When 13-year-old Raheleh refused to marry her 17-year-old cousin, her father confined her to her bedroom for five days and forbade her to talk to anyone. She cried and screamed. She went on hunger strike. But nothing worked. Her father would not change his mind: once the school year was out, she would marry her cousin. Her brothers were encouraged to make a bonfire of Raheleh’s schoolbooks. And, when her mother stood up for her, she too was punished, beaten up and told to remain silent.
A month later, Raheleh was married. Three months later she had her first miscarriage. By 17 she had two sons and was pregnant with her third. Though her husband had told her before they married that she would be able to continue to her studies at home and complete her diploma by taking equivalency exams, she never got the chance.
On July 8, Justice for Iran, a human rights campaigning and research organization, appealed to Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, asking her to take action on the issue of forced marriages among underage girls in Iran.
“Iran is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the letter stated, pointing out that both mechanisms “ban marriage at an early age and without informed consent.” It was time, Justice for Iran said, for the UN to demand answers from the Iranian government over this serious human rights violation.
The office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Slavery stipulates that forced marriage is a form of modern slavery. But Justice for Iran says that “while in Iran the minimum age for marriage is set at 13, pending a judge’s permission, fathers or paternal relatives can marry their children at any age.”
According to research conducted by the group, which covers 2006-2007 and 2013-2014, the rate of marriage for girls below 15 years of age is on the rise. Statistics published by Iran’s National Organization for Civil Registration reveal that, between March and December 2013, more than five percent of married females were below the age of 15. The same figures reveal that, among the registered marriages in Iran, more than one third of women were below the age of 19.
But these are official figures only, provided for registered marriages. There are strong indicators that the actual numbers for underage marriage are higher, especially because the statistics released by the government do not include those marriages entered into by young women aged between 18 and 19.
Tradition, Religion and the “Right Age”
Why is underage marriage on the rise in Iran? There are a number of reasons: tradition and religious culture are two major factors. Some families believe an early marriage can protect them: their daughters will not have the opportunity to be led astray, bringing shame and dishonor to the family. In other cases, poverty plays a role: a daughter is simply sold off for money because her family cannot afford to feed her.
In parts of Iran, some believe that children must be sacrificed to forced marriages in order to maintain tribal bonds. Among some of these communities, there’s a traditional belief that a girl should not menstruate while still living in her father’s house.
In bigger cities, these traditions manifest themselves differently. One family marries off a young girl because she has been reading a romantic novel, while another girl is forced into early marriage because she has been caught talking to her boyfriend on the phone.
Girls living in urban areas tend to reject the idea of underage marriage—but it seems that the official view is somewhat different. Some prominent public figures—among them former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—have tried to normalize or even promote underage marriage, viewing it as somehow beneficial to society. In 2009, when the average age of marriage rose to 24 for women and 26 for men, Ahmadinejad made his views known: “I believe that the right age of marriage for women is 16, 17 or 18, when girls have just blossomed.” He said that at this age, girls have heightened emotions and “tenderness,” and so are ripe for marriage. “The right age for men to marry is when they are 19, 20 or 21,” he said.
In a recent roundtable discussion on Iranian television, the conservative MP Ali Motahari objected to the policy of expelling married girls from schools. Married and unmarred girls can learn together in classrooms, he said, without any problems arising.
Such views, combined with legal loopholes, have made it easier to force underage girls into marriage. “In a roundabout way the Iranian law approves of marrying off young girls,” says the women rights activist Maryam Hosseinkhah. “In many cases, institutions such as schools and welfare centers, which you would expect to stand behind young girls, have instead encouraged the marriage.”
Iranian law sets the minimum age for marriage at 13 for girls and 15 for boys. But getting around this is not difficult. By obtaining a court order that certifies a child’s “maturity”, a father has the right to marry off a daughter or a son at any age, even when they’re babies. Maturity is assessed by a court-appointed doctor, followed by the child being asked a few questions by a court representative. The process differs from court to court and appointed judges usually adhere to the traditions and norms of the local area that particular court serves.
The Death of Childhood
Underage marriage for girls is not confined to particular regions in Iran, and, as Maryam Hosseinkhah points out, the practice does not occur only in underprivileged and border towns and villages. Figures published in 2012 reveal that seven provinces—Tehran, North Khorasan, South Khorasan, East Azerbaijan, Mazandaran, Gilan, and Kermanshah—have a high rate of underage marriages. According to official statistics for the province of Hamedan, in the nine months from March to November 2012, in at least in 38 percent of marriages, the bride was between 15 to 19 years of age.
Even in Tehran the numbers are high. In 2012, the number of married girls between the ages of 10 to 14 was 1,752. “In the last year,” says Hosseinkhah, “many girls have posted their stories on Facebook, revealing that even rich and middle-class families force under-15 girls to marry because of cultural and religious beliefs.”
Regardless of geographic or cultural conditions, the fates of these young girls are similar. A girl forced into early marriage becomes synonymous with free labor, open to exploitation. She works in the field and in the home, and, above all, she is a sexual object. Because she is exposed to sex prematurely, she is subjected to psychological and physical damage, not least of all because of pregnancies at such a young age. These girls are trapped in a world of physical violence and can do nothing about it. They have been robbed of their childhood, with no chance of pursuing an education. They suffer from depression, the effects of early aging, and a range of other ailments. Very soon, slavery destroys their physical and mental health. A considerable number are murdered by their husbands or a member of his family. Suicide among women who were married at any early age is common.
The research conducted by human rights groups and government-affiliated organizations alike suggests what the future might hold for girls forced into early marriages. The Iranian government has not fully acknowledged what life is like for these girls, and this is reflected in legislation.