Discriminatory family law in Iran is on the brink of taking a few steps back! The “Family Protection Bill” passed swiftly and quietly during the first round of discussions of the legal and judicial commission of the Iranian parliament in July 2008, almost one year after it was drafted. Opposition to this bill has solidified one of the largest coalitions formed to protest a bill in recent years. An inclusive and strikingly diverse group of women activists, feminists, human rights defenders, as well as secular and religious groups (including some conservative women’s groups) are opposing this bill and demanding that the government take action to prevent it from passing through parliament for a final vote.
The bill is a gross violation of the human rights of Iranian women, reinforcing current discriminatory laws, and creating an encouraging environment for polygamy. The women’s movement has demanded that the bill be scrapped, as it reinforces existing unequal divorce laws and makes it more complicated and challenging for women to file for divorce. While the women’s movement has been working consistently for equality in divorce laws, the bill represents a huge setback to this fight. It removes the requirement to register “temporary marriages,” rather than banning such marriages completely, and suggests taxation for dowries ( Mehr ), which have traditionally provided a fragile financial safety net for women. In doing so, the bill denies the rights of Iranian women to equal access to resources, discouraging their participation in the workforce to ensure their economic security. Finally, the bill does not remove the barriers Iranian women face in marrying foreign nationals. Rather, it brings more complexity into the lives of Iranian women considering marriage to foreigners, going so far as to stipulate punishments for the “crime” of marrying a foreign national.
There are many speculations about the reasons the bill has been passed at this time. Some argue that it is the Iranian regime’s response to an increasingly powerful women’s movement in Iran and their battle to change discriminatory laws, including polygamy. Others claim that the threat of a US military strike against Iran creates an environment of uncertainty, which, combined with an economic crisis and political and social repression, provides a fertile climate for the patriarchs in power in Iran to bring the anti-family bill into public discourse.
The bill was drafted and discussed by the previous Iranian parliament. The discriminatory content of the bill enraged many human rights activist and women’s NGOs in Iran.
Article 23 is one of the most contested articles of the bill. It states: “Marriage to a subsequent permanent wife shall depend on court authorization upon ascertainment of the man’s financial capability and undertaking to uphold justice among his wives.” Article 23 scraps the need for the consent of the first wife if her husband wants to take another spouse, a condition that was previously a legal necessity. The bill requires a man to provide a judicial permit for a new marriage, confirming that he has the financial capability to provide for the new wife, that justice will be upheld amongst his wives, and that all wives will be treated equally. However, no further specification appears in the bill as to what constitutes “justice” or unequal treatment. Thus the husband’s subjective appraisal of his ability to be fair constitutes the only criterion. “Justice” is a transcendental and abstract concept, and upholding it could mean different things to different people.
In addition, no clear, specific and measurable criteria are provided to define a person’s financial capability in order to support two, three or four wives. Many critics argue that the language of this bill also reduces and minimizes a host of women’s needs to the satisfaction of undefined and ambiguous “financial needs,” ignoring the emotional and well-being of women. In doing so, it objectifies women.
In response to the controversy generated by Article 23, a member of the judicial commission stated: "This article is in accordance with the religious laws, and the controversy is a creation of the media. This article is religiously acceptable and will be approved by parliament, so no one will dare to challenge this vote." However, another statement citing decrees from top Iranian clerics such as the Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Sanei, indicates that second marriages are only legal when first wives agree to them.
Based on current Iranian family law, men can take four wives and divorce any of them without stating a reason. However the law limits women’s access to divorce. The reasons women may cite for seeking divorce are not clearly defined by law - it is up to the court and judges to decide whether such women have grounds. It is often very difficult for a woman to prove that she has reason to divorce. Prenuptial agreements granting women the right to divorce are a recent phenomenon. While Iranian women activists and their male allies are striving to change such discriminatory laws, many women protect their rights in prenuptials or temporary legal documents.
Within the body of Islamic family law, polygamy has been appropriately considered a major factor in perpetuating gender inequality, and a violation of women’s human rights. The very fact that a woman may have to share her husband and home with co-wives says much about the gender inequality built into the law. A woman lives with the constant possibility that her husband will take another wife. If she fails to behave in accordance with her husband’s wishes, she runs the risk of having to live in a polygamous household. This possibility reinforces patriarchal power relations within the household and creates and environment of fear for women, who feel forced to comply with their husband desires, decisions and preferences.
Article 22 of the Bill states: “Registration of temporary marriage shall be subject to Rules of Procedure to be approved by the minister of justice.” The Bill removes any requirement for registering temporary marriages with the Registrar’s Office. The practice of temporary marriage has existed amongst Shiites, while many Sunni majority societies have banned it. Historically, the practice has been limited to shrine cities like Meshed and Qum, and mostly to pilgrims who traveled. The “sigheh’ or “temporary marriage” contract should have an expiration date, varying from a few hours after the marriage up to 99 years. Many secular Iranians view legalized “temporary marriage” as a reflection of the hypocrisy of clerics, who have exploited “temporary marriage” over the years but are adamantly opposed to premarital or extramarital sex.
Despite its religious imprimatur, temporary marriage has never been very popular in Iran. Many Iranians regard sigheh as little more than legalized prostitution. The practice of “temporary marriage” has been debated in recent years and advocates point out that children of such unions are legitimate and entitled to a share of the father’s inheritance. The current bill will leave women who engage in such marriages and children being born from these unions without any legal protection or rights.
Temporary marriages have been encouraged in the last decade as a response to the complex social issues and restricted Islamic norms in terms of socialization of young men and women. However, in finding a “religiously-acceptable solution” to deep-rooted social issues, the legalization of “temporary marriages,” and it’s social consequences, has not been evaluated in the context of sexuality, public health, sexually transmitted diseases, women’s human rights, birth control, violence against women, and the welfare of children born within these marriages.
Article 25 of the bill states: “At the time of registration of marriage, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance is required to collect tax on unreasonable and higher-than-conventional marriage portions, in view of the condition of the couple and the national economic issues, progressively in ratio to the increase in the amount of the marriage portion.
“The amount of conventional marriage portion and the amount of tax shall be determined with a view to the general economic conditions of the country by Rules of Procedure to be proposed by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance and to be approved by the Council of Ministers.” This article introduces a new concept to the legal system by effectively taxing women’s dowries (Mehr). In traditional marriages, women are required to stipulate a consummation price (Mehr), which they are entitled to receive at marriage and before sleeping with the groom. Historically, this is paid to women upon divorce. According to the data from the Registrar’s Office, last year in Tehran, only 3% of the women who had asked for their dowries received them. 87% of divorced women did not receive their dowries, while14% had to give up their dowries in order to convince their husband to divorce them. (There is a proverb in Persian which translates as “I give up my dowry to gain free my life – Mehram halal, janam azad.”)
While dowries do not fully protect many unions, imposing taxation on dowries is a form of interference in the marriage contract, which is a contract between two private parties. Taxation is intended to be a response to increasing dowry amounts - an outcome of the inequalities that women are facing. While more than 60% of students in higher education are women, according to the Center for Women’s Studies at the University of Tehran, men’s participation in the workforce is 5.1% times higher than that of women. Imposing taxes on dowries is ineffective in removing barriers to marriage among younger generations. The economic crisis, unavailability of affordable housing in major cities, high unemployment rates, and inflation, along with barriers to women’s participation in the workforce, are the real challenges that younger people are facing in getting married.
It should be noted that polygamy and temporary marriages have hardly become part of the fabric of Iranian society. Although the number of polygamous marriages has increased after Iran adapted to Sharia law after 1979, it remains relatively rare in Iran compared with some Arab countries, and is frowned upon by many.
Article 46 states: “Any foreign national who marries an Iranian woman without obtaining the permit mentioned under Article 1060 of the Civil Code, shall be sentenced from ninety-one days to one year’s imprisonment. In that case, the woman, if she has got married of her free will, and the girl’s father, if the marriage has taken place with his permission, will be sentenced as accomplices of the offence.” This means that foreign nationals who marry Iranian women without first obtaining permits will face prison sentences ranging from ninety-one days to on year. Even a woman who marries of her own free will, and all the parties involved, could face harsh sentences. Although marriage is a desirable institution, current family law shows no respect for the rights of those marrying foreign nationals, which means a lack of equality in citizenship. The impact of this bill on Iranian women living abroad is significant. Based on existing family law, Iranian women married to foreign men will not be able to obtain citizenship for their children, even if these children are born and raised in Iran.
This bill not only fails to resolve the discriminatory nature of the existing family law, but takes it a few steps back. Considering the large number of Iranians living abroad (estimated at more than 4 million), the bill potentially discriminates against vast numbers of women.
In addition to the above, Articles 15, 19, 40 & 44 will have some impact on the lives of Iranian women living abroad.
Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel laureate, has harshly criticized the bill. She is not alone when she claims that it would bring “moral corruption” to society. Iranian women activists and human rights defenders are warning that the bill will increase violence against women, as well as violence perpetuated by women, since it is expected to intensify levels of discrimination against women in Iran.
In a recent meeting organized by the Defenders of Human Rights Center to oppose the bill, Ebadi stated that "this law will bring decadence and moral corruption to society.” She took a step further and described the bill as a “tyranny,” not only against women, but also against men. She also stated that "if you have become rich overnight, no matter how, you can legalize your desires."
The assault of the Iranian regime on the rights and dignity of Iranian people has intensified in recent years. The bill is not an isolated measure, but rather aligned and consistent with other repressive measures to curtail freedom and democracy in Iran. Different social policies, such as limiting the number of women entering higher education, cracking down on women who do not observe strict Islamic dress code, arrests and detention of women activist and human rights defenders, repeated censorship of women’s/feminist websites, demanding outrageous bails for women activists, harassing the men who support the plight of Iranian women to change discriminatory laws, and other measures by the government, are aimed at silencing the brave and inspiring women’s movement in Iran.
One would be appalled at the lack of transparency when comparing the status of women in Iran with the statement made by a delegation of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the fifty-second session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women on March 3, 2008. In a three-page statement, the delegation said: “In Islamic Iran, women can be active members of society without neglecting the family. In Iran, women in general are regarded as the center of the family, and hence, the center of society, since society is but the connected parts of family units coming together, and women are its principal trainers.” How one can justify such undignified treatment of and discrimination against women, who are exalted as “the center of society?”
Using the rhetoric of “justice,” “equality,” “rights and democracy,” and the “center of society” is hardly meaningful if such discourse is not supported by action. Western imperialists are using this language to invade and destroy the infrastructures of other nations, under the banner of “democracy and human rights.” Religious extremist transnationally, regardless of whether or not they are in positions of power in Iran, Afghanistan or the FLDS camps in United State, cannot talk of “upholding justice,” “security,” and the “well-being of women and girls” while violating the human rights of women and girls in polygamist, patriarchal power structures.
Iranian women seeking democracy at home and in society are envisioning a world beyond “patriarchal bargaining,” and will strive to make structural changes to outdated patriarchal family laws. They will do so by relying only on the women’s movement and the support of broader social movements, not by collaborating with forces that use the rhetoric of “human rights” to further their political agenda.