OPINION: Child Marriage in Iran Is A Legal Crime Endorsed by Religion 

By Azadeh Karimi

Footage of a wedding ceremony between an underage girl and a much older man in Iran has gone viral on social media and once again exposed the reprehensible yet legal practice of child marriage in the country. The wedding reportedly took place recently in a township in the southwestern province of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad. 

The poignant images of the child — who does not look much older than 11, and is seen enjoying her wedding celebration along with the guests — highlighted the bizarre nature of this tragedy.

Widespread criticism and public outrage on social media ultimately resulted in the annulment of the sigheh, or temporary marriage.

However, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Yousef Afroughi, the Friday prayer leader of Bahmai County in Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad province, lambasted those who had condemned the wedding, saying that the union was “ceremonial and symbolic” and an arrangement between the two families to “strengthen tribal ties.”

According to Mr. Afroughi, such marriages are not consummated until the girl reaches the age of puberty, and even then, she and her family may decide not to go through with the wedding.

Afroughi explained that the union between the underage girl and the older man in the video was a mere mahram sigheh, meaning a sexless marriage. The ceremony supposedly enabled the girl and the man, whose two families have close ties, to maintain a platonic relationship in line with religious laws.

It would seem that reciting a few religious verses is an expedient way of sanitizing the abhorrent and illegal sexual exploitation of children and turning it into a morally palatable practice.

Economic hardships, tribal traditions, and religious beliefs force many parents to marry off their underage daughters. Temporary marriages, which sometimes provide financial relief for the underprivileged family of an underage bride, endanger the child’s safety by forcing her into an unsafe sexual relationship.

In November 2018, both the Majlis and the Guardian Council rejected the proposed “child bride” bill on raising the age of consent for marriage for girls and boys, respectively, to 16 and 18. The Women’s Faction of the Majlis (an all-female cross-section of parliament) had introduced the bill.

Although initially fast-tracked, the proposed bill encountered stiff opposition from many Majlis deputies. Some opponents argued that girls nowadays reached the age of puberty much earlier than before! Curiously, the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad have the highest number of mahram sigheh involving underage girls.

Many instances of underage girls married off to older men go unreported. These unquestionably qualify as cases of child abuse and pedophilia.

Although there is no accurate data available on the number of child marriages, some reports have suggested that there were close to 1 million underage brides in 2017 in Iran, of whom 37,000 were under 15, and 180,000 were younger than 18 — meaning that 24 percent of all marriages in the country involved underage girls.

The marriage annulment was welcomed by some government officials.

“Public outcry and efforts by the officials yielded results,” the Islamic Republic News Agency reported, citing a tweet by Masoumeh Ebtekar, the Vice President for Women and Family Affairs. “Reforming the law and our culture is the proper way of stopping child marriage.”

IRNA’s report also contained a tweet by Parvaneh Salahshouri, the head of the Women’s Faction of the Majlis, or Iranian parliament, who wrote: “With the help of the media and officials in charge, we have been able to prevent another child marriage. Only by changing the law can we solve this problem permanently. Our efforts to address the issue have, however, encountered strong opposition in the Majlis in the past three years.”

In present-day Iran, a significant number of divorces involve underage children. According to some reports, 14,000 widowed girls in Iran are younger than 18 years old. Many temporary marriages end in divorce. Some girls quit school, turn to a life of crime, or even commit suicide.

Some experts have warned about a high rate of suicide among young girls whose family force them to get married when they are still children, particularly in low-income families living in rural regions with strong religious traditions. According to some reports, the rate of suicide in Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad has reached a critical level.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, marriage became more of a business than a union based on love and family values with the religious state prohibiting sex outside marriage, and instead promoting sigheh which is, for all intent and purposes, state-sanctioned prostitution and a way of exploiting children, and turning it into a lucrative racket.

A large segment of Iranian society, however, abhors and rejects this practice. According to some studies, 61 percent of men enter a temporary marriage for sex, and 81 percent of women do it for emotional or economic reasons.

While sigheh seems to occur between consenting adults, the so-called mahram sigheh is an arrangement between the families of an underage girl and that of her husband. Parents use their daughter to strengthen tribal ties and make money.

Most people do not officially register a mahram sigheh, leaving the young girl with no legal rights or recourse if her husband disappears or if she gets pregnant. The Pahlavi era’s Family Protection Act, passed in 1974, set the legal age of marriage for girls and boys, respectively, at 18 and 20.

The Islamic Republic, however, lowered the legal age of marriage for girls and boys, respectively, to 13 and 15. Parents or legal guardians could even marry off younger children with a court’s approval.

There is a concerted effort by the leaders of the regime and its institutions, including the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), to promote marriage in the country. State TV regularly interviews young couples and advocates marriage as the proper way to channel sexual urges and avoid committing sin.

“Child marriages still exist in many parts of the country,” IRNA quoted Parvaneh Salahshouri as saying in January. “Data shows that 6 percent of girls who get married are between 10 and 14 years old, many of whom develop cancer after the age of 30.”

The Islamic Republic is the main culprit in promoting child marriage by trying to control people’s sexual behavior, encouraging them to get married at a very young age and have many children.

The regime opposes any efforts to modernize the education system. It organizes massive street protests against the UNESCO’s Global Education 2030 Agenda, which aims to wipe out poverty through sustainable development by 2030.

Child protection agencies and activists have been trying for years to convince Iranian clerics to abandon their outdated medieval practices. Meanwhile, the regime and its leaders continue to violate the human rights of Iranian citizens, particularly the most vulnerable segment of society, namely children.

[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]