Nadia Shahram knew when she saw them that she had to ask questions — had to find out.
They were young women, draped in flowing garb and veils, who lingered outside the shrines and public spaces of Tehran, the city of Shahram’s birth.
She asked a family member who still lives in the Iranian city what the women were doing.
“Temporary marriage,” she was told. The young women would take money from men who wanted to buy their time as “brides” of a short duration — perhaps an hour or two, maybe a week, maybe longer. It was sexual availability for hire — with a set time limit. And it appeared to be countenanced by the government and religious authority.
Staring at them, Shahram, an attorney who works in Williamsville, knew she had to find out more about these young women’s lives.
“There were some who just refused to talk to me,” Shahram said, on a recent weekday morning, inside the brightly hued office where she practices matrimonial mediation. “But some of them, they really wanted to get their stories out.”
“I couldn’t sleep for a long time, after talking to those women.”
During and following that 2004 visit to her native land, Shahram interviewed some 100 people connected to the practice of “temporary marriage” in Iran: women who sold their time and sexual favors as short-term wives; men who participated in the practice; family members of the women; and more. She took a second trip in 2005 to continue her research.
The stories she heard undergird her new book, a novel called “Marriage On the Street Corners of Tehran,” which is subtitled “A Novel Based on True Stories of Temporary Marriage.” The book is available at the University at Buffalo bookstore and Talking Leaves bookstores.
Though the book is fiction, Shahram said the haunting lives it reveals are real.
“The cases I have used here, 99.9 percent of them are accurate, real cases,” said the attorney, who was in her late teens during the country’s revolution in the late 1970s, and who now teaches in the UB School of Law.
The book treats a subject that is a real problem in Iran and certain other areas of the Muslim world, said Dr. Khalid Qazi, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York.
“It is real, in Iran,” Qazi said. “There are some societies in Muslim countries — Iran being one of them — where ‘temporary marriages’ are practiced.”
But Qazi said the practice — which he said might also happen among immigrant Muslim populations in Western New York on occasion — is not a true practice of Islamic marriage.
“‘Secret’ marriage, or ‘ temporary’ marriage, is not allowed in the Muslim faith,” Qazi said. “Marriage is a union of two consenting parties that must be public and publicly celebrated.”
Shahram was born in Tehran to well-educated parents who were journalists and publishers — her name means “rare,” or “one of a kind” — and came to Toronto to begin her high school education in the mid-1970s. She chose the University at Buffalo for her college career after a visit to Buffalo.
“I absolutely fell in love with Buffalo,” said Shahram, who as a girl dreamed of becoming an Iranian version of Barbara Walters. “Down the QEW — I loved it. My friends said, ‘ We want to go to L.A., to Hollywood,’ but I loved Buffalo.”
She completed her undergraduate degree at UB in 1988 and earned her law degree from the school in 1997. In her solo private practice, she has handled more than 500 cases of matrimonial mediation.
In 2004, Shahram decided to begin researching contemporary Islam, partly as a way of processing what had happened to the United States on 9/11.
“After what our country went through on 9/11, I was … anxious and concerned to find out: What is Islam? Is it peaceful? Is it violent? If it is violent, I am changing my religion,” said Shahram, recalling her thoughts at that time.
During her childhood in Iran “during the shah regime,” Shahram said, religion was a muted thing. Her parents practiced the Islamic faith, but did so privately, “behind closed doors.”
Nowadays, more than 30 years after the country’s revolution, religion seems different, Shahram said — and, she thinks a lot of that is because it has gotten mixed up with politics.
That leads to many unfortunate situations, she said, among them the practice of these socalled “temporary” marriages, which are, she claimed, ignored — or even condoned — by civil governments and religious leaders in the country.
“One of the most shocking things for me was that ‘temporary marriage’ was promoted and encouraged,” she said. “I saw an advertisement in the newspaper, advertising it.”
Shahram said it is her belief that this practice is a corruption of Islamic beliefs about marriage, which are supposed to be bound by contract-like arrangements. But there is never supposed to be an expiration date on the unions, she said.
Women choose to enter these temporary companionship relationships for the money, and because they have no other options, Shahram said.
“These are intelligent young women,” she said. “But they have no choices. There are no waitressing jobs, no jobs at McDonald’s. No female jobs like that exist.”
The women do it even when such an action threatens their chances for a permanent marriage — often working very hard to keep their involvement in these brief marriages secret, if they can.
“They keep it from their friends and family,” Shahram said. “They usually keep a regular profession during the day, or at night.”
Qazi, at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said that while he has not read the novel, he thinks Shahram’s treatment of these hidden, secret marriages performs a useful service in educating people about a taboo topic in Islamic culture.
“Anything that educates people is useful,” he said.
Shahram said she is in the process of turning the interviews that led to her novel into a nonfiction film, a documentary which will reveal this little-seen aspect of contemporaryIranian Islam to the public gaze.
Shahram said she also has started work on a second film project about the idea of “honor killings” — a term she rejects as an incorrect description of a misunderstood phenomenon — that will include interviews with Muslim women both in Iran and the United States. She would like to incorporate the local case of Aasiya Hassan of Orchard Park into that film, if possible, Shahram said.
“The more we talk about it, and the more we discuss it (the better),” said Shahram. “This is like my profession as a mediator. My goal is, everybody comes to know about these practices — and how harmful it is to women.”