Three new documentaries show the impact of military conflicts on everyday life in the Arab region: the exploitation of vulnerable Iraqi girls in war’s aftermath, the suffering of families in Aleppo under siege, and the struggle to find hope in blockaded Gaza.
Undercover with the Clerics, Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade
In an undercover investigation by BBC Arabic, journalist Nawal al-Maghafi exposes the clerics exploiting young women and girls by trading them for sex under the banner of zawaj al mutaa, or pleasure marriage, which is illegal under Iraqi civil law.
Some Shia clerics claim the practice, which allows a man to pay for a temporary wife, is permissible under Islamic law, but Undercover with the Clerics, Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade shows children trapped into marriages that can last only an hour or a few days. In a statement to the BBC, Ayatollah Sistani, who is one of the most senior figures in Shia Islam said: “If these practices are happening in the way you are saying then we condemn them unreservedly. Temporary marriage is not allowed as a tool to sell sex in a way that belittles the dignity and humanity of women.”
In the streets around the shrines at Kadhimiya, the abuse appears to be widespread. Of the 10 clerics approached, eight told the undercover reporter, posing as a potential client, that they could arrange a pleasure marriage. During one conversation he’s told “Nine years old plus, there’s no problem….do what you desire.” In another scene, the reporter asks the cleric whether he should be worried about exploiting a young girl. “What if she gets hurt?” The cleric waves away his concerns. “That is between you and her,” he says.
Later the camera zooms in on his fat hands counting out $200 for a pleasure marriage with a girl he believed to be thirteen, in a ceremony conducted over the phone. “Now you are married and you can have sex,” he says.
The film also sheds light on the situation facing girls who are pressured into pleasure marriages. Mona (not her real name) was just 14 when she was intimidated into marrying an older man in an arrangement that was kept secret from her parents. When she tried to stop seeing him, he told her that he’d filmed them together and threatened to show people the video. “After that I was terrified. So I did anything he asked,” she said.
Mona now lives in fear that her family will discover she is no longer a virgin. Her cousin was killed by her uncle and brothers for having a boyfriend and now she’s considering suicide before they learn the truth. “If I feel more pressure, I will do it,” she told al-Maghafi.
This hour-long documentary, which was first aired at the beginning of October and is currently available online, shows the power of investigative broadcast journalism to expose abuses that have gone unchecked.
Yanar Mohammed, an activist who runs women’s shelters in Iraq, places the practice of pleasure marriages in the context of the roll-back on women’s rights following 15 years of war in Iraq and the rise in power of religious clerics. A few of these women and girls find their way to shelters, she says, but many end up in brothels where they live short, unhappy lives. “It’s always the girls and the women who pay the price,” she says.