In Iran, women continue to face harsh discrimination, discrimination that is embedded within Iranian society — but also enshrined in Iranian law.  Although in many ways, Iranian women are empowered, with female students outnumbering men in a number of fields, and women playing an active role in social sciences and the arts, Iran's legal system continues to hold them back and repress them. On International Women's Day, IranWire looks at the laws that have a direct impact on the lives of women.


Family Law

According to Article 1105 of the civil code, the husband is the head of the family. This alone sufficiently demonstrates that, under Iranian family law, men and women are not equal. Although strictly speaking, a court makes the final decision if there is a dispute between a husband and wife, because Iran's judiciary is patriarchal, a husband essentially has the right to bar his wife from an occupation if he believes it to be incompatible with “family interests” or brings disrepute on the family.  Though women can ask for a divorce, the courts will only grant them to them in certain circumstances.



A woman also needs her husband’s consent to travel outside the country, and even to apply for a passport. The only exception to this is if the couple specifically stipulates that the woman has the right to leave the country on their marriage certificate, opting out of the default  arrangement.

[Read more about travel bans on women, and the story of Iranian futsal star Nilufar Ardalan, whose husband forbid her from traveling to compete. ]


Child Custody

In case of divorce, only one parent is entitled to custody in Iran, with the other parent given visitation rights. Guardianship mainly concerns the financial and legal implications of looking after a child, and Iran’s Civil Code states that a child’s natural guardian is his or her father and paternal grandfather. So in cases where the custody is given to the mother, the guardianship will be with the father and the paternal grandfather. A guardian’s permission is required for most legal matters, including  issuing a child’s passport, or for the child to have surgery. The mother will be penalized if she remarries, and will be forced to give up the custody of the child.



Women face discrimination in most in matters of inheritance. If a parent dies, for example, brothers are entitled to twice the amount of inheritance as that of their sisters. If a married couple inherits money or other valuables, the husband's share is more than that of the wife. Article 942 sets out how his inheritance should be split between multiple wives, so not only does Iranian law discriminate against women in terms of her inheritance rights, by making reference to polygamy, it also introduces another blatant inequality in Iranian law. Men are allowed to engage in polygamy, whereas women are not.


Criminal Responsibility

Whereas in other aspects of life women are considered less able than men, when it comes to punishments and criminal responsibility they are considered to be much more mature, and are held responsible for their behavior at an earlier age.

As with so many areas, Iran's justice system takes a gendered approach when assessing the "worth" of an individual. When it comes to assessing cases where  “blood money” is paid as compensation,often the blood money of a woman  is worth less than a man.

This inequality — or gendered approach to worth and punishment — also causes problems in cases where a man murders a woman and the family of the victim demands qesas, a retaliation punishment based on the concept of "an eye for an eye."  When a Muslim woman is murdered, qesas can be applied. But it stipulates that if the murderer is a Muslim man, prior to the punishment being handed down, the family of the victim is required to pay the murderer "half of the blood money of a man.” So because the victim is a woman, her family is penalized and forced to pay before they are entitled to compensation.


Rape within Marriage

One of the most shocking examples of discrimination against women is that marital rape is not punishable by law. If a woman refuses to sleep with her husband, he can withdraw her nafaqeh — essentially her maintenance "allowance," which includes housing, clothes, food, and furniture. Women are not only without legal protection if they do not sleep with their husbands, they are in danger of being punished for it.


Honor Killing

Under Iran’s Penal Code, in some cases, honor killing is legal. “When a man sees his wife committing adultery with another man, provided that he is certain that his wife is willing [to have sex with the man], the husband can kill both of them," Article 630 states.


Obligatory veiling

Following the 1979 Revolution, wearing the hijab became compulsory for women. “Women who appear in the streets and public places without the Islamic hijab shall be sentenced from 10 days to two months’ imprisonment or fined from 50,000 to 500,000 rials,” Article 638 states.


Are there any laws that protect women?

Women can turn to some aspects of the penal code for protection against some of the country's more retrogressive laws. Couples can apply conditions to their marriage contracts, including the right to work after marriage, the right to leave the country without the husband’s permission, the right to the custody of children after divorce and the wife’s right to a divorce.

But unfortunately, many women are not aware of their right to stipulate these conditions, and so more often than not enter into unequal marriages.

If a woman decides to file for divorce, but cannot get her husband’s consent or persuade the court,  she can demand a Khul’a divorce. By agreeing to hand over property to her husband, she can register for a divorce — but of course, the fact that she has to give up something she owns is yet again a very serious and debilitating example of discrimination. 

Iran's  criminal code does not specifically address domestic violence,  but victims of domestic violence are entitled to lodge a complaint against their abusive husband, brother, or father. Family lawyers urge women who have been the victim of domestic violence to do this. They also advise that if a woman forgives the man and withdraws her complaint, she should ask him for a written commitment that he will not be violent again, to be signed in front of a judge. Whether this legal tool can effectively protect a woman against violence is unclear, but, in theory, the message will be sent that violence towards women will not be tolerated.

Advocates for change work hard to make their voices heard, both within the country and in garnering support from the international community. The Campaign for One Million Signatures to Change Discriminatory Laws raised awareness of the situation for women, with a view to appealing to parliament to bring about change. But, like many grassroots campaigns in Iran, authorities suppressed the movement, spurred on by hardliner politicians and protesters. Some activists from the signatures campaign were even jailed. Other campaigners have challenged laws on religious grounds, arguing that discrimination against women is not embedded within sharia or Islam. 

Although in principle women in Iran do have some recourse to the law, these options are extremely limited.  Discriminatory laws, rooted in some interpretations of Islam or patriarchy — or both — continue to hamper their progress in all areas. And when it comes to serious crimes against women, including honor killing, Iran's legal system betrays them.  


This article was originally published on February 22. 


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Hijab: The Most Cherished of Weapons

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