Undercover With The Clerics - Iraq's Secret Sex Trade

Clerics in Iraq are selling young girls for sex, a BBC investigation has found. Some Shia clerics are using a practice called 'pleasure marriage' to groom vulnerable girls and young women and pimp them out.

Published: 3 October 2019

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 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 for a temporary wife. 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.

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.”

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.”

Two of the three clerics secretly filmed by BBC Arabic describe themselves as followers of Ayatollah Sistani, one of the most senior figures in Shia Islam. However, in a statement to the BBC the Ayatollah said: "If these practices are happening in the way you are saying then we condemn them unreservedly. Temporary marriage is not allowed as a tool to sell sex in a way that belittles the dignity and humanity of women.”

An Iraqi Government spokesman told BBC Arabic: “If women don’t go to the police with their complaints against clerics, it’s difficult for the authorities to act.”

Undercover With The Clerics - Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade will be in shortened form on the BBC’s News at Ten and the full documentary will be viewable on BBC iPlayer on October 3 at 10.35pm.