A group of Iranian lawmakers is seeking caps on child marriage in the country, a drive that seems to have little chance of success due to fierce opposition from hard-liners.
"It all dates back to 44 years ago," wrote hard-line daily Kayhan in a Nov. 26 editorial, "when US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger placed the [National Security Study Memorandum 200] on President Richard Nixon's desk. … The document addressed the threat of human development in America's rival countries and how population growth could boost them." The editorial then accused the Iranian members of parliament who are pushing for restrictions on child marriages of having the document as their role model.
What the lawmakers are advancing is a ban on marriage for girls below the age of 13 and boys under 16. Originally proposed by the parliamentary Women’s Faction, the bill was formally introduced Sept. 26 by 67 Reformist members of parliament who sought an amendment to an article in the Islamic Republic’s Civil Code, which sets the same age limit for both genders but allows girls to marry at a younger age, with the consent of a guardian. If passed, the bill will raise the age limit to 16 and 18 for girls and boys, respectively. Under the same amendment, marriage is still legal from the ages 13 to 16 for girls and 16 to 18 for boys, with consent from a "sound-minded" guardian and judicial approval.
Although the Iranian parliament has fast-tracked a debate of the bill, the road is expected to be a bumpy one, and the prospects for the bill's approval look bleak as hard-liners tirelessly put obstacles in its path.
This opposition was explicitly expressed in an Oct. 2 public letter drafted by the Basij Students Unions, which represents the most conservative political and religious camps at Iranian universities. Addressing the Office of the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council, the hard-line students sounded the alarm on what they called the prospect of an increase in "unregistered marriages." They described the amendment as irrational and counter to religious principles.
"Even if the bill is approved," stated the letter, "many families still support marriage at lower ages and will continue the practice inattentive to the law. Thus, we will be facing the phenomenon of unregistered marriages." It further said the legislation will give a free pass to the spread of religiously forbidden contacts between youths of opposite sexes.
According to figures released by the Department for Women's Affairs affiliated with the presidency, 39,609 Iranian girls had their marriages registered in the previous Iranian calendar year (ended March 20, 2018). Statistics from Iran's National Organization for Civil Registration put the total number of national marriages in the same period at 608,956. Girls aged 10 to 14 accounted for 6% of the marriages in the mentioned period.
Another hurdle the bill faces stems from the country's senior clerical community. Tehran University's Basij Student Union urged top conservative clerics to publicly declare their opinions on the measure. Though different in tone and wording, the positions of all four clerics were similar, affirming that once girls reach puberty — at the age of nine, according to Islamic principles — they are allowed to get married with parental consent, regardless of limits set by the law.
But the pressure did not stop there. Fereshteh Rouhafza, director of the Department for Women's Cultural Policymaking, which is affiliated with the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution — whose members are appointed by the supreme leader — warned that the amendment will exacerbate such social maladies as runaway girls, prostitution and illegitimate male-female relationships. "Given today's increasing sexual content online and across social media, which expose the young to more sexual temptations, the age limit should not be raised and obstacles ought not be placed on legal marriage," Rouhafza said.
Meanwhile, voices in support of the bill have also been heard here and there. Fahimeh Hassan Miri is the director of an Iranian nongovernmental organization that advocates for the rights of children who have been subjected to domestic abuse. "Even the new amendment still allows the marriage of girls below the age of 18, who are considered as minors under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child," she told Al-Monitor.
"Still, the amendment is bringing hope," she added. "It is a positive step toward defending the rights of children and protecting them against harms which underage marriage poses to them." As a former journalist, with a years-long career focused on Iranian women's issues, Hassan Miri noted that in most cases of underage marriage, young girls are wedded to men far older, and "this, coupled with a lack of pre-marital sexual awareness and physical fitness, makes them vulnerable to irreparable physical and mental damage."
To the opponents of the bill, age limits should not be the government's priority. Rather, the government should institute policy aimed at facilitating marriage for young Iranians. Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, a former lawmaker, is critical of the bill for that very reason. "The marriage age has already gone up in Iran and such limitations are of no help to the young, who need to get married. Although under religious rules, the age limits are nine and 15 for girls and boys [respectively], over the years those numbers have [practically] undergone changes," he said, echoing the hard-liners' stance that the government should focus on easing the process of marriage instead.
Elsewhere, Mohammad Dehghan, a member of the parliament's Judicial Commission, has described the bill as "immature." "The commission has already found numerous faults with the proposal by the Women’s Faction. Still, it has not been put to the commission's internal vote for a final decision, Dehghan said, implying just how uncertain the bill’s fate is.
Should the Women’s Faction win parliament's support for the bill, tough challenges still lie ahead. The measure is still pending final approval from the country's powerful Guardian Council, which is controlled by hard-liners. The supervisory body has the full authority to decide whether the bill runs counter to Islamic principles.
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