Gender, State & Society article

Challenging Marriage Laws in Contemporary Shi’i Iran

On Being an Ayatollah’s Granddaughter in Modern Iran


The contradictions of growing up the unveiled granddaughter of an Iranian ayatollah had not occurred to me until I was confronted in 1988 by Dr. Christian Troll, a scholar of Islam and a Jesuit priest living in India at the time. “How is it possible,” he asked, “that your grandfather did not ask you to veil?” Indeed! “Why hadn’t he?,” I wondered. What was specific to him or to Iran at that time in history that made it seem perfectly normal for him to let his daughters and granddaughters go unveiled?

“Perhaps,” I told Dr. Troll, “it was partly because he was an enlightened ayatollah, a university Professor, well read and well traveled. But also because”—I tried to come up with a sociological answer—“in the decades of the 1950s and the 1960s, Iran, like most other Muslim societies, was undergoing the process of modernization and Westernization.” The “force of modernity,” to borrow a phrase from Bruce Lawrence, was so powerful, I realized in retrospect, that even ayatollahs were shaped by it. Perhaps, they too—or at least some of them—thought that the march of “progress,” the increasing secularization of legal and political systems, and the direction of social transformation were unavoidable, inevitable, and irreversible.

Growing up in an Iranian middle class family in the 1960s and 1970s, I lived my life in a social milieu that seemed to effortlessly incorporate “tradition” and “modernity,” religion and secular. Reflecting further on Dr. Troll’s bewilderment, we did not live our lives in contradiction. The “contradiction” seems to have been in his perception, which was colored by the dominant Western stereotyping of “Muslim women,” religion, and Iranian ayatollahs.  Presumably, as a Muslim woman, I should have been veiled. And presumably, as an Iranian ayatollah, my grandfather should have been intolerant of his daughters’ and granddaughters’ modern and secular appearance.


Deconstructing the Shi’i Concept of the Marriage Contract

In the short time I have I am going to be brief, and I am going to be blunt. In order to understand gender roles, statuses, dynamics, and marital obligations in Iran, one needs to deconstruct the Shi’i concept of the marriage contract. Accordingly, I would like to do two things: (1) focus on the official Iranian contractual concept of marriage, which is based on Shi’i ideology and law; (2) discuss a couple of ways at the level of practice that Iranian activists—many of whom are women—are engaging the state and the religious establishment in the hope of bringing about egalitarian change in marriage and family law.

As specified in Shi’i religious and legal textbooks, Islamic marriage is a contract, an‘aqd. It defines the parameters for the reciprocal rights and obligations of the spouse.

The Shi’i textual interpretation of the contract of marriage has rested on three presumably predetermined, reinforcing, self-legitimating axes: namely, Nature, which is believed to form the very basis for differences between male-female needs and make up; Law, which is based on these “natural” differences between the sexes and legitimates and codifies it; and Divine law, which is believed to sacralize both nature and law, as laid out in the Quran. For Muslims the genealogy of Islamic law begins with the Holy Quran as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. The Shari’a, or the “Islamic law,” is based on the Quran and the Tradition of the Prophet and so is perceived to be eternal and immutable, even though it has evolved historically.

The Shi’i Muslim belief in the finality of Islamic law is entwined with the belief in the law of nature. Let me add here that a belief in the existence of “natural” or unchanging differences between men and women and the divine design for human salvation is not unique to Islam and Muslims, nor, of course is belief in a divine law. But this belief works itself out in distinctive ways in Shi’i Islam.

In the Shi’i view, men and women have different sexual instincts and needs. The sexual needs of men are understood to be unavoidable and urgent—hence the right to have four permanent wives and as many temporary wives. The following judgment of an Iranian Shi’i authority, articulated in 1974, is typical: “No one can deny that most, if not all, married men have had sexual relations, legitimate or illegitimate, with other women. Is it wise then to forbid married men from having relations [of permanent or temporary kind] with other women?  Is such law just and in accordance with human nature? Of course not! Such law has not been practical and will not be so.”

In Sh’i Islam, it is this double-strand of law and nature, rendered sacred and immutable by the divine law, that provides the foundation for political authority, the logic for gendered legal differences, and the religious rationale for the control of women’s bodies, restrictions on their movements and activities, and for slowing their growth and development—and ultimately, stunting the development of society as a whole.

Shahla Haeri

Questioning the prevailing belief that “anatomy is destiny,” women and feminists the world over have found their voices and have been able to challenge patriarchal authorities with some success.  In Iran, the history of women’s involvement with political systems and social structures spans the twentieth century, starting with the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, culminating in the popular revolution of 1979 and beyond. With the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, women found themselves in a predicament. Soon after consolidating its power, the Islamic state dismantled the Family Protection Law (FPL) of 1967 and rolled back modest legal improvements in women’s status. While lauding the “high status of women in Islam,” the state reinstated a restrictive and literal version of Shari’a/Shi’i personal law, limited women’s professional and career options, and mandated veiling in public. The practice of polygyny—both permanent and temporary—that had been restricted under the FPL of 1967 was reinstated and tacitly encouraged. The irony of the state’s double standard and blatant discrimination was not lost on many women. It sharpened their sense of injustice and motivated them to mobilize.

Iranian women are highly educated, making up some sixty-five percent of the university student body. They are skilled, confident, and competent. They are monolithic neither in ethnicity nor in class, nor in their aspirations, discourses, and objectives. What applies to all uniformly, however, is the law, the Shari’a. Regardless of their socioeconomic status and professional achievements, for example, women must secure their husband’s written permission in order to leave the country. Or in case of a divorce, women automatically lose custody of their children as soon as they reach the age of seven.

Faced with an ideological state, many Iranian women, much like feminists in other societies and religious traditions, have become active on several fronts.  Challenging the patriarchal monopoly of sacred knowledge by rapidly gaining expertise in the law and the scriptures, they have resisted blind obedience to received patriarchal traditions. Nor are many feminists and activists willing to relinquish the domain of their religion and spirituality to men.

The state’s restrictive policies have motivated women of different backgrounds, classes, and ethnicities to find common ground and to stage joint campaigns of civil disobedience and peaceful resistance. Let me briefly talk about two such efforts:


The One Million Signatures Campaign


The first is the One Million Signatures Campaign. Its organizers came to a simple realization: unless marital and family laws are changed, women will remain an underprivileged group. This realization motivated some fifty brave women to come together in 2006 to launch the Campaign to collect One Million Signatures in order to push for legal reforms “for equality.”

They adopted a multipronged approach: (1) they dispatched young women and men to the streets to talk to ordinary people to raise awareness about their campaign; (2) they sent organizers to various cities and towns to establish centers and recruit members to collect signatures; (3) they organized meetings and panels in which notable personalities such as Shirin Ebadi, Simin Behbahian, along with several male and female professors and lawyers, discussed the significance of the Campaign’s objectives for the development of the family and society; and (4) they sought out progressive ayatollahs who, in the face of growing state harassment of the Campaign organizers and workers, stressed the compatibility of the Campaign’s goals with Islam and vouched for the justice of their quest, thus lending critical religious legitimacy to the Campaign’s goals and activities.


Hamgaraei:” Coming Together

The prospect of democratic change during the Iranian national elections in June 2009 galvanized activists and professional women to put aside their minor and major differences and to form a coalition, irrespective of their religious beliefs or political leanings. Calling itself “Hamgaraei,” or “coming together,” the coalition drafted a statement of its demands, again making legal reforms the point of departure. The coalition’s issues are not limited to the headscarf and hijab. They demand constitutional and structural change and major reform in an antiquated family law that allows men a unilateral right to plural marriages and divorce. Their campaign was so successful that three of the four competing presidential candidates promised to adopt their platform for change.

Joining forces with women were daughters, wives, and sisters of prominent men who had tested the political waters once, only to be disqualified to run for office again. This coalition for civil disobedience and peaceful resistance is significant in part because many of the women activists come from highly religious families—yet they enjoy the strong support and backing of their fathers, husbands, and brothers.

Modernity and Islam: No Necessary Incompatibility

Such unprecedented alliances between men and women, the reformists’ parties, the activists, and the progressive ayatollahs point to a growing convergence of interests, a widespread willingness to accept difference and plurality, and a growing tolerance of the viewpoints and life experiences of the “other.”

Above all, the fact that activists and feminists and ayatollahs may make common cause and forge alliances does not necessarily generate a “contradiction.” Rather, it points to the growing sophistication of the women’s movement in Iran, as well as a willingness on the part of some ayatollahs to rethink marriage and family laws within a modern context. As individuals and groups crisscross and redraw the boundaries of the “religious” and the “secular” in real-life situations, Iranian women—and their male supporters—may ultimately usher their society toward a less ideological and more democratic system, thus realizing their goal of gender justice.

Had he lived long enough, my grandfather would have been among the progressive ayatollahs.  His daughters and granddaughters would not have been surprised.

This post is a slightly edited text of the remarks Prof. Haeri delivered at the public launch of Contending Modernities on November 19, 2010.

Shahla Haeri
Shahla Haeri is Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology and former director of Women's Studies at Boston University. She has conducted research in Iran, Pakistan, and India and has written extensively on religion, law, and gender dynamics in the Muslim world. She is the author of No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women.

2 thoughts on “Challenging Marriage Laws in Contemporary Shi’i Iran

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I myself am not Muslim, but have struggled to understand some of the gender issues and struggles of my female Muslim friends and this is one of the best explanations of the layers behind them that I have ever encountered. I wish more people could read it! Thank you for the time and thoughtfulness while writing it.

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