Skip to content

A House With Open Door (Kameel Ahmady, 2021): My Foreword

August 14, 2021

We in the English-speaking parts of the world may be aware that life is different in various ways beyond our experience, but little is known by most of us about how family and domestic matters are conducted in the Middle East.  I was the adviser and editor for the English language version of A House with Open Door, a book about ‘informal’ or ‘white’ marriage, written by the British-Iranian anthropologist Kameel Ahmady.
In my editorial capacity I learned a lot about a culture and customs very different from my own,  where the focus is on upholding what are considered to be Shi’a Islamic constraints and requirements in regard to marriage.

Below is the Foreword I wrote for that book.

Foreword: A House with Open Door

The study reported in this book by the British-Iranian anthropologist Kameel Ahmady considers both legal and informal coupledom in Iran. It is hugely broad in scope and also detailed in specifics.

In considering the factors which shape young Iranian’s decisions about heterosexual relationships Ahmady takes us from the end of the secular era of the Shahs of Iran to the modern day ultra-religious administration.  We are also guided across many regions of the globe, and across cultures, from the largely closed communities of decades ago, to the present age of instant global communication and influence.

Ahmady’s endeavours explore a way of living and understanding society that most in the West have rarely encountered.  We may know that in some countries bigamy, even polygamy, is still permitted; we may even know that in some places children are permitted to be married at a very early age (often, in Iran, girls to older men – but never forget that some western states also permit very young people to marry).

What we are less likely to know however is that Iran has specific contemporarily reiterated legislation allowing ‘temporary’ or ‘white’ marriage (sigheh), whereby the licence is for a specified duration, in fact anywhere between one hour and 99 years. Nor are we likely to know that sexual involvement outside marriage is increasingly common in the Iranian metropolises, but also, as confirmed by post-Millennium legislation and, should the authorities so decide on the basis of the evidence, punishable in some cases by lashing, stoning or even death.

Present-day Iran is a complex nation, on the one hand imbibed with centuries of deeply religious tradition and family strictures, and on the other informed about the modern world by sophisticated and easily accessible technologies available to millions of highly educated young citizens, men and women alike.  In this book Kameel Ahmady sets himself the task of exploring how the contradictions between these fundamentally conflicting factors are resolved (or not) by the young people in his country of birth.

As in many parts of the world, age of marriage in Iran has risen dramatically over the past few decades; the duration of ‘adolescence’ has increased significantly. Amongst the most important influences in this trend have been low rates of secure employment, unmet expectations of good jobs by both male and female graduates, housing problems, inflation, the significant costs (including mehr or dowry) of formal marriage, and poverty and the greater expectation now of autonomy and self-direction in younger adults.  These factors, insofar as they are recognised at all, are a matter of concern, sometimes alarm, on the part of older family members and traditionalists who fear that their faith, culture and traditions are under threat.

Millions of young Iranians therefore live double lives – conventionally single in public, but living as ‘married’ couples in private. Since the law concedes nothing to these private arrangements, there is no protection for the more vulnerable partner, and indeed no prospect of active citizenship for any children born to the couple; these illegitimate offspring, Ahmady tells us, will not even acquire a birth certificate or rights to education.  There is, he says, an urgent necessity for legislators in Iran to acknowledge and face up to these serious problems and issues.

Driving the trend to illicit or temporary ‘marriage’ are a number of matters considered entirely private and personal in most of western society.  Ahmady’s respondents have a lot to tell us, quite explicitly, about their ‘sexual needs’ and about the necessity (according to the Iranian Civil Code) or otherwise of virginity before marriage.  These are unlikely issues for discussion in most – though not all – parts of the modern world.

Underlying these issues in Iran is the Shi’a Islamic concept of marriage – at once both a formal legal agreement (with many clauses on rights and responsibilities to be negotiated before the wedding is concluded) and a notion of holy purity which will become a sacred bond. Such an interpretation of marital union – found also in its ‘sacred’ aspect in traditional versions of some other religions – does not lie easily with the idea of the erotic ‘needs’ of young people which must be met in a contemporary context where they are unable to fund the married lifestyle that their parents and religious leaders prescribe.

Concerns about such conflicting demands are increasingly unusual in western societies today, but we can learn a lot by thinking more carefully about these matters. We can discern in this at-first perplexing world view a lot about assumptions (around for instance virginity) which are almost never articulated in the modern world, and it is important to take the opportunity to do so.

Perhaps even more importantly, given the tensions between beliefs and nations to which our global media constantly expose us, we must seek to understand how people from historically very different cultures and heritage have until now perceived their world.  Ahmady’s work helps us to comprehend the turmoil of tensions between faiths and traditions both in modern western societies and in emerging technologically adroit nations like Iran.

As a western feminist sociologist I am committed to the primacy of human rights over tradition or belief system, but that absolutely does not remove the necessity for scholarly and dispassionate research about difficult social issues.  I am grateful to my friend and colleague Kameel Ahmady for asking me to work with him on the English language version of this current publication.  It will, I sincerely hope, encourage many of us across the divides of nationality, culture and gender to understand each other a little better.

Hilary Burrage,  October 2020

Likewise, a few years ago I worked with Kameel Ahmady and my friend and colleague Tobe Levin on Kameel’s book, In the Name of Tradition, on this theme.  (Tobe’s and my Afterword is here.)

As in the case of child marriage, the tragic truth exposed in A House with Open Door is that girls were being prepared for business-based matrimonial bondage, with little thought by those responsible about the damage thus inflicted.

Kameel Ahmady’s research and detailed reports are an excellent first point of reference in learning about and understanding these deeply patriarchal customs and practices, which are actually supported by the legislation of countries such as Iran.

Read more about Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation

Read more about Iran

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Your Comments on this topic are welcome.  
Please post them in the box which follows these announcements…..

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Books by Hilary Burrage on female genital mutilation

18.04.12 FGM books together IMG_3336 (3).JPG

Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Hilary Burrage, Ashgate / Routledge 2015).
Full contents and reviews   HERE.

FEMALE MUTILATION: The truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation  (Hilary Burrage, New Holland Publishers 2016).
Full contents and reviews   HERE.


There is a free FGM hotline for anyone in the UK: 0800 028 3550, or

Details of NHS Specialist Services for FGM here.

More info and posts on FGM here.

Activists, service providers and researchers may like to join the LinkedIn group Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): Information, reports and research, which has several hundred members from around the world.

The (free) #NoFGM Daily News carries (unedited) reports of items shared on Twitter that day about FGM – brings many organisations and developments into focus.

Also available to follow at no cost or obligation is the #NoFGM_USA Daily News.

Twitter accounts:
@NoFGM_UK  @NoFGMBookUK @FemaleMutlnBook  @FGMStatement  @NoFGM_USA @NoFGM_Kenya  @NoFGM_France  [tag for all: #NoFGM] and @StopMGM.

Facebook page#NoFGM – a crime against humanity


Email: Hilary @  Twitter@HilaryBurrage  LinkedInHilary Burrage


[NB The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, which has a primary focus on FGM, is clear that in formal discourse any term other than ‘mutilation’ concedes damagingly to the cultural relativists – though the terms employed may of necessity vary in informal discussion with those who by tradition use alternative vocabulary. See the Feminist Statement on the Naming and Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation,  The Bamako Declaration: Female Genital Mutilation Terminology and the debate about Anthr/Apologists on this website.]


This article concerns approaches to the eradication specifically of FGM.  I am also categorically opposed to MGM, but that is not the focus of this particular piece, except in the specifics as discussed above.

Anyone wishing to offer additional comment on more general considerations around infant and juvenile genital mutilation is asked please to do so via these relevant dedicated threads.

Discussion of the general issues re M/FGM will not be published unless they are posted on these dedicated pages. Thanks.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 17, 2021 10:18

    This is inspiring, Hilary. You’re right to underscore that on the issues that most concern us, the broad public has not yet been instructed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: