Breaking up is hard to do: Divorce in Iran


Dear Folks,

I hope you are all in the midst of seasonal slimming-down before the annual gorge of Christmas begins.  I am certainly trying to do this, but every Christmas is a challenge to take things lightly. I do want to wish all of you a happy Christmas and an even better new year.

And yes, I know the title of this week’s blog is not the most uplifting or exciting, but it is a topic that I believe merits some attention as it is speaks of how social changes on a micro-level influence a country on the macro level.  For example, the growth in the number of people seeking a divorce can have profound consequences on a society.

As a teenager, I remember being fascinated and intrigued by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini‘s 1998 documentary “Divorce Iranian Style”. At the time I knew so little about Iran, and this film gave me an intimate view of how Iran’s sharia divorce courts operate. In it different characters come forward to plead their case in the hope that the judge will grant them the right to dissolve their marriage. Some women claim their husbands are mad, impotent or unfaithful. The men say their wives are disloyal, failing in their duties and ungrateful. The drama is real, and the bitterness between the men and women is palpable. It shows the resilience of women who are prepared to hop over any bureaucratic obstacle in order to secure a divorce.

In the Islamic Republic today, divorce is on the rise. William Yong’s recent article from the New York Times discusses many of the reasons why this is the case. In 2000, official figures recorded the divorce rate to be 50,000, but today in 2010, that figure has tripled to 150,000. Iran’s justice minister Morteza Bakhtiari decreed that on the anniversary of the wedding between Imam Ali and Fatemah al-Zahra, the day would be changed from Marriage Day to No Divorce Day, as no divorce permits would be granted.

The Iranian government regards marriage as a key component to living respectfully within an Islamic society. However, marriages are under enormous strain given the economic hardships the country faces and the changing roles of women. Government figures reveal that 20% of Iranian women are employed or looking for a job, which is compared to only 7 % in the early 80s. Women are in a stronger position to postpone marriage or even divorce if they so wish. In Yong’s article, he mentions that 30% of divorces in any given year, occurs during the first year of marriage, and fifty percent in the first five years.

More and more women have sought to invoke their legal right to have a mehrieh, which is a sort of prenuptial agreement whereby a payment is made before the marriage as a form of marriage insurance. Husbands must pay this amount to their spouse if and when they get divorced. But in recent years the value of mehriehs have seen substantial increases as men and women have engaged in “divorces of mutual consent” in which a woman agrees to give up part or all of her mehrieh in order to persuade her husband to let her out of the marriage.

According to Janet Afary, who teaches Middle East studies at Purdue University, she believes that Iran is moving towards a “sexual revolution”. In order to control population growth the government introduced mandatory premarital programmes in 1993 to teach women about sex and birth control, which helped women to delay pregnancy and changed their attitudes towards marriage.  Afary also says that by the late 90s, young people were looking to find psychological and social compatibility as well as mutual intimacy in marriage.

Iranian women have also been instrumental in pushing for changes in the law. In 2005, after being inspired by the efforts made by women in Morocco, a group of Iranian women decided to launch the Campaign for a million signatures in order for the authorities to grant women the right to equality before the law in regards to marriage, divorce, adultery and polygamy. Yet the government has accused many of its supporters to be plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic. They have received enormous international support, and their desire for change has not withered.

Nevertheless, failing marriages and climbing divorce rates have Iranian conservatives worried, who have compared the current the situation to something akin to prostitution and drug addiction. They complain that western media and the rise in secular behaviour are to blame.

What is a relief for Iran’s divorcees is that the stigma of divorce is slowing disappearing. It is a generational phenomenon, and is certainly symptomatic of Iranian society recasting itself in these uncertain times.

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