Iraq Pulse

Erbil court acquits pro-polygamy cleric despite women's protests

Article Summary
An Erbil court acquitted a Kurdish cleric who called Kurdish women "dinosaurs."

A Kurdish court in Erbil acquitted Mullah Mazhar Khorasani, a pro-polygamy cleric, on charges of defamation and insulting women due to a lack of evidence.

Khorasani was in court Jan. 27 and Feb. 6 after 300 women filed a defamation lawsuit against him, accusing him of insulting women. On his TV station, Khorasani called Kurdish women “dinosaurs” and accused them of acting like “tribal chieftains” in their efforts to prevent their husbands from taking on new wives.

“Those who have filed a petition against Khorasani have one month to appeal the court's decision,” Khorasani's lawyers said at a Feb. 6 press conference at the courthouse in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

After his acquittal, Khorasani said he would take his accusers to court for moral and financial compensation if they did not apologize to him and to "God, for denying his words on polygamy."

Farman Hassan, a Kurdish lawyer, told Al-Monitor that if there is new evidence found against Khorasani, another case could be brought against him.

The cleric was unrepentant throughout the trial. “As a preacher, I will stand tall, and call for polygamy until I die,” Khorasani announced at a January press conference, further inciting tensions between polygamy advocates and secular-minded women's groups.

Khorasani, an eloquent, media-savvy Kurdish cleric, has become the poster child for polygamy in Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq.

“This is the tenth time that I am facing trial for interpreting the verses of the Quran on polygamy,” Khorasani told Al-Monitor.

The third verse of the Quranic sura An-Nisa, or the Women, is often interpreted as permitting men to take on multiple wives if they are able to treat them fairly. “But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses," it states. "That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].”

Khorasani has advocated for polygamy in his Friday sermons, on social media and on the local Srusht channel, which he manages. During a program on Srusht in June 2018, Khorasani called Kurdish women “dinosaurs” and accused them of behaving like tribal chieftains, or “aghas,” in reference to them opposing their husbands taking on second wives. In response, the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) Ministry of Youth and Culture temporarily closed Srusht TV in September, though it later reopened.

Khorasani faced charges of insults and defamation under the Iraqi penal code, a charge that is punishable by up to a year in jail. When he arrived at the courthouse Jan. 27, he was greeted by supporters chanting "God is great" and asking for his release.

Kurdish women's rights activist Bahar Munzir, one of the leaders of the campaign —​ called Stand Against Disrespecting Women​ —​ to bring the lawsuit against him, said in February that the cleric was on trial for insulting women and advocating polygamy.

“Our lawsuit against Khorasani is not only related to polygamy, but it is basically against the cleric’s insults via Srusht channel, where he disrespected Kurdish women in general by labeling them dinosaurs,” Munzir told Al-Monitor before the Feb. 6 verdict. “Moreover, the cleric … publicly defamed Kurdish women who are working in women’s organizations as [immoral].”

The case highlights the lively debate surrounding Iraq's laws on polygamy, as well as the gaps in the laws themselves, which differ at the national level and in the Kurdistan region.

Polygamy in Iraq is permitted so long as the husband is capable of providing financially for his wives and ensuring fairness and impartiality among them. It does not require the consent of the wife, but it does require the agreement of a personal status judge, or qadi, who will determine whether the man has the means to treat all the wives equally. Yet an exception is made for widows. Men may marry widows without having to prove they have the means to treat her equally, as widows are viewed as women with no means and in need of male protection.

Kurdistan's parliament has amended Iraq's laws on polygamy. In Kurdistan, men may take on a second wife — either a "virgin" or a widow — if the first wife agrees or if she is in poor health and cannot engage in sexual intercourse or give birth. If either condition is met, the husband must then prove his capacity to financially support and fairly treat his wives. However, some Kurdish women's organizations affiliated with ruling political parties oppose the link to female fertility, saying it is used as an excuse for men to take on additional wives. 

“We are for the elimination of polygamy altogether in the region, whereas some clerics and people are still promoting polygamy,” Munzir said.

Advocates of polygamy in Iraq, from clerics like Khorasani to like-minded politicians, point to statistics that show the rising number of divorcees and unmarried women in the country. The number of marriages in Iraqi Kurdistan is on the decline as well, due to harsh economic conditions and high levels of youth unemployment. According to official KRG figures, only 32,432 marriage contracts were signed in the region in 2019, while 8,381 divorce cases were recorded. Local media outlets report that divorce cases skyrocketed in 2018 compared to 2017.

Munzir said that just because there is a decline in the number of young people getting married, it is not a justification for polygamy, which she said serves "the elderly and the rich," who usually seek to marry younger women.

Khorasani accused the women’s organizations of opposing the Quran and God. “Women's organizations want to revolt against the message of God," Khorasani told Al-Monitor. "Their [attitude will neither bring] freedom nor happiness for women. When I say those NGOs are the producers of [dinosaurs], I mean they want to deprive Kurdish women of high morals.”

He continued, “Currently, polygamy is an urgent need and a divine solution for the Kurdish community, as we have increasing divorce figures, and many spinsters who did not have the chance to marry.” 

Khorasani said the KRG's Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs has punished him numerous times, such as the closing down of his TV station, due to lawsuits brought against him by female activists.

Even though Kurdish law restricts polygamy, Kurdish men are taking on additional wives under Iraq's amended personal status law in disputed areas outside the Kurdistan region, according to Ashna Abullah, a lawmaker in the Kurdistan parliament. She said men are also marrying young Arab girls in refugee camps in the Kurdistan region.

This loophole stems from the Iraqi parliament's amendment of the 1959 personal status law in 2017. Though the amendment does not alter the main conditions for allowing polygamy, it does aim to respect individual rights in Iraqi courts, in terms of religious or confessional beliefs, in the implementation of the status law.

Decades of war, poor health conditions and economic stagnation have left more than 2 million Iraqi women widowed and divorced, according to 2017 figures from Iraq's Ministry of Planning. Jamila al-Obaidi, a female Sunni member of Iraqi parliament, tweeted in 2017 that she would lobby for laws to allow polygamy since 70% of Iraqi women at marriageable age were unmarried. 

“No research has yet confirmed that polygamy has resolved the issue of divorce or high levels of unmarried girls," Farman Hassan, a Kurdish lawyer with experience in divorce cases, told Al-Monitor. "However, no one can ban polygamy completely since this is a personal freedom, regulated by the personal status law. The legal issue in the Kurdistan region is that Iraqi courts approve polygamy contracts without conditions, thus the Kurdish region is obliged to accept those contracts. Such polygamy marriages often create issues in Kurdistan, as most of them have been arranged without the agreement of the first wife.”

Polygamy is often viewed as illegal and inhumane in the modern world, but Iraq’s religious communities, in all their diversity, have made polygamy a necessity to be regulated by law. Yet Iraq's secular female right groups continue to advocate for its elimination as clerics continue to promote it.

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Found in: Women’s rights

Dana Taib Menmy is a Kurdish journalist from Sulaimaniyah who has been published by several Kurdish media outlets since 2006.

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