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Gender and Society In Iran – Part 1: The Debate Over Child Marriage, Including Child Brides Wed To Adult Men

Written by Y. Mansharof and A. Savyon

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Introduction

The past few years have seen an increasing public debate about issues of gender and society in Iran – the woman's place in the private and public arena, cohabitation of unmarried couples, women's right to travel abroad without permission of a male guardian, the hijab, and more, as opposed to the Islamic regime's position on these issues.

One such issue is the phenomenon of marriages involving children, including children under age 10 – especially arranged marriages of girls to adult men, or even to elderly men.

This paper will discuss child marriages in Iran, especially those of very young girls to older men. It is the first in a series on the discussion in Iran on gender and society, and on how Iran's Islamic regime is dealing with these issues.

One Million Children, Even Under 10, In Arranged Marriages – And 85% Of Them Are Girls

Under Iranian law, girls may marry at 13 and boys at 15, and children under 10 may marry with the approval of their guardian and the court.[1]According to official statistics, about one million children, even under age 10, are married. The statistics also show that 85% of these one million married children are girls – meaning that most of them are married to grown men.[2]

Child Marriage Is Growing, And Poses Great Risk To Society – But It's Permitted By Islamic Law

Public figures – sociologists, Majlis members, activists, and others – have warned that the number of children marrying is on the rise, and with it the great health and social risks this poses for society, and have called on the regime to tackle it with legal and cultural reforms.[3] According to one sociologist, arranging marriages for children, especially girls, is common among poor and uneducated urban families that seek a way out of dire financial straits; he adds that the girls themselves are severely damaged both physically and psychologically.

Regime spokesmen have denied the extent of the phenomenon, and have also shrugged off the matter, saying that child marriage is legal and that preventing it is against Islamic law.

The following are facts, figures, and main arguments in the debate on child marriage in Iran.

The Statistics On Child Marriage In Iran

Marriage At Ages 10-15

According to regime statistics, from March through June of 2012, 1,805 children under the age of 15 were married legally and with the permission of the court; that number for the period from March 2011 to March 2012[4] was 7,440.

Expressing concern about the increase, anti-child-bride activist Farshid Yazdani, a member of the Association for the Defense of Children's Rights in Iran, noted that while in 2006 child marriages constituted 2.3% of all marriages, by 2010 that figure had grown 45%, to 4.9%. He warned the regime about the ramifications of child marriages, including divorce and domestic violence, and noted that in 2006, statistics showed that Iran had 25,000 divorced children aged 10-15.[5]

Marriages Under Age 10

According to Islamic law, girls reach maturity at age nine; in 2011, in Tehran province alone, 75 girls and boys under 10 were married.[6] Warning about the increase in marriages of children under 10, Yazdani noted that in 2010, in all of Iran 716 children under 10 wed – twice as many as in 2007.[7]

Iranian child brideIranian child bride. Khabaronline.ir, August 1, 2012.
Iranian child bride. Khabaronline.ir, August 1, 2012.  

In an attempt to explain the increase in child marriages in Iran, Amanollah Gharai-Moghadam, who heads the Sociology Association of Iran, pointed at the economic difficulties afflicting Iranian society. He said that in Tehran province many destitute families accept any marriage proposal for their daughters regardless of the girls' ages – and regardless of their rights – so as to reduce the family's expenses. He added, "In some cases, poor families are forced to sell their daughters; in others they are forced to marry off their sons and daughters after the children conduct relations that are forbidden... and in still others, the girl is given to an elderly man in lieu of payment of a debt... In a society rife with poverty, [large] gaps in status, inflation, and unemployment, people act crudely."[8]

Criticism Of Child Marriages

The statistics on the extent of child marriages prompted public debate on the issue; media and public figures quickly weighed in with their criticism. The Jam-e Jam daily, which is identified with the state Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) company, warned: "Do you hear the alarm bell? The alarm bell that springs from the pages... of statistics and figures that show that in the first quarter alone of 2012, 1,805 children under 15 were married – while this number in the entire previous year was less than 1,000."[9]

The following are the main statements in the public criticism of child marriages in Iran.

Opposition Based On Health Concerns

According to Allahyar Malekshahi, head of the Majlis Committee for Judicial and Legislative Affairs, 70% of divorces in Iran are in marriages that began when one or both of the partners was very young. He added that pregnancy before age 18 leaches calcium from a girl's bones and causes premature aging – in addition to a very young mother's inability to raise her own children properly.[10] Committee spokesman Mohammad Ali Esfenani warned that child marriages cause irreparable damage, and called for differentiating between maturity under Islamic law and actual sexual and emotional maturity.[11]

In an article published May 16, 2012, on "The Problems of Marriage at a Young Age," the Iranian cultural and scientific website Iranvij.ir stated: "Young girls lack the required physical maturity for pregnancy. Most deaths of pregnant women occur in girls under the age of 18. Marriage and pregnancy under age 18 produce low birth weight babies; additionally, when girls marry at this age, they face a higher risk of uterine cancer."[12]

Women's rights researcher and academic Zahra Davar said: "Medically, pregnancy in girls under 18 puts them at risk, and mortality among them is higher than in more mature [pregnant] women."[13]

In an article published on a website identified with Iranian human rights activists operating outside Iran, Iranian human rights activist Ali Tayefi warned that "the early marriage of an immature girl who is not physically ready [for sexual relations], particularly with men of advanced age, has many health consequences [for her]. Studies have indicated that there is a close link between maternal age and maternal mortality [during pregnancy]. In early marriage and pregnancy, at ages 10 through 14, there are five times more deaths, for mothers and also for infants, compared to women aged 20-24. AIDS is another risk of early marriage; this is because, contrary to what parents think, early marriage does not [necessarily] ensure wellbeing for their daughters – husbands carry STDs contracted during relations they had with other women."[14]

Sociologist Gharai-Moghadam discussed the suffering that awaits child brides: "Over time, girls forced to marry at a young age become mentally ill, because they did not have an opportunity to properly experience their childhood and youth. The damage done by child marriage includes suicide, and girls can become runaways or even prostitutes... [When] girls are wed to elderly men, they will certainly suffer physical harm. In addition, due to their elderly [husbands'] feebleness, [the girls will] turn to younger men for their sexual needs, which is recognized as extramarital relations [i.e. punishable under Iranian law].[15]

Children's Rights Activist: Reexamine the Law On Child Marriages

In a September 9, 2012 article, Soraya Azizpanah, a leading member of the Association for the Support of Children's Rights in Iran, claimed that 13 years, the minimum age set by the regime for girls to marry, is illogical – because the regime sets 16 as the age girls can vote and 18 as the age they can open a bank account. She also explained that it is not true that child marriages take place mostly in the villages – they are quite common in the cities.[16] The following are excerpts from her article: [17]

"Most unfortunately, there are statistics on child marriages even at age 10... Everyone thinks that such marriages take place [primarily] in the villages, but they are [actually] more common in the cities. This shows that economic issues have no borders... We must review how the law views child marriages. Is mere physical maturity sufficient for marriage?

"New scientific studies do not recommend early marriage for physical reasons, and explain that children's physical maturity is not enough to prepare them for sex and pregnancy, and as a result of this they suffer from numerous physical ailments.

"Furthermore, according to Islamic law, adulthood begins [for girls] at age nine; according to Iranian law, the [minimal] age for marriage [for girls] is 13; the age for opening a bank account is 18, and the age for voting in elections is 16. Here there is room for asking the legislators: Isn't building a life together [with a husband] more important than opening a bank account?

"Recently, it was reported that [in Iran] there are 15,000 divorced girls aged 15-19. I don't know whether this statistic is annual or overall, but regardless, 15,000 divorced girls is 15,000 cases of damage to society."

Demanding Legislative Change

On July 2, 2012, Khabaronline.ir held a panel discussion focusing on the issue of identifying the damage caused by child marriage; participants included Majlis member Mohammad Ali Esfenani, sociologist Gharai-Moghadam, and retired Iranian High Court judge Akram Pourang. The participants discussed the socio-cultural difficulty of uprooting the phenomenon, and called on the regime to undertake comprehensive legislative and cultural reforms to this end. They also underlined that the Islamic factor is an obstacle to legislative and cultural change.

Majlis member Mohammad Ali Esfenani, who is spokesman for the Majlis Committee for Judicial and Legislative Affairs, stated that there is currently no legal obstacle to child marriage, and called on the committee to promote legislation to restrict it. However, he said, legislative action alone would not suffice, and the regime must launch an informational and educational campaign and must also stop registering child marriages – even though some families will continue to marry off their children even without registering the marriage.

Esfanani stated that the ages – nine for girls and 10 for boys – set in Islamic law were relevant during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, but are no longer valid. He said that attaining the age of nine was only one of a number of social, cultural, and psychological conditions required for marriage, and that a girl's sexual maturity alone does not indicate that she is intellectually mature.[18]

Retired Iranian High Court judge Akram Pourang, today a practicing attorney, said that the law must be changed. She added that this would be only a partial solution, because in some cases, weddings are conducted by a local cleric and are not legally registered. She added that family planning must also be promoted, as ultimately it will help reduce the number of child marriages.[19]

Sociologist Gharai-Moghadam said that the existing law, which sets 13 for girls and 15 for boys as the minimal age for marriage, is not sufficient because it does not address the custom widespread in various parts of the country to arrange marriages for children under the age of 10. He said, "The law in itself is good, but we must also consider this custom in society, because unfortunately in some cities, marriage under the age of 10 is considered customary."[20] He also said, "According to a study carried out in 33 cities across [Iran], in Bushehr, Sistan-Baluchistan, Lorestan, Khuzestan provinces, and in several cities in the east and north of the country, child marriage is very common."[21]

Gharai-Moghadam said that the solution to the problem of child marriage requires change that is cultural, not legislative, adding: "Unfortunately, our culture encourages marriage at a young age, and as long as this remains the case, nothing can be done. In several regions in Iran, there is a saying that goes, 'A girl who reaches the age of 20 should weep over her [unmarried] state.'"

Panel discussion on child marriagePanel discussion on child marriage. Khabaronline.ir, July 2, 2012.

The Regime Responds: Marriage Is A Personal Matter; There Are No Under-10 Marriages In Iran

Attempts by international bodies, headed by the U.N., to raise the age of marriage in Iran have so far met with little success. For example, in October 2012, UNICEF Representative to Tehran Mohammad Al-Monir Safi Ad-Din said: "One of the issues that the [U.N.] Convention on the Rights of the Child [deals with] in various countries concerns the [permitted] age for marriage. The legal marriage age [in Iran] for girls is 13, but if girl marries at this age and becomes pregnant, her health is at risk, and there are problems with her education. At this age, there are many risks to both mother and child. Therefore, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child is asking the [Iranian] government to reexamine this issue."[22]

Regime spokesmen have clarified that the regime adheres to Islamic tradition in cases where it conflicts with Western law. For example, when in 1994 the Majlis ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which Iran had signed in 1990, it added a condition: "The Iranian government will not be obliged to comply with the UNCRC in cases where the convention contradicts the internal laws of Iran and the precepts of Islam."[23]

In response to the public argument on the issue, several regime figures have denied that it even exists, or have tried to ignore it. The director of the Women's and Family Affairs Center in the Office of the Presidency, Maryam Mojtahed-Zadeh, announced in July 2012 that the government would draw up a plan titled "Oversight of Child Marriages," without explaining what that involved.[24] It should be noted that an inquiry conducted by MEMRI found that to date no details whatsoever regarding the project have been published. 

At a September 2012 press conference in Iran, judiciary spokesman Gholam Reza Mohseni Ejei said, in answer to a question on whether the increase in the registration of marriages of girls under 10 shows that the issue is legal and accepted by Islam: "I do not have data [on the matter]. [But] a marriage does not necessarily mean that there are sexual relations. A marriage contract could be drawn up between [the parents] only so that family [of the bride and groom] will be permitted [to mingle socially in public][25]... This is a legal measure that is not against regulations."[26]

Tehran Province Population Registry Office director-general Ahmad Gheshmi denied that there were any marriages of anyone under the age of 10, and stated that the reports on such incidents stemmed from "a journalist's mistake."[27]

In response to the public discussion on the matter, Majlis Committee for Judicial and Legislative Affairs member Nayereh Akhavan-Bitaraf said: "Unfortunately, it is not possible to come up with a solution in this matter, because preventing marriages of children under the age of 10 is against religious law, and a child under 10 might possibly be fully sexually and mentally mature. The issue is like that of the dowry, when there's no way of setting a limit."[28]

In response to data published by the ILNA news agency on the proliferation of marriages involving children under nine, Pooran Valavioun, advisor to the judiciary minister, said: "Marriage is a personal matter, and the regime does not interfere with it... I have worked at the Judiciary Ministry for 22 years, and I never heard of this data. The source that gave these numbers should be held accountable for them."[29]

 Y. Mansharof is a Research Fellow at MEMRI; A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project at MEMRI.

© The Middle East Media Research Institute All Rights Reserved.

Endnotes:
[1] For the Iranian law, see  http://rc.majlis.ir/fa/law/show/99682.

[2] According to Iranian children's rights activist Mohammad Bonyazadeh. Aftabnews.ir, June 30, 2010.

[3] In the framework of the increasing social discussion on the matter, a Facebook group called "Mobilizing For The Joint Struggle Against Child Marriages" (facebook.com/events/460911860598389/) was formed.

[4] The Iranian year begins in March.

[5] ISNA (Iran), February 26, 2012.

[6] ILNA (Iran), September 1, 2012.

[7] Mehr (Iran), August 21.

[8] Khabaronline.ir (Iran), July 2, 2012.

[9] Jam-e Jam, August 2, 2012.

[10] Icana.ir, December 31, 2012.

[11] YJC.ir, January 7, 2013.

[12] Iranvij.ir, May 16, 2012 .

[13] Salamat.ir, September 9, 2012.

[14] Hra-news.org, October 7, 2012.

[15] Khabaronline.ir (Iran), July 2, 2012

[16] See for example statement by Farwana Razaqali-Zadeh, advisor to the governor of Hamdan province for women's and family affairs, that "99% of early marriages in Hamdan province are among village residents." ISNA (Iran), October 23, 2012.

[17] Salamatiran.com, September 9, 2012.

[18] Khabaronline.ir, July 2, 2012.

[19] Khabaronline.ir, June 26, 2012.

[20] Khabaronline.ir, June 26, 2012.

[21] Khabaronline.ir, July 2, 2012.

[22] Khabaronline.ir, October 28, 2012.

[23] http://www.unicef.org/iran/fa/media_6302.html

[24] YJC.ir, July 7, 2012.

[25] That is, that they will be permitted to be together in public without being arrested for breaking the law.

[26] Khabaronline.ir, September 17, 2012.

[27] ILNA (Iran), December 31, 2012.

[28] Tabnak.ir, January 2, 2013.

[29] ILNA (Iran), September 1, 2012.

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