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Dead-ends and hurt feelings thanks to marital laws in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Experience shows us that drawing on our private moments to make public demands has been an effective way of claiming individual and collective rights in contemporary Iran, even if it generally leaves the state’s authoritarian structures untouched. 

Shirin Saeidi
16 July 2014
People of all ages celebrate the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution

People of all ages celebrate the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution, Tajik/Demotix. All rights reserved.I got married in Iran recently, and was given an up-close look into the processes of negotiating a nuptial agreement in the Islamic Republic. Most scholarship on women’s rights in Iran highlights the inequality of marriage laws. Currently in Iran, only men have the right to divorce. They also have the right to control their partner’s movement within the country and must give permission for her to travel abroad. In the event of a divorce, child custody is granted to men, but women are given permission to be with their kids in the first few years of the child’s life.

A man can give any of these rights to his wife during the writing-up of the marriage contract at the Marriage Registration Office (daftare ezdevaj) or later at the National Organization for Civil Registration (sabte ahval). However, women rarely ask for these rights, and men seldom offer them. Moreover, men and women are not permitted to write into their marriage contract the right to share rights. For now, the law permits only one side to be in a position of legal control throughout the marriage.

At the same time, scholars of Iranian studies also tend to stress the clever ways in which women have been able to create some balance in their marriage contracts by taking their rights from men. For instance, by demanding a high mehrieh[1], many women establish a bargaining opportunity for themselves during marital conflict or a pending divorce.

Privatized resistance and its limits 

However, in the Islamic context, a husband and wife share no assets except their children. Many men (and their families), for example, do not believe it is a woman’s right to have her name on the house contract, preferring to use his mother’s name on the contract instead. They also don’t believe that she is a partial owner of the wealth that is created after the marital union.[2] Hence, in the best case scenario, by forgoing her mehrieh, a woman may be able to negotiate having shared custody of her kids or push her husband to initiate a divorce he is reluctant to get. However, without her mehrieh, this means that she will most likely be left with limited financial means. By taking their rights from men, women privatize resistance, as this approach supports the state’s effort at refusing to accept responsibility for social welfare.

My research since 2012 in Tehran indicates that Iranian women also avail themselves of desperate approaches for getting their rights. Some women, for example, distance their husband from his family by constructing what I term, ‘scenes of conflict’. They purposefully seek out confrontation with his family, and create the conditions where his family is exposed as the ‘guilty’ party, with the aim of lessening family visits. As their partner’s bonds with his family weakens, her power over the future direction of the marriage increases.

Other women spend money at excessive rates to ‘control’ their husband’s financial affairs and prevent his family, particularly his mother, from having financial control over him. In the struggle to survive, both women and men are left to secure their rights through any means necessary. This competition creates a neoliberal culture that in the most literal sense kills people off as well as their rights.

By looking at the intricate processes that are involved in a typical marriage and divorce in Iran, and keeping track of women’s unemployment rates, the private resistance that has been so glorified by some western academics (including myself at times) fails to offer women an escape from the big losses that they often endure during and after marriage.

Indeed, instead of being glorified as illustrations of women’s power or indications of the Islamic Republic’s ability to transform, these approaches should be recognized for what they are: strategies of the disempowered for minimal survival that ultimately break down the family unit and produce a debased body of citizenry left unarmed before an authoritarian state which allows dissent only at the margins and even there, heavily monitored from above. Fighting over basic human rights in your private life, makes you less likely to be a citizen with a sense of political conviction before a corrupt authoritarian state/society.

Most Iranian men are not necessarily against the notion I define here as a sharing of rights. Indeed, many would prefer to free themselves from the burden of providing a high mehrieh and humiliating familial conflicts after marriage. However, it often comes down to securing an elevated position for themselves in one of the most important contracts they will sign in their lifetime. If they decide to negotiate, they are not currently permitted to share rights. As such, they too are forced to let go of rights they believe they should have in their marriage.

The current national approach hurts both men and women in different ways. Moreover, many women never approach the subject of rights. They would prefer to ‘win’ a high mehrieh as it continues to be one of the most important markers of a woman’s social status.

Similar to other sites in the Islamic Republic, in marriage, a desire for citizenry rights pitches citizens against one another, leaving both sides wanting more and typically disappointed with each other at the start of their marriage. Taking basic human rights away from individuals has a remarkable way of killing romance, and setting into motion an exaggerated individualization that destroys creativity and love.

As such, the state’s legal boundaries for marriage result in a form of neoliberal politics on the ground which generates various social problems, including the breakdown of the family unit before it properly even begins to take form.

A refusal to recognize plurality

Prominent feminists outside of Iran strongly believed, or at least hoped that once state-aligned women reached political power, they would become an ‘ally’. After all, how could the resistance witnessed within society leave state elites unaffected?

This question reflects a naivety and perhaps a form of romantic orientalism that misinterprets politics in the Islamic Republic. I have attended confidential meetings with conservative women associated with the Iranian parliament who too are seeking legal reform in marital laws. I have also been invited to speak at reformist think tanks in Tehran whose members are working towards changing marital laws by engaging with President Rouhani’s interest in clarifying citizens’ rights.

Nevertheless, in these various sites, which from the outside appear to offer some hope for change, neither party was willing to work towards meeting the needs of a pluralist society. Those who view themselves as an opposition to the state or place themselves firmly within the reformist camp, refuse to work within the cultural context of a traditional and Islamic society, and demand nothing short of a full implementation of a western-style liberalized legal system. During one meeting at a think tank, for instance, which I had been invited to lead, when I mentioned that legal changes at the national level have to recognize the nation’s histories and contexts I was accused of being a ‘state agent’ and nearly kicked out of the meeting.

I had a similar experience in the spring of 2013, during a series of confidential meetings led by a prominent conservative female professor, a former parliamentary candidate, lead investigator for all cultural research carried out by the Iranian parliament and a member of the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution[3]. I and several other researchers stressed that legal reform without cultural change in regions outside Tehran will do little to improve the lives of rural women. The leader of the meeting stated that “…we cannot get involved in rural culture. They have their own ways, and it will take years to reverse their mentality. Some male colleagues still do not welcome me into meetings, and many don’t recognize me as a political or academic figure. We have to think about ourselves first. Moreover, we are only concerned here with women who have lived an Islamic lifestyle their entire lives”. The former parliamentary candidate made it very clear that her desire for change in the legal structure would not simultaneously pursue a more pluralist politics. As such, she was leaving out rural women and women not aligned with the state from her research design.

With neither side of the political spectrum willing to recognize the other, it is difficult to imagine how legal reform at the national level can be made through cooperation with state elites, be they male or female.

Ultimately, the presence of women in the Islamic Republic’s governing structures will, in the best case, create temporary clauses in the law that the average Iranian woman will be either unaware of or unwilling to demand during the writing-up of her marital contract, due to the cultural context of her life.

At worst, relying on these elites creates a false sense of hope and delusional politics for us all. Today, the ruling class in Iran is mostly self-interested. This is no longer the early 1980s when idealism and the search for utopia were still on the agenda in Tehran. If they happen to be members of the state’s die-hard loyalist core, in addition to their own interests, they will only be dedicated to securing the interests of their loose network of colleagues.

Making resistance public

As I signed my marriage certificate at the Marriage Registration Office the young man overseeing the process suggested that instead of our request to ‘share’ child custody, which he could not meet in the contract, I should demand my right to continue my education.

My husband and I found this confusing. Why was it not possible for us to claim shared custody of our future children as our right, while for me to insist on continuing my education beyond the doctoral level and well into my 40s was a right that everyone, including the state, had to actively support. The Islamic Republic, in this instance, was placing individual rights above the collective rights of the family, and supporting the formation of a neoliberal culture that it claims to oppose, all in the effort to avoid giving women first-class citizenry rights.

When we asked the employee at the Marriage Registration Office why this was the case, he stated “because this is what most women want, and so it has become routine for us to offer it as an additional right in the contract. I have never heard of shared custody, we do not have the notion of ‘sharing’ in the legal structure, and if I offer it to you here the courts will never accept it in the future”.

The fact that marriage offices are now forced to write the continuation of education as a women’s right, suggests that when the nation begins to claim something as a right in public, it can be inserted into the marriage contract. While situating ourselves as citizens with the right to claim rights falls short of causing structural changes from above, for now, it seems like the most effective approach for securing an honorable position for both men and women in marriage.

Moreover, it may quietly be permitted by the state. The Islamic Republic is notoriously concerned about its image as an Islamic state, and views (falsely I should add) any conversation on gender equality to be in opposition to its religious identity. This, I believe, is the main reason why we have not witnessed a change in the legal structures yet.  However, the non-movement approach of opening up the conversation on shared rights in governmental institutions, does succeed in some measure to place the burden of responsibility on the state to protect its citizens. This more creative process may allow the state to save face and avoid the humiliation that it fears from any change to its laws. 

The employee at the Marriage Registration Office went on to suggest that maybe the National Organization for Civil Registration will allow us to claim shared custody as a right. But they do not. The notion of sharing rights does not currently exist in Iran, and men can only forgo their right(s) if they wish to negotiate with their partner. However, this negotiation can continue into the National Organization for Civil Registration after the marriage contract has been signed at the Marriage Registration Office. This means that all married Iranian women and men can start this conversation today in their homes, and show up at the National Organization for Civil Registration closest to them and ask for shared rights or something along those lines. If enough pressure is placed on these two centres of power, not only will a national debate be established that questions the culture of marriage, but we may also one day see the sharing of rights as an option in the Iranian marriage contract.

As the state refuses to create legal equality between the genders, perhaps we can create change on the ground under the notion of ‘shared rights’. In the end, each woman has to assess her own power during the decision-making process.

Nevertheless, by demanding the right to shared rights and perhaps giving up the right to a mehrieh, we might be able to create changes from the ground up. Experience shows us that drawing on our private moments to make public demands has been an effective way at claiming individual and collective rights in contemporary Iranian history, even if it generally leaves the state’s authoritarian structures untouched.

This article is dedicated to Mohsen—may the likes of you multiply. 


[1] A lump sum of money offered as a gift from the groom to the bride which the bride can request at any time during her marriage and will be granted in the event of a divorce. It should be noted that it is a gift, and so the groom and his family are in a position of power in determining the amount they are willing to give of this ‘right’.

[2] If the couple has been together for more than 10 years, the state will automatically split all property between them. However, the assets that are not in the husband’s name, will not be shared.

[3] A leading  conservative state organization that determines the future cultural direction of the country. 

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