"Colorful" Marriages: Making Cohabitation Palatable in Iran

Maral Sahebjame
Feb 7, 2024, 12:00 pm1:00 pm
Free, Open to the Public



Event Description

Marriage practices in Iran have evolved rapidly since the turn of the century as the younger generation's unfulfilled expectations of intimacy in marriage have caused an increase in divorce rates, marriage postponement, and engagement in intimate partner relationships that are neither sanctioned by societal norms nor state laws. Over the past decade, the emergence of "white marriages," or cohabitation, has made these unsanctioned relationships more publicly visible. White marriage exacerbates what the state has long called a "marriage crisis." While prominent clerics and state officials condemn white marriage because it violates Islamic principles, some Iranians prefer this conjugal arrangement to sanctioned permanent or "temporary marriages" (sigheh). Through an ethnographic analysis of engagement and interviews with clerics, legal experts, and practitioners of white marriage in Iran, this talk will show that through their everyday practices, white marriage practitioners have sparked a public discussion on the politics of intimacy and forced state actors and clerics to revisit legal and Islamic debates about marriage and more broadly, about gender. At a time when state repression and gender oppression are tropes used to justify isolation or military intervention throughout the Middle East, this talk highlights the co-constitutive relationship between the Iranian state and society, where those who choose alternative forms of intimate partner relationships, contribute to a movement that effects social change.


Maral Sahebjame is an interdisciplinary scholar of Middle East studies, anthropology, and sociolegal studies. She received her Ph.D. in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Washington. Using ethnographic research methods, her project, "Between the Courtroom and the Seminary," examines debates and discussions about gender rights and practices among legal experts and Islamic scholars in contemporary Iran. This project builds on her dissertation research which shows that through their everyday practices, Iranians control the legal debates around gender rights much more than observers realize. In so doing, her project intervenes in sociolegal theories about social movements and social change through a non-Americentric lens, and in anthropological debates about the porosity of everyday Islam. 

Alison Cummins