Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Women Fight Polygamy Proposal
Iranian women’s groups and other rights organisations are fighting a much discussed proposed law which they say would encourage polygamy by allowing a man to take a second wife without the permission of the first in certain circumstances.
The proposal comes at a time when the country has been rocked by protests, in which women have played a major part, following the disputed re-election last June of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Although Sharia law permits a man to take up to four wives, polygamy is not widely practiced in Iran and women have enjoyed greater rights and freedoms than in some other Muslim countries. At present, an Iranian man needs his first wife’s permission to take a second.
A so-called Family Protection Law, proposed by the government in 2008, said a man could marry a second wife on condition only that he could afford both wives financially. The parliament dropped that clause following a wave of opposition from women but is now reconsidering a different version of the provision.
The spokesman for the parliament’s Judicial and Legal Commission, Amir Hussein Rahimi, announced recently that the commission had now approved article 23 of the proposed Family Protection Law that said, “A man can marry a second wife under ten conditions.”
The new version still requires the first wife to give permission, though controversially this would not be required under certain conditions, such as if she is mentally ill, or suffers from infertility, a chronic medical condition or drug addiction, in which case the husband can marry another woman. Also if the first wife does not cooperate sexually, the husband can take another wife.
The change is being promoted by conservative members of the parliament as a move that supports Islamic law. A leading conservative deputy, Ali Motahari, said in parliament last year, “Polygamy is Islam’s honour.”
Iranian women still oppose the legalisation of polygamy, saying it weakens their role and status at home and in society. Shahla Ezazi, professor of sociology at Allameh Tabatabai University, conducted a survey in 2008 which showed that 96 per cent of Iranian women do not approve of allowing a man to take a rival wife.
The original plan was dropped after a group of intellectuals, religious, social and human rights activists created a movement to voice their opposition to the law. In September 2008, a group of 50 well-known women, including poet Simin Behbahani, politician Azam Taleghani and lawyer and Noble prize winner Shirin Ebadi, met representatives from the parliament to express their concerns about what they called “an anti-family protection law”.
Islamic organisations such as the Zeinab Association and the Women’s Organisation of the Islamic Revolution also supported the movement. In addition, organisations such as the One Million Signatures campaign, which opposes discrimination against women, played a significant role in mobilising public opinion.
The law was also controversial among government officials and several reformists protested against it openly. Iran’s former president, Mohammad Khatami, called it “persecution”. Even a leading cleric, Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, stated, “If the first wife does not permit her husband to take another wife, the marriage will not be legitimate, even if a man can support both wives financially.”
Nevertheless, the speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, has declared that it will consider a slightly amended version of the controversial article.
A lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, “When a government imprisons the women who ask for a change of discriminatory laws, and it persistently proposes a law that encourages men to marry a second wife, it is only natural that women don’t trust such a government.”
A young member of the Centre for Iranian Women, Taraneh Bani Yaghoub, said, “The women’s movement will not remain quiet.”
Iran’s first law that recognised polygamy according to Islamic Sharia law was passed when Reza Shah, who ruled between 1925 and 1941, was in power. In 1970, women activists demanded the secular government of Mohammad Reza Shah outlaw polygamy but despite the government’s positive reaction to their demand, clerics prevented it. In 1975, an alternative was adopted that polygamy was permitted under certain conditions, such as obtaining the first wife’s permission.
Much has changed in Iran since the 1976, when only 36 per cent of women were literate. Now, according to the Statistical Centre of Iran, 80 per cent of women are educated, and almost 1.6 million are university students – half the total and compared to 46,000 in 1976. Women’s education has also brought about a drastic change in their demographic behaviour. A woman’s average age on marriage is 24 while in 1976 it was 18 and the birth rate has dropped by one third compared to 30 years ago.
In addition, despite government restrictions on women, the number of female professionals has increased at around six per cent a year, so that about 2.5 million women were working in 2006, according to official statistics. A large group of educated women – scientists, doctors, academics, writers, artists, cinematographers, lawyers – has shaped today’s Iranian society. For years, these women have demanded legal and social rights and equal treatment with men. They have resisted any law that weakens their rights or degrades their position in society.
They say the proposed new law on polygamy is intolerable, also in the light of other laws on, for instance, divorce, fixed-term marriage contracts for men (or Sighehs), and child custody. Under Iranian divorce law, men can split from their wives under any circumstance, whereas women must have a “valid justification” such as the man’s addiction to drugs. Married men can have as many Sighehs as they wish, whereas women are stoned to death if they have an extramarital affair. In most cases, men also get custody of the children.
While women are angry with the proposed new law, they have also been disappointed by the reaction of key figures of the opposition movement. A recent statement signed by a group of women activists accused defeated presidential contenders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi of ignoring women’s rights and even their existence in their political manifestos. “We believe that women’s issues are a major part of the current crisis and no solution will be achieved unless this issue is included,” they said.
Sahar Sepehri is a journalist and media analyst based in Washington, DC.
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