Bill to Ban Child Marriages in Iran Facing Implacable Opposition by Religious Conservatives
Legislation Banning Marriages of Girls Under the Age of 13 Remains Stalled
A proposed bill seeking to ban child marriage in Iran continues to face stiff opposition amongst conservative lawmakers and religious figures, and remains stalled in parliament.
The so-called “child spouse” bill, introduced into parliament in 2016, proposes an absolute ban on the marriage of girls under age 13 and an absolute ban for the marriage of boys under 16. For the marriage of girls between the ages of 13-16 and for boys between the ages 16-18, the bill would require parental consent and court permission. Marriage for girls over 16 and for boys over 18 would require no court permission.
Currently, girls in Iran can be legally married at age 13 and boys at 15—and even younger—including girls as young as nine lunar years of age—with a father’s and judge’s consent.
Speaking about the bill to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), attorney Farideh Gheirat said, “I have been following this bill from the beginning and I helped in writing the draft with some of my lawmaker friends. Some caring legislators have been thinking about changing the marriage law for years but they have not yet succeeded because of serious religious opposition. So it has been stuck between parliament and the Guardian Council [the state body that vets all legislation for conformity with Islamic law] but part of the opposition goes back to society’s culture itself.”
Gheirat added: “A girl under the age of 18 doesn’t grasp the violence committed against her, and even her father, who agreed to her marriage, doesn’t understand that he has done something inhuman.”
Lawmaker Parvaneh Salahshouri noted on December 11, 2018, the strong opposition of some of her fellow parliamentarians to the bill to ban the marriage of girls under the age of 13, and said: “It appears that a certain authority has asked these lawmakers to oppose the child spouse bill.”
Salahshouri did not say which specific authority was putting pressure on lawmakers to oppose the bill but said it was making the process “very difficult.” She said current opponents of the bill in the legislature include those who were initially supporting it.
Asked what actions the bill’s supporters had taken to counter the opponents, Salahshouri said: “After seeing the attacks against the bill, we attended sessions of the Parliamentary Committee on Judicial and Legal Affairs. At first the overall mood of the committee was against the bill but after we made our statements they gave us an opportunity to invite psychologists, doctors and sociologists to present their arguments.”
Describing the opposition as “unprecedented,” Salahshouri said the bill had turned into a political issue: “It seems this bill, like all the ones similar to it, has unfortunately become political. The truth is that we are really looking at this from a social and cultural perspective and seeking to solve a social problem. We will not be able to advance reform through these kinds of bills if we continue to look at various issues through a political lens.”
The most recent statistics about child marriages in Iran, published in 2016, showed girls under the age of 18 made up 17 percent of all marriages in the country. Also, on December 11, 2016, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), reported that according to the National Organization for Civil Registration, more than five percent of marriages between March2015 and December 2015 included children under the age of 15. During the same period more than 204,000 girls got married between the ages of 15 and 19.
The attorney Gheirat told CHRI, “Both religious and cultural issues have made it difficult to pass this legislation. Nevertheless I am hopeful that this bill will eventually become law some day but unfortunately under these circumstances it will take years.”
Would You Allow Your Own Child To Marry at Such an Age?
On September 26, 2018, an urgent proposal to revise Article 1041 of Iran’s Civil Code regarding marriage was approved by 151 of the 204 members present in parliament. The proposal called for a ban on marriage for girls under 13 and boys under 16 years of age. But since then, many of the lawmakers who voted for it have now become its opponents, making it less likely that it would receive final ratification.
Ahmad Amirabadi, a representative from the city of Qom and an opponent of the proposal, called it a violation of the Sharia and said, “Without a doubt the Guardian Council will reject anything that is considered to be against the divine principles of Islamic Shaira.” He added that lawmakers should not be discussing such matters at a time when the country is struggling economically.
In response, Homayoun Hashemi, another lawmaker, said, “Mr. Amirabadi, I’m very sorry for you for minimizing a big problem like this. Would you allow your own relative three-times removed to go through such a marriage, let alone your own children?”
A week before Salahshouri’s statements, Fereshteh Rouhafza, the political director of the Presidential Council for Women’s Cultural and Family Affairs, commented, without providing any supporting evidence, that the ban on child marriages would mean “the majority’s wishes would be sacrificed for a minority and that’s not reasonable.”
To justify her opposition, again without providing any supporting evidence, she said child marriages should not be banned because it would increase the “[number] of prostitutes, the instances of girls escaping home, the number of illegal abortions, the [frequency of] girls and boys getting into relationships at a younger age and the prevalence of sexual manifestations in society.”
Nine-Year-Old Girls Are Married with Parental Permission and Judge’s Consent
In 1934, Article 1041 of the Civil Code set the minimum age of marriage at 15 for girls and 18 for boys. In 1975, Family Protection Law increased the age of marriage to 18 for girls and 20 for boys. But after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the marriage age was lowered. In 1982, the marriage age was changed to 9 (lunar years) for girls and 15 (lunar years) for boys. Then in 2002, the marriage age for girls was set at 13 and 15 for boys with a clause that 9-year-old girls could get married with parental permission and the court’s consent.
Gheirat told CHRI, “Based on my own years of experience it’s been very rare to see a court turn down requests for marriage with nine-year-old girls. If the father gives his permission, most judges would allow a nine-year-old girl to marry a man of any age because that’s what the law says.”
According to Shia theology, “the father and grandfather have indisputable guardianship of adolescent girls and boys” until they reach maturity. On this basis, judges do not interfere because they see the father as the absolute owner of his daughter.
In 2016, after years of advocacy by defenders of children’s rights, a number of women members of parliament decided to draft a bill to ban the marriage of young children. First, they held meetings with a number of senior Shia religious leaders in Qom to seek their support.
On August 15, 2017, MP Tayebeh Siavashi announced that the passage of the draft bill would increase the marriage to 16 for girls and 18 for boys while marriage for girls under 13 would be “completely banned.” Since then the proposed legislation has been known as the “child spouse” bill.
Fatemeh Zolghadr, the deputy leader of the women’s faction in parliament, said on August 7, 2017, that marriage for girls under the age of 13 is “abnormal” and criticized marriage between elderly men over the age of 50 and nine-year-old girls. She said the proposed increase in the marriage age needed the support of more religious leaders.
Declaring marriages of girls under the age of 13 to be “null and void,” Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi wrote on his official website in 2016: “In the past parents were even given permission to choose a spouse for their adolescent child and usually no problems occurred. But in our current day and age it has effectively been proven that these kinds of marriages are not in the interest of the girl or the boy and cause particular kinds of corruption and since we must have their interests in mind, such marriages are null and void and without merit.”
In addition, hundreds of activists advocating for the rights of women and children in Iran issued a statement in August 2017 calling on legislators to ban child marriages.
Child Marriages Violate Iran’s International Commitments
According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), any person under the age of 18 is considered a child. Yet significant numbers of marriages between girls and boys well under that age continue to take place in Iran despite the ratification of the UNCRC by the Parliament in 1994.
In the Concluding Observations by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child for the combined third and fourth periodic reports of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Committee expressed “serious concern” that despite its previous recommendations, the age of maturity remained set at 9 lunar years for girls and 15 lunar years for boys, “which results in girls and boys above those ages being deprived of the protections under the Convention” and which “gravely violates rights under the Convention and places children, in particular girls, at risk of forced, early and temporary marriages, with irreversible consequences on their physical and mental health and development.”
The Committee urged Iran to “revise, as a matter of urgency and priority, its legislation in order to ensure that all persons below the age of 18 years, without exceptions, are considered as children and are provided with all the rights under the Convention. The Committee also urges the State party to further increase the minimum age for marriage for both girls and boys to 18 years, and to take all necessary measures to eliminate child marriages in line with the State party’s obligations under the Convention.”
Meanwhile, Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Iran is also a signatory to, states that “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family,” which means children cannot freely and logically make such decisions for themselves because mentally they are not yet fully developed.