February 12, 2021
On Monday, February 8, 2021, Taghi Rostamvandi, the deputy interior minister and head of the Social Security Organization, announced shocking statistics on child marriage, using the euphemism “early marriages” to refer to the practice. In his announcement, Rostamvandi did not explain the difference between the phrases “child marriage” and “early marriage,” but simply said: “Of the 25,000 marriages of people of under the age of 15 that took place in the first nine months of the year, 14,629 marriages involved people aged 14 and 9,536 marriages involved 13-year-olds. There were also 812 marriages of people aged 12 and 248 instances where 11-year-olds were married. We have had about one or two marriages of people under the age of 10 in the whole country.”
According to the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Iran is a signatory, all persons under the age of 18 are considered children. But according to Iranian civil law, the legal age for marriage for girls is 13; for boys it is 15. Marriage for minors is subject to “permission of the guardian, provided it is expedient, at the discretion of a competent court.”
Here we tell the stories of women who have married as children (or, in the words of the Deputy Minister of the Interior, taken part in “early marriage.”)
“They brought my husband to me when I was nine years old. I did not understand the meaning of ‘husband’ at all. My parents entrusted me to my cousin, who was 19 years old. I did not know anything about what a marital relationship was and I could not believe it. I was so scared and every time my husband approached me, I screamed and shouted and he could not do anything. He divorced me a year later while I was still a virgin.” These are the words of Maral, who lives in a village in the Dasht-e Moghan area. “I was not the only one,” she says, speaking with a Turkish accent. “My cousin, niece, and sister all got married between the ages of nine and eleven. Some of us had reached puberty and were menstruating, but some were not.” She explains that their marriage was not officially registered and that the marriage contract was issued by a local person: “Because we were under the legal age of marriage, they waited until we were 13 to register marriage in our birth certificates.”
In recent years, it has been impossible to register underage marriages in Iranian birth certificates and identity documents, at least those marriages of people under 15. And yet, Mr. Rostamvandi stated that marriages under the age of 15 are officially registered: “Marriages under the age of 15 are both officially registered and submitted to the country’s population database, but girls’ birth certificates only have marriage pages when the girls reach 15. However, marriage under the age of 15 is considered official, legal, based on Sharia, and registered.”
Maral got married for the second time at the age of 14 and gave birth to her first child a year later: “After my divorce, we came to the village of Meshkinshahr and went to school. I was a student and I wanted to be someone. But my mother would not accept it. She thought studying was not good for me and that I eventually had to go to my husband’s house and start my life there. She kept telling me that even if I become a doctor, after it all, I still had to wash baby’s diapers.”
She was 14 years old when her neighbor in Meshkinshahr proposed to her: “On the way to school, the neighbors’ son saw me and asked me to marry him.” Maral says that although she dropped out of school and gave up her dreams, she loved her second husband. But her husband died in an accident 16 years after they married. “I was 30 years old when I was out of wedlock for the second time. This time my husband was dead and I had four children. The oldest was 15 years old and the youngest was two.” Today Maral is 45 years old and she has not married again. “I had to raise our children; I became a mother at the age of 15 and remained a mother.” She says every time she reads the news about child marriage, she remembers her own life, and that even though she studied and married later she would not have been able to prevent her young husband from dying. “But at least if I had studied and then married, I could have had the right job after the disaster,” she says.”But I raised my children while working as a laborer.”
Fatemeh was born in 1983 and lives in Tehran. She married her cousin when she was 16. ”I was in high school. At that time, if we were married, we would have to go to night school. But before the wedding, we took a copy of my birth certificate so that it would not cause a problem, and hid the matter from the school.
“My family is very religious and they believe the sooner a girl and a boy get married, the less they will be infected with sin,” she says. Fatemeh had studied and has received her diploma with a good grade point average, but she did not continue her studies after marriage: “I did not study a pre-university course to go to university. My husband worked in the Navy and we went to Bushehr and then I soon had children and I could not [work].” She was 19 when her daughter was born. “I did not have a bad life,” she said. “My husband is a healthy person; but you know, I’ve never experienced much. I was thrown out of the valley of adolescence into the middle of married life and having children. I did not live as a young person. That is why I say I will not allow my daughter to marry until she gets a Bachelor’s degree.” She laughs and adds: “My family still has the old tradition of marrying girls at the age of 17 or 18, and boys, after military service and university, must eventually marry by the age of 25 or 26.”
The prospect of raising the legal age of marriage has come up many times in parliament in Iran; but the principlist conservatives and extremists staunchly oppose the idea of raising the age of marriage for the same religious reasons that Fatemeh points out. When reformists, in a relatively strong position of the time, lobbied during Iran’s 10th parliament (2016 to 2020) to raise the age of marriage, a video was released of a young girl, Kowsar, and a boy, Hossein, appearing to promote child marriage and claiming to have decided to marry at the ages of 14 and 16. The main reason given for promoting marriage at a young age was that they would be less infected with sin. Experts allied with the government defended and promoted the topic on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting [IRIB].
Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi is one of those experts. “Islam says to get married as soon as the sexual instinct awakens, and is not even fully awake,” he said on a television program. “A schoolgirl and a schoolboy can get married. Islam does not set any age requirements for marriage. It only says because they are children, they may not pay attention to their rights and interests, so parents should monitor them so they are not deceived.”
Fatemeh and her family are well off, but we spoke to Zinat, whose family was from exactly the opposite backgrounds. “I was married at the age of 13 so that the family would have one less mouth to feed,” Zinat says. “We are six sisters and two brothers and our father is a laborer. This was why they married to the first person they thought was appropriate.” Zinat is from a village near Farahan in Markazi Province, and her husband is a bus driver. “He is 15 years older than me. But it was important for my family that he was not an addict and was willing to give my marriage dowry — which I think was about two million tomans at that time — to my father.”
Experts believe that the increase in the amount of marriage loans is directly related to the rising growth in child marriages. In 2020, the Ministry of Sports and Youth warned that the increase in marriage loans in 2017 and 2018 led to an increase in the number of child spouses under the age of 15 in Iran. Now Mr. Rostamvandi has confirmed that the number of marriages under the age of 15 has increased from 600 to 700. Marriage loans in 2020 sat at 50 million tomans per person. In 2019, it was 30 million Tomans. Zinat is now 22 years old and has two children, aged five and eight. She says: “I soon became a mother, about a year after marriage. I was a child myself. When my eldest son cried, I cried with him. Some 13-year-olds may want to get married and may be prepared. But I was not really ready to get married and have children.” She continues to weep, remembering the first days of her life as a married woman: “I am one of those people who feel sorry for myself. I did not have a childhood. Sometimes when I see the kids playing ball I still want to go and play with them. I feel the trauma of not having a childhood is still with me.”