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Undercover with The Clerics

Duration: 47 minutes

First broadcast: on BBC WORLD NEWS Middle EastLatest broadcast: on BBC WORLD NEWS Middle East

Working with an undercover reporter, BBC Arabic’s Nawal Al Maghafi investigates Shia clerics at some of Iraq’s holiest shrines. She uncovers the grooming and exploitation of vulnerable girls and young women, trapped into prostitution and pimped out by a religious elite. A young widow alleges that a cleric from an important shrine sold her to his friends in a prostitution ring, while secret filming reveals another cleric conducting a so-called ‘pleasure marriage’ with a girl he believes to be only 13.

Every year millions of Shia Muslims visit revered holy shrines like Karbala and Baghdad’s Kadhimiya district. In marriage offices near the shrines, some clerics are offering pleasure marriages. In a society like Iraq, where unmarried couples can’t have sex, a pleasure marriage allows a man to pay a woman for sex for a limited period of time. Under Iraqi civil law they’re illegal, but some clerics say they’re allowed under Islamic law and can be a source of income for divorcees or widows.

BBC Arabic’s undercover reporter visits ten marriage offices in Kadhimiya and finds eight of them agreeing to carry out a pleasure marriage. One cleric recommends it be done as a verbal contract, “with no fingerprints, no evidence. You can just leave her and go.” Another says: “You can marry a woman for half an hour and as soon as it’s over, straight away you can marry another one.”

Nawal Al Maghafi hears disturbing allegations that some clerics are making money helping men who want sex with very young girls. In Karbala, Iraq’s most important religious city, the undercover reporter is introduced to a cleric who gives the shocking religious advice that pleasure marriage with a child is halal: “Nine years old plus, there’s no problem.” Foreplay and anal sex are permitted, he says, as long as the man avoids taking a young girl’s virginity: “It’s up to you how you want to do it, she’s permitted to you. You're allowed to perform from behind. Do what you desire.”

In Kadhimiya, the undercover reporter sets out to see if a cleric will do a pleasure marriage with a very young girl. For $200 the cleric agrees to perform a ceremony over the phone with a girl he’s told is 13, without meeting her or talking to her family. (In reality the ‘girl’ on the phone was a member of the filming team.)

The film goes on to reveal that other clerics actively recruit girls for pleasure marriages and even pimp them out. A cleric from Kadhimiya introduces a young woman to the undercover reporter. A day’s pleasure marriage will cost him $300 for the girl and $400 for the cleric.

Ghaith Al Tamimi was a high-ranking Shia cleric in Iraq until he criticised rising religious extremism and was forced into exile in London. He condemns the clerics’ actions and says: “This is morally the lowest of the low. I would never think that prostitution could be made ‘holy’.” Yanar Mohammed, who runs a network of women’s shelters in Iraq, believes the rise of clerical power in the aftermath of war has been disastrous for women’s rights. “There were laws that protected women. It seems that all the things that we gained in decades of hard work were lost.”
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