Iraqi men may be paid to marry women over 35

September 12, 2010 - 0:0

Amid all the recent talk about the war in Iraq, one cost seems to be relatively hidden: as with World War I, many of the country's young men have died during the violence of the past seven years, creating a kind of “lost generation.” This has had devastating consequences for Iraqi women who came of age during the war, many of whom despair of ever getting married. This has serious social implications in a culture where single women over the age of 30 face considerable stigma and severe social limitations. The issue is so problematic that women's rights activists have even considered offering cash incentives to men prepared to marry older women or take second wives.

In Iraqi society, women are expected to be married by their teens or early twenties. Single women in their thirties are considered an anomaly, and generally continue living with their families. They are often unable to leave the house without a male escort because women who lack a husband's protection are seen as vulnerable. Work opportunities are hard to come by, and these women are easily exploited by their families, forced to cook, clean, or take care of children.
The war has made cross-sect marriages between Sunnis and Shiites far less common, and disrupted many of the structures that were considered essential to arranging marriages. Violence made family visits more difficult, and many young men can't afford the expenses necessary for marriage.
One woman explained, “The last seven years of fighting has killed whatever chance I had of marrying. I no longer think of marriage.” Another explained that her sister-in-law treated her like a “house slave. She continued, “There are no suitable public places where someone like me can meet someone and eventually marry.”
A woman's rights activist said that she cautiously backed the idea of cash incentives for men to marry older women, but also voiced concern, saying, “Women are not merchandise for sale, there must be guarantees of good intentions on the part of the men if we allow this to go ahead.” Others disagreed, saying that the issue was structural, and that women needed to be given opportunities to create a career, rather than relying on marriage for survival.
The latter is certainly the perspective I would take. Incentivizing marriage to older women using what is essentially a cash bribe reduces the chance that the woman will be treated with any kind of respect, and ultimately doesn't solve the problem, which is that unmarried women have great difficulty surviving in Iraqi society. Giving women the tools to become independent is the solution, not paying off men and thus reinforcing a system that denies women any kind of autonomy. Clearly, this is a place where large systemic change has to occur. (Source: