According to Iranian Christian news site Mohabat, Mohammad Ali Isfenani, a spokesperson for the Majlis (the Iranian Parliament) has recently discussed changing the age for girl’s marriage to what they consider to be the Islamically approved age of nine lunar years of age (i.e .eight years and nine months in the Western calendar.)
In actuality, marriage to a girl of this age is already legal under Iranian law, but since 2003, such a marriage requires judicial and parental consent if the girl is under 14. If Isfenani’s suggestion passes, it will strip away the last level of protection for the most vulnerable girls in the country: those living in regions such as Balochistan, Kordestan, Ifsahan and Hormozgan where the rate of early marriages may be as high as 40% – compared to just 8% in Tehran. Soraya Tremayne also finds that some urban areas may also have high levels of early marriage, particularly in communities with a conservative religious or strong ethnic identity.
So far, so worrisome. But as the figures above show, early marriage is not universal. We cannot assume all Iranian families are routinely marrying off their prepubescent daughters, or that Iranian men hunger for young flesh. Statistically, the trend is quite the converse: in Iran, since the 1970s, the average age for first marriage has been sharply climbing. The average age of a woman’s first marriage in Iran is, in fact, higher than it is in America.
Isfenani’s proposal comes at a time when Saudi Arabia, IRI’s rivals for establishing themselves as the centre of gravity of the Islamic world, is itself debating establishing an age of consent, with the age of ten being one of the mooted suggestions. If Saudi Arabia and IRI seek to demonstrate their competitive piety using the bodies of girls, then these girls can only be the losers.
Early marriage produces a variety of social problems: while the issue of the health of girls and women experiencing sex and pregnancy with immature bodies [PDF] has been heavily featured in campaigns for increasing the age of marriage, such arguments focus rather narrowly upon women’s reproductive capacity at the expense of other ramifications – that early marriage is related to the ‘patriarchal bargain‘ model of marriage, which means that women provide domestic labour and sexual and reproductive access to their bodies in exchange for basic maintenance. This is an arrangement which makes women into the dependents of men, a system which may be perceived as inevitable, even valuable, where women lack the means to support themselves independently, and where there are strong cultural delimitations on women’s behaviour, but it is one which ultimately preserves gendered inequalities.
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Child marriage remains a problem in many Arab nations, Yemen in particular where around 32% of young women were married before the age of 18. Early marriage also recorded in Central/Eastern Europe, with even higher levels in South Asia.
But while early marriage remains an intransigent problem, it is also one which runs counter to the general Middle Eastern trend, in which Iran is possibly the first to experience the severest ramifications of a demographic and cultural crisis related to marriage.
The Middle Eastern ‘Marriage Crisis’
The Middle East has been described as undergoing a ‘marriage crisis‘ where over 50% of men between 25-29 are still unmarried. The Middle East and North Africa have the highest levels of youth unemployment in the world. Such young men are unable to pay for marriages where it represents a substantial financial outlay in terms of wedding expenses and/or brideprice, and the ability able to provide for a dependent wife and family.
The region’s high fertility has led to a youth bulge, which in turn has led to high unemployment within struggling economies. Young people are now forced to defer marriage until they can afford it. The Middle Eastern region as a whole is dealing with unprecedented population growth due to high fertility and increased child survival, creating a ‘lost generation’ of unemployed and underemployed youths.
Iran perhaps shows the final ramifications of this pattern, with the largest ‘youth bulge’ in the region, followed by a ‘marriage squeeze’ sufficiently intense to arrest the general Middle Eastern trend for population growth. Iran’s birthrate has markedly declined despite the fact that a quarter of married women are between the ages of 15 and 19 at the time of marriage. This proportion has been stable since the mid-90s, suggesting a polarisation between the rural and urban experiences, where underdeveloped regions continue to have high levels of child marriage.
But there is more to this knot than demographics and economics. East Asia has seen a similar rise in the age of marriage, despite their economic strength and demographic stability – and has largely eliminated early marriage in the process. Educated Asian women with the ability to support themselves are simply identifying marriage as a bad deal and preferring to remain single.
For decades countries in the Middle East has resisted global changes to marriage which have overtaken most of the world since the 1950s, where the modern, conjugal, and nuclear family associated with industrial life has swept away traditional, extended family marriage arrangements associated with agrarianism. This is more than a demographic blip; this is a cultural paradigm shift. Young Middle Eastern women with modern expectations of conjugality are rejecting potential husbands, and even electing to remain single while intergenerational power-struggles draw out marital negotiations and increase the age at marriage. Divorce rates in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan (and so on) are increasing to unprecedented levels as spouses expect more from marriage. Many of these divorces are initiated by women, even given the difficulties of this in countries with family laws inspired by Islamic jurisprudence (for an Iranian example see my earlier post). The stresses of financial insecurity – which reduce men’s capacity to live up to their half of the ‘bargain’ by providing financial support for a dependent woman – means that the traditional model is facing erosion from both sides. The crisis in traditional marriage is this: women may no longer want it; men may no longer be able to provide it.
Iran used to be a society in which people married young. In a Muslim culture that viewed premarital sex and dating as taboo, this was pretty much a social imperative. My mother married at 28, and in the 1970s that meant she had brushed up against spinsterhood. But today, Iranian women are attending university in unprecedented numbers — they account for over 60% of students on Iranian campuses — and typically enter the workforce after graduating. This has turned their focus away from the home sphere, made marriage a less urgent priority and changed women’s expectations of both marriage and prospective husbands.
With young people pursuing more liberal lifestyles and shunning the traditional mores of their parents’ generation, the marrying age is steadily climbing. This terrifies Iran’s religious government, which still peddles the virtue of chastity and views young people’s shifting attitudes toward sexuality as a direct threat to the Islamic Revolution’s core values.
In this context, the IRI’s proposed action is like Canute ordering the waves back: changing the age of eligibility for marriage will not affect the fact that the urban population cannot afford to get married, and that the meaning of marriage is fundamentally changing. As a deeply sexist institution, the IRI cannot abide the threat to patriarchal marriage that such social changes represent; as a theocracy, the IRI has only one strategy in its playbook, which is to appeal to shari’a law.
It doesn’t seem likely that a change in the legal age for marriage will be successful in the long term: removing the requirement for judicial consent will probably have had no noticeable impact on the overall trend of higher age at marriage/lower birthrate.
Thus, proposed changes need to be seen as part of a raft of attempts to diminish women’s power, another aspect of antifeminist backlash, including the proposed restrictions on women’s education and the shelving of Iran’s family planning programme.
There is one exception to the Middle Eastern trend of rising ages at marriage – Iraq. Before the invasion, the country’s marital profile was similar to the rest of the region. However, afterwards, the age of first marriage dropped as women sought the security of marriage in a chaotic environment and families married off their daughters – leading to huge increases in early marriage. Early marriage is also more likely in conflict-generated refugee populations due to their insecurity, such as Syrians in Jordan.