“I was 12 when I learned I’d have to become a bride. My mother just told me: ‘You’re going to marry your cousin, and you must promise me you’ll always listen to him, and he’ll always be satisfied with you.’ On the wedding night, she said: ‘Husbands and wives are allowed to be intimate and nothing that goes on between them is bad. So listen to your husband and do whatever he wants.’”
This is the story of Hoda, a now-19-year-old girl in Iran who was forcibly married as a preteen and had her first child at 14. She is one of hundreds of thousands, if not millions whose lives were permanently deformed by this backward-looking practice. Last year alone more than 50,000 more Iranian girls joined them.
Child marriage in Iran has been on the increase again in the past two years. As IranWire reported earlier this year, one fifth of all registered marriages in the country involve children while an unknown number more take place out of sight and unofficially. Children’s rights activists have fought to keep this issue in the public eye for years but the government is indifferent to their efforts at best, hostile at worst.
Research on child marriage in Iran, conducted by Fact Nameh, a well-known Persian fact-checking website, attests to how different the situation is different in different parts of the country. Statistics published by the National Organization for Civil Registration indicate the practice is most rife in the north, northwest and southeast of the country.
The official line in Tehran is either to portray child marriage as an insignificant issue or deny it altogether. In 2018 a bill to ban child marriage was rejected by the parliament’s Judiciary Committee; deputy chairman Hasan Norouzi said at the time: “I do not understand why some people, contrary to the holy Islamic sharia, want to raise the age of marriage.” Then in 2021, he claimed a 13-year-old girl was not a child.
Though the legal age for marriage varies from country to country, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is explicit: “Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights”, and “Child marriage robs girls of their childhood and threatens their lives and health.”
Farshid Yazdani, director of the Children’s Rights Society of Iran, agrees. “Child marriage is not just sexual violence but a combination of sexual, physical and psychological violence. A child who is forced to marry might not protest against it but this doesn’t mean they consent.”
A Mother at 14
“I was born and grew up in a village near Yazd,” Hoda tells IranWire. She catches herself, laughs a little and adds: “Of course, I married before I grew up. In our village, girls got married at the age of 12 or 13; the boys at 16 to 18. I had two suitors when I turned 11. One was the son of our next-door neighbor and the other one was my cousin. I became my cousin’s wife when I was 12.”
She laughs again, mirthlessly, and continues: “I learned about my betrothal only when my mother told me that the following night would be my engagement party. Since we were relatives, there was no official courtship. I knew nothing about life, absolutely nothing.”
Of their married life together, Hoda says, “I’m not saying my husband is a bad man but it was as though I was in another world. Everything was strange to me. I was constantly scared I might do something that he didn’t like, and he’d tell my father, and my father would get angry with me.
“A year later I got pregnant. Actually that made me very happy. I felt I was going to give birth to a playmate, a friend. And in fact, things got much better after my daughter was born. But we’ve been trying for two years to have another child and it hasn’t happened. My husband has become bad-tempered and whenever my parents see us they’re close to tears, and my father apologizes to my husband.”
Hell Started at 13
Reyhaneh is 24, and the mother of a 9-year-old daughter. She openly curses her forced marriage at the age of just 13.: “Damn all those who allow this stupid thing to happen. My family and I live in Eslam Shahr [in Tehran province] and for as long as I can remember he financially strained; the grown-ups always advised me, my sister and my brother to be frugal. I was 13 when a suitor asked to marry me. He worked at a turner and had been introduced by a neighbor. He was 11 years older than me, but my parents were so happy they didn’t spend any time thinking about it.
“I was a child and naïve. I soon found out he was a drug addict and emotionally unstable. He beat me as well. I was so afraid of my parents that I couldn’t tell anybody about it. Our first year together was hell and I thought constantly about suicide. The second year was a little better. Then I found out I was pregnant.”
With a lump in her throat, Reyhaneh goes on: “Every night I cried and prayed to God until the baby was born. My husband lost his job. I worried every day about how to feed my child and my family knew nothing about it.
“My daughter was three when they caught my husband with opium one day. He was sentenced to five years in prison. I was scared out of my mind, and lost for about two months. Then I found a job with a tailor, and a year later I got my divorce.
“My husband was not good to me, but I don’t hold a grudge against him after so many years. Nowadays, he comes once in a while to visit our daughter and then goes away. But I will never forgive my parents for what they did to me.”
According to the latest figures published by the Statistical Center of Iran in November 2021, in the spring of that year alone the marriages of 9,753 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 were registered in Iran, a shocking 32 percent increase on the spring of 2020. In that 12-month period, a total of 45,522 girls between the ages of 15 to 19 were registered as newly married. A large number of child marriages in Iran are not officially registered.
This article was written by a citizen journalist under a pseudonym.