In Timbuktu, Mali, the idea of “till death do us part” is far from universal in marriage. That’s because a thriving industry of “temporary marriages” has grown up to give legal and religious sanction to men who want to have sex outside of marriage, often with a young girl or child. These temporary marriages are built on the social and legal assumptions that women are the property of their family and that men have complete legal, financial, and sexual control over when a “marriage” begins and ends. But these temporary marriages are often little more than contracts of slavery, indenturing women and girls to a men who can use them and eventually dispose of them.
There are three main types of temporary marriage in Timbuktu, known locally as “work marriage,” “hidden marriage,” and “tiny hut marriage.” All three are based on the idea of women as property or objects to be sold. Work marriages refer to temporary marriages that take place between a wealthy foreign man who comes to Timbuktu to work for a period and a local girl. If he sees a girl he likes, he’ll offer her family a large dowry to marry her. Work marriages are often considered some of the most respectable forms of temporary marriage, as a relationship with the wealthy foreigner may raise the family’s social status. However, the marriage exists entirely on his terms; it lasts until the man leaves the country or until he decides he no longer likes the girl. Then, he divorces her and leaves her to fend for herself.
Hidden marriages refer to marriages between a man who is already married, but whose wife (or wives) don’t want him to marry again or marry a girl from a poor family. Wealthy men will “marry” poor teen girls in secret and then confine them to a house, which the man will visit periodically. And these visits aren’t exactly for a rousing game of Scrabble. These marriages are terminated again at the man’s whim, sometimes when his other wives find out and sometimes when he gets tired of financially supporting his secret wife.
The third type of marriage, the “tiny hut” marriage, is the most temporary, as it can last from a few hours to a few nights. Basically, a man traveling through Timbuktu can pay the family of a girl he wants to sleep with a “dowry fee,” and they will sign a contract so the two are legally and spiritually “married” for the night. All the man has to do is say “I divorce you” three times in the morning, and the marriage is dissolved. It may be called a marriage, but paying someone to have sex with the person they control sure sounds like human trafficking to me. Tiny hut marriages are especially hard on the girls sold into them, who are most often virgins before the tiny hut marriage, and who may not be able to marry permanently after their sale for sex. Some victims of tiny hut marriages eventually are sucked into prostitution, feeling they have no other options after being raped outside of marriage.
This system of temporary marriage in Timbuktu is little more than a thin veneer of legitimacy, meant to allow men to have sex with any girl they choose, given that the price is right, regardless of her desire or consent. The idea of temporary marriage as a way to sanction the sex men want to have is not unique to Mali. However, Timbuktu’s temporary marriage system is highly developed and ingrained into the cultural, legal, and religious landscape of the country. But for many of the girls who are sold as “temporary wives,” it’s just one more way they are getting screwed.
Photo credit: hypertornado