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The Ones That Got Away: Iranian Women Mourn Girlhoods Lost to Child Marriage

October 13, 2021
Maryam Dehkordi
10 min read

Since 2012, the United Nations has designated October 11 as International Day of the Girl. The day is an opportunity to get behind initiatives to improve the lot of young women around the world, and to raise awareness of the injustices they face in their daily lives.

One such injustice is that of child marriage, which remains prevalent in some parts of Iran. A few promoters of this archaic practice in Iran like to claim that “Not all child-spouses are miserable”, pointing to examples of forced underage marriage that they claim were “successful”. Is this true? IranWire spoke to a few grown-up Iranian women about the impact child marriage had on themselves, and some of those dearest to them.

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"I was the daughter of a Khan [an old title used to connote nobility]. My father was one of the great landowners of our city. I loved school, and never stayed at home even after school was over; I’d go horseback riding with my father and brothers, or play in the trees by myself. When he saw I wouldn’t be locked up at home, my father's steward, who watched over the Khan's children, began to whisper that I should be married."

Moluk came from a wealthy family. Contrary to the prevailing narrative that only poor and under-educated households marry off their girl-children, she says their relative prosperity was one of the reasons she was betrothed at the age of just 14. "My father and the others were constantly worried that someone would kidnap or harm me. That’s why, when my brother was at a party in an upper-class house and heard that the host’s son was preparing to marry, he said he knew of a good girl for him. When they asked who, he said: 'My sister.'”

Moluk gave birth to her first child a year later, aged 15. But, she said, “When he was six months old, my very beautiful son fell ill and died. Everyone was crying, most of all my husband. But I was so tired after those six months that I felt relieved. I slept for a week. Everyone thought I was sleeping because of grief at the child’s death."

Changing Trends; Same Phenomenon

The justifications used for child marriage in Iran - and its continuation in the 21st century – are more varied than many people think. Cultural mores, religious beliefs, class differences, levels of education, poverty and pragmatism, but most of all patriarchy and old codes of "honor" are just some of the underlying reasons.  

Sociologist and university professor Saeed Peyvandi told IranWire that the general purpose of the practice had changed with the decades, but it was on the decline. “Like any other social phenomenon, people’s life goals and expectations vary between different generations. In the time of our grandmothers, the sole purpose of women's lives was marriage. At that time, when it wasn’t possible for the majority of women, even upper-class women, to study or enter the labor market, what else were they supposed to do?

“Naturally, women sought to become independent. Back then, becoming independent meant leaving one's father's home – through marriage and having one’s own children. The woman remained in the shadows, and even in her own imagination, could not identify any role for herself other than daughter, sister, mother and wife."

Today, he said, the situation has changed. “Girls now stay in education system for an average of 12 to 13 years. Marrying at that age is now outside of the norm. Our grandmothers had never seen their husbands before getting married; our mothers' generation met their husbands at the proposal ceremony. But this is now unthinkable for most women.

"Opportunities to study, work, socialize, fall in love, and connect with different people during adolescence began to arise from the late 1960s. This is why the average age of first marriage has been steadily rising over the past 40 or 50 years. But there are still limited groups who marry early – either under duress or voluntarily – and even in the most optimistic of circumstances, this will never be without disagreeable consequences.”

The Statistical Center of Iran reports that in the first quarter of 2020, some 7,323 girls under the age of 12 were married in Iran. The number of married-off girls aged 15 to 18 stood at 36,013. During this period, just 131 girls under the age of 14 and 2,650 girls aged 14 to 18 were able to get a divorce. The average age of the men who married under-12s was at least 15 years older than their child brides. And these are just the weddings that are known about: an untold number of other child marriages will have taken place in those three months that were not registered with the Civil Registration Organization.

Girls Robbed of Their Whole Lives

Roya is just 15 years younger than her mother, who was married off to a cousin when they were 14 and 20 years old. "My mother came to Tehran from her remote village [to be married],” she said. “For her, marriage was a way to save herself from a rural environment that gave her no opportunity to progress."

Before the move, her mother, while still a teenager herself, had worked as a seamstress to support the family of five. “The thing I’ve always found painful about her life was how she was kept away from her peers,” Roya said. “She never had a friend in all the years I can remember, from the past to the present. In their early years of marriage she had to hide her age, because in those years, no-one in Tehran got married at the age of 14. After that, she was so preoccupied with having children that she couldn’t forge any deep friendships."

Nazanin, now a grown woman in Iran, told IranWire that child marriage was normalized in her community when she was a child. "In my father's family, it was customary for the men to remarry quickly if their wife died, even in less than 40 days [the traditional mourning period] –  and to marry girls as young as 12 or 13 years old. I heard this sentence many times from my paternal grandmother: "Pray that I don’t die before your grandfather, because if so, he’s going to do marry a 12-year-old girl and ruin the family's reputation."

Many of Nazanin’s cousins were also victims of forced marriage. “My uncle had six daughters, none of whom were over ten years old at the time of their weddings. This was a wealthy family that married the daughters off to people of a similar economic and social status. Economic problems were not the reason."

At the age of nine, she said, one of the girls abruptly stopped coming to school. Her parents initially claimed she had contracted mumps. “My mother's phone calls became suspicious. She kept crying on the phone. My father got nervous and went to my uncle's house with his other brother. I didn’t know what was going on – until I saw Leila with dyed hair. We were in the third grade and she was getting married."

Nazanin recounts the beatings and sufferings that Leila experienced: "Leila explained that her virginity was forcibly taken from her in the presence of her parents, while they held her. This was the end of it for her. She agreed to a marriage that turned her into a moving corpse." The same cousin fell pregnant at age 11, but ended up miscarrying; her husband, a drug addict, was violent towards her because of her unwillingness to have sex.

Leila's bitter story did not end there. "We grew up," Nazanin said. "I was 20 years old. I lived with my boyfriend, I traveled alone, and my family was aware of all of that. Every time I saw Leila, she asked questions that set me on fire. She asked: ‘Isn’t boarding a plane just terrifying? Is your father still talking to you? Don’t they beat you because you have a boyfriend? What’s it like abroad?’. Leila, an innocent child, was so helpless, and beaten down so badly in her life, that she finally died while in the bloom of youth.”

“Their Choice is Not Their Choice”

Saeed Peyvandi assesses that marriage in Iran at a young age – even where it hasn’t been forced – can never be truly consensual, because of the restrictive culture under the Islamic Republic. "Marriage at an unconventional age has consequences for girls, whether under duress or voluntarily.

“In developed countries, a 15-year-old girl has the right to fall in love, to have an emotional, romantic and sexual relationship with her another person of her own sex or the opposite sex, without taking on the heavy burden of managing their lives. In Iran, however, girls of this age cannot experience emotional and sexual relationships outside of marriage and the marriage contract. So what they usually call their choice is not really their choice; many of them, even in the middle class, have no choice but to get married to experience sexual and emotional relationships."

Sahar got married at the age of 16 and quickly gave birth to two children in two years. "She met her husband and they loved each other," her aunt told IranWire. "Everyone in the family, from mothers and fathers to uncles and I myself, disagreed. But she insisted. Now, six years after her marriage, she says she wishes the elders had resisted it – and tried to make them understand that it was too early for any of that.”

The direct consequences of underage marriage are young girls dropping out of school early, being confined to the home and unable to work, and losing their childhoods; the indirect consequences run to social isolation, depression, infidelity, physical health problems and an inability to manage life as a responsible adult with agency, which in turn can refract onto any children they bear.

But none of this has ever been of particular concern to officials of the Islamic Republic: nor to Ayatollah Khamenei, who in fact uses every possible opportunity to promote early marriage and childbirth. New Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs Ansieh Khazali also supports child marriage.

"We face a system that’s striving to push the people backward,” Peyvandi said. “In previous years, it sometimes felt like there was a growing level of awareness among some Iranian MPs and women’s representatives. But now we see time moving in the opposite direction. By spreading poverty, the government can make child marriage look normal, as it does with polygamy.

In addition, he said, the situation in Iran was such that few victims of child marriage would have the chance to get out and become advocates themselves: “The generation that today falls victim to the poor decisions of the leadership won’t even have the power to distance itself from its bitter, lived experience and become a critic of it in the future. In developed countries, some victims of child marriage, rape, domestic violence and other social ills can go on to become top activists in this field. But we have a very difficult future ahead."

Related coverage:

Iran's New VP for Family and Women's Affairs Supports Child Marriage

Iran's Child Marriage Victims Have No Voice

364 Iranian Children Gave Birth in the Summer of 2020

Iranian Official Calls Forced Child Marriage “Early Marriage”

Iran’s Parliament Pushes for Population Increase and Promotes Child Marriage

Twenty Percent of Marriages in Iran are Child Marriages

Nine Thousand Children Married in Iran in Summer 2020

She's 10, He's 22. He was Allowed to Marry her

Child Marriage or Child Rape?

Children Main Victims of Iran’s “Temporary Marriages”

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