BAGHDAD // For more than a decade, Yunis Ouda al Abbadi lived and worked in Lebanon, settling into a regular job at a petrol station, predictably perhaps, falling in love with the cosmopolitan rhythms of Beirut.
He also fell in love with a Lebanese woman and, as soon as he had saved enough money, the two planned to marry. Those dreams were shattered in 2006 when, at 34, he was told by his father to urgently return to Amara in Iraq, the city of his birth. Fearing some catastrophe had befallen his family, he packed a bag and left Lebanon immediately. Arriving at his father's house, he quickly realised the only problem was his own; in accordance with local tribal traditions, it had been arranged that he would marry a cousin, whether he liked it or not.
"I rushed home thinking someone had been hurt. They wouldn't tell me anything on the phone, so I just went as fast as I could," he said. "When I got there, my father and my uncles told me about my marriage, that it had all been arranged and decided." Mr al Abbadi said his family and tribe piled pressure on him to accept, making it clear that he would shame them if he refused. Holding out against the plan, he decided to leave Amara, but the tribe intervened, using its power and connections to prevent him skipping town.
"I'd never even seen this woman before," Mr al Abbadi, now 38 years old, recalled. "When I was young and would visit my uncle's house, I couldn't see her or talk to her, it was never allowed. It's another of our traditions." Eventually, for the sake of his family's reputation, he agreed to the arranged marriage but, four years later and now a father of three, the shock of events has still not worn off.
"I'd lived in Beirut since I was 22, I had all these modern ideas, I'd seen that kind of life and then I was suddenly brought back into this," he said. "My wife isn't the woman I wanted. She has a different outlook to me. She'd never even left the house, really. She has no education. She's not someone I can talk to. "I don't love her. I won't divorce her because of the children and because it is my destiny, but this kind of thing should stop. I hate my father for this, I hate my uncles, I hate my tribe." Arranged marriages are common in Iraq, and it is also typical, certainly in areas outside of Baghdad, for cousins to marry. Under Iraqi law, it is illegal to force such a marriage against the will of either the man or the woman. In practice, however, compulsion is far from rare.
Tribal leaders justify the practice on grounds of culture, tradition and practical common sense. Marriages kept within a tribe ensure its strength and unity, and, they say, are less likely to end in divorce. Varyes al Masoud, a sheikh from the Shammari tribe, said: "I always recommend that cousins marry. It is our way and it is better for everyone. Cousins can support one another, they have shared backgrounds and expectations, and it keeps the tribe strong."
If men wanted to marry outside of the tribe, Sheikh Masoud said, it was allowed as long as he approved the woman as suitable. Women were not allowed to marry men from outside the tribe. "If a woman wants to marry outside the tribe, she has no rights to do that," he said. "The men in our tribal system know what is best for the women, so we make those decisions." Cousins are typically pledged to one another at an early age, sometimes at birth, and the promise is considered to be a binding social contract.
It is not only tribal leaders who advocate the practice, and many arranged marriages within an extended family are perfectly happy. Reyson Aboud, a farmer from the Zafaramiyah area on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, married his cousin six years ago. They were betrothed while still children. "I'm happy and my wife always says she is too. We have a nice life and two healthy children," he said. "We care for each other and in a farming community it is important to have someone from the same background. If I married a stranger, she wouldn't understand what farming life is like.
"I realise that some people do not want to be married this way, and that's fine, but it does work here." In Baghdad, Mohammad al Shammar, a lawyer, specialises in family cases, including claimants disputing arranged marriages. According to Iraqi statute, it is a criminal offence, punishable by three years in jail and heavy fines, to force a couple to wed. It is also illegal to pledge children to one another, because they are not in a position to give consent.
Technically, any person who has been entered into an arranged marriage he or she is unhappy with can walk into a police station and immediately claim protection from the law. That rarely happens in reality, Mr al Shammar said. "We have the laws and they used to be enforced under the old regime," he explained. "This government is weak, the police are weak and offer little protection to men or women's rights."
Mr al Shammar said that in addition to actually enforcing legal statutes, the government had to work to educate communities. "It's a big task, but in the end it needs people to be educated about this, and to realise that innocent young men and women should not be pushed into marriage against their will. It should be stopped." That sentiment was echoed by Fatima al Ali, 51, a woman living in the Iraqi capital.
As a young lady, she had been pledged to her cousin, a man she despised. Rather than wed him, she fled from her home in Diwaniyah, leaving behind her family and friends. "I was promised to him on the day I was born," she said. "They told me it was our custom, the tribal way, that it was Islamic. I know Islam. There is nothing that says you must marry your cousin. In fact it warns that if you do that your children will be unhealthy."
Ms al Ali works as a hairdresser, earning just enough money to support herself and to rent a room in a flat she shares with a co-worker. She is proud of her independence. "I would rather have a hard life alone than be with that man," she said. "I may not be totally happy now, but I'm happy enough. There is nothing more miserable than a bad marriage." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org