conditions, one of them being oral sex: many of these web pages or personal ads stress on oral sex being "unhygienic" and forbidden. These sexual encounters come with other specifics: they should end within 50 minutes to free up the last ten minutes for dressing and goodbyes, men are not to text or call women unless it is for the logistics of the upcoming meet-up, and if they do so, they may be prosecuted for procurement. Also included in most cases is that young women may choose not to remove their underpants. Moreover, it is stressed that men should come to the rendez-vous clean and bathed, wearing cologne. Also, men with bad breath would not be served at all.

If penetration (for pre-menopausal women) and oral sex (in general) are out of the picture, one may wonder how men benefiting from these sexual encounters are sexually satisfied. According to field research, the woman's legs or breasts are used for fulfillment, with some women being exempted the latter due to breast surgery, which is clarified in their personal ad.

Legal online sources for sex in Iran generally appeal to men above 35, even among religious and more traditional men.

I interviewed 35 Iranian men living in four different cities of Iran, in quest of whether they have attempted to use sigheh websites or other online services for sexual relations with women. Only 5 of them said they refer to such internet-based sources regularly. Out of these men, aged between 30 and 65, three said they are religious, one said he is traditional, and the other said he uses these services due to their being discreet and no-nonsense. Four other men told me they had tried these services a few times, solely out of curiosity. But some Iranian men have apparently not heard of such online sources, and some know about personal ads but have not looked them up themselves, though they might have friends who have.

In an interview, Aryo, 38, an MBA who runs his father's business, told me:

These ads mostly appeal to traditional and religious middle-aged men, most of whom are not well-educated. Such men don't belong to the higher-class demographics of the society. Women who advertise themselves in this category are accessible and the price for their sexual service is usually a low one.

At the end of the day, there are people who would much rather see or hear about concubine activities online than see prostitutes on the streets of Tehran and many other cities in Iran, waiting to be picked up. Such is the mindset of Jamal, a 59-year-old non-religious dentist living in Tehran who tells me he despises seeing prostitutes on the streets, "Not to mention", he adds, "they are constantly in danger of getting arrested."