Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mixed Marriages Survive Conflict

Couples from different Muslim sects continue to marry despite sectarian tensions.
By Hazim al-Sharaa

After five years of waiting, Sunni Mohammad Saad was very happy to finally marry his fiancé and college friend Shayma Ahmad, a Shia.



The marriage, which took place on August 21, had been postponed due to resistance from the groom’s father, who for some time was opposed to their union as he thought their different religious backgrounds might come between them.



The two – who finally became engaged three months ago – were also unable to meet for a year during their courtship because the sectarian violence in the country was so intense.



Dressed in a new suit, Mohammad, 30, glanced towards his bride sitting next to him in her white gown.



He said that at the height of the bloodshed, he doubted whether he would be able to marry Shayma. But, he continued, he was not prepared to consider anyone other her, “despite my father’s insistence [at the time] that mixed marriages are bound to fail”.



The couple first met at college and soon fell in love. Mohammad at first hid his father’s opposition to their relationship from Ahmed and only told her once he had changed his mind, leaving them free to marry.



“I succeeded in convincing my father, who thought that increasing sectarian violence proved his theory,” said Mohammad.



Ahmed's family was not opposed to the marriage – their only concern was that their daughter should find a good husband to provide a decent life for her.



Iraqi law prohibits mentioning a Muslim citizen’s sect in official documents, which makes it hard to come up with a figure for mixed marriages. Once commonplace in Iraq, sectarian tensions have complicated such unions, but not put a halt to them.



Married to a Sunni for 30 years, Sameera al-Mosawi, a Shia who heads the family, woman, and child parliamentary committee, said, “They (marriages between Sunni and Shia) have not disappeared in spite of militias’ control of the capital’s neighbourhoods.”



Sectarianism is not an inherent part of Iraqi society, said al-Mosawi, who belongs to the Iraqi United Alliance – the biggest Shia bloc in parliament. “Despite their cruelty, the gunmen could not force Iraqis to hate each other because of their beliefs,” she said.



The badly ventilated hall in the suburb of Karrada – a majority Shia area in southeastern Baghdad – where Mohammad and Shayma celebrated their marriage was filled with the relatives and friends of the couple, belonging to different Muslim sects and ethnic groups.



The guests danced the Dabka – a traditional Arab dance, where each person holds the hands of the one next to him or her.



Shayma, 25, rubbed beads of sweat from her forehead.



“[I feel] as if I am in a dream,” she said. “Everyone advised me to forget about marrying a person from a different religious group.”



Shayma explained the difficulties experienced by the couple during their courtship. The neighbourhoods in her area had been partitioned into Sunni and Shia sections, meaning the couple were unable to see each other for a whole year. “We stayed in touch over the internet and with our cell phones,” she said.



As the wedding celebrations drew to a close, Sunni friends and relatives started leaving the hall first because their neighbourhoods are still heavily policed by American and Iraqi forces.



“I have to go early because parts of my neighbourhood are still unstable, as there are some gunmen there,” said Khalid Jamal, from the largely Sunni area of Ameriya.



At the end of the party, all the remaining guests gathered outside to congratulate the couple, and waited for a car to take them to Mohammad's house in the al-Khadraa neighbourhood, which has a Sunni majority.



The newlyweds will stay with Mohammad's family. While they would previously have had concerns about bringing Ahmed to live in a Sunni area, improved security in the capital meant they were no longer worried.



“A year ago, it would have been difficult to bring the Shia wife of my son to our neighbourhood, but conditions are getting better as a result of military operations,” said Mohammad's father.



Flicking his worry beads, he said that he would not interfere in his son’s life any more, “I will not ask him which sect his sons will belong to. I hate sectarianism.”



Hazim al-Shara is an IWPR-trained reporter in Baghdad.