There is a growing sense of anger amongst Iranian women. Next week, a number of women’s rights groups are planning to picket in front of the Majlis (parliament) to demonstrate against a new bill which, if passed, would allow Iranian men to take a second wife, without the permission of his first one.
Until now, consent of the first wife has been required by law. If the new bill is approved, this will be no more. All the man has to do is to prove that he can provide financially for his second wife, and he can legally marry her, no matter how vehemently his first wife objects. As Iranian law allows a man to have four wives, once this law is passed, all that stands in the way of anyone who wishes to be a bigamist is money.
Compared to some Middle Eastern countries, including U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Iranian women have more rights. Iran has female members of parliament. Iranian women play sports, attend universities in record numbers (higher than men), and participate in the arts and entertainment world, just to name a few.
In Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive. Ever heard of Zohreh Vatankhah? She is Iran’s female champion rally driver.
Clearly, compared to Western countries, women’s rights in Iran have a very long way to go. For example, the testimony of a female witness in court is officially considered half as credible as a man’s. There have even been cases of women being stoned for adultery. If a woman leaves her husband, she is likely to lose her children.
This new bill, even if it is not passed, shows that the rights of women under President Ahmadinejad (who refuses to shake a woman’s hand) are deteriorating. This stands in contrast to the time of Ayatollah Khatami as president, who had a female vice president.
The new bill also endangers the welfare of Iranian men from poorer income brackets who wish to get married (for the first time). They may find it more difficult to find brides from their economic class, because women who want to escape poverty could now find it easier to become the second wife of a rich man. So instead of helping the poor, as he repeatedly promises, Ahmadinejad and his government are giving more power to the rich.
In addition to just demonstrating, Iranian women are finding other ways to defend their rights. For example, one of their concerns is that if divorced, the husband could convince the court not to pay them anything. To resolve that issue, many girls have upped the compensation they would get from a man in case they divorce. The level is measured in the number of gold coins promised as dowry to a bride in a prenuptial agreement.
Until five years ago, 100 to 200 gold coins was the going prenuptial rate for girls from middle-class families. Nowadays, there are reports from Iran, especially Tehran, that this rate has jumped to 600. Even 1,000 coins has been heard of.
According to an article in BBC Persian, this has raised alarm bells for the Iranian government, for a number of reasons. One is that the government sees that marriage, which has been a sanctified Iranian tradition, is “turning into an economic project,” as stated by Ahmadinejad’s vice president, Gholam Hossein Elham. This was also making life for some Iranian men very difficult. In some cases, after getting married, the man would realize that he is not a good match with his wife. But he is not able to divorce her, as he cannot afford to pay the prenuptial agreement. And this is something no one can escape from. In March of this year, one divorcing husband was ordered by a court to buy 124,000 roses for his wife, as per their prenuptial agreement. Not everyone can afford this. So it is a choice of staying in an unhappy marriage or going to jail.
Meanwhile, some single guys heard such stories and decided to stay away from marriage altogether, or to postpone it for as long as possible, until they could afford it. But not everyone wants to stay single until they are older. Therefore, in order to resolve their romantic aspirations, more young guys are opting for temporary marriages, called sighe in Farsi. Such temporary marriages, which could last anywhere from two hours to 99 years, have to be sanctified by a Shiite clergy to be recognized. The rates at which some girls agree to such marriages are much lower. One can even use the Internet to find sighe, thus making this a more comfortable temporary solution, until such times that they can afford to get married.
To resolve the decreasing number of people from poorer classes who wish to get married, the government is planning a new maximum tax-free limit for prenuptial agreements. Any figure above that will be taxable. In this way it aims to deter couples from agreeing to what it sees as exorbitant prenuptial figures. Also, by reducing the financial burden, the government of Ahmadinejad hopes that Iranian men will be less scared of getting married. Whether it will succeed is another matter.
So while the world frets about Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, upper-class Iranian bigamists are coming up with new ways to “enrich” the number of their female companions. And much like the nuclear program, outside authorities seem powerless to stop them. However, all hope is not lost. There is one great difference here. The opposition, in the form of Iran’s women, has most probably gotten its own array of “tough” and “comprehensive” sanctions, and unlike the UN, is far more willing to impose them.