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Iran’s Divorce Rate Stirs Fears of Society in Crisis
By WILLIAM YONG Published: Dec ember 6, 2010
TEHRAN — The wedding nearly 1,400 years ago of Imam Ali, Shiite Islam’s most revered figure, and Fatemeh al-Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, is commemorated in Iran’s packed political calendar as a day to celebrate family values.
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In October 2008 in Tehran, an Iranian man w as taken aw ay for not paying a mehrieh, a payment made in the event of a divorce.
But in a sign of the Iranian authorities’ increasing concern about Iran’s shifting social landscape, Marriage Day, as it is usually known in Iran, this year was renamed No Divorce Day. Iran’s justice minister decreed that no divorce permits would be issued.
Whether the switch was effective or not, the officials’ concerns are understandable. Divorce is skyrocketing in Iran. Over a decade, the number each year has roughly tripled to a little more than 150,000 in 2010 from around 50,000 in 2000, according to official figures. Nationwide,
there is one divorce for every seven marriages; in Tehran, the ratio is 1 divorce for every 3.76 marriages, the government has reported. While the change in divorce rates is remarkable, even more surprising is the major force behind it: the increasing willingness of Iranian women to manipulate the Iranian legal system to escape unwanted marriages. The numbers are still modest compared with the United States, which typically records about a million divorces a year in a population about four times as large. But for Iran, with a conservative Islamic culture that strongly discourages divorce, the trend is striking, and shows few signs of slowing. In the last Iranian calendar year, ending in March, divorces were up 16 percent from the year before, compared with a 1 percent increase in marriages. “In May, a registry office I work with recorded 70 divorces and only 3 marriages,” said a lawyer who requested anonymity for fear of retribution by the Iranian authorities. “The next month, a friend at another office said he recorded 60 divorces and only one marriage.” He noted that both offices were in central Tehran and not in the city’s affluent north, which is considered more liberal and Westernized. Not only is divorce on the rise, but marriages are also failing early, with 30 percent of divorces in any given year occurring in the first year of marriage and 50 percent in the first five years. Some people, doubtful of the government statistics, suspect that the numbers are even higher. Conservative commentators call the problem a social ill on par with drug addiction and prostitution. Senior officials and members of Parliament have increasingly referred to the issue as a “crisis” and a “national threat.” Explanations for the rising divorce rate vary. More liberal commentators emphasize factors like rapid urbanization, high living costs and a jobless rate that official figures put at close to one in four among 16- to 25-year-olds. Conservatives often point to what they say is growing godlessness among the young and the corrupting effects of the Western media. “High dowries, high living costs, lack of jobs and financial support make young people fear marriage,” said a member of Parliament, Gholamreza Asadollahi, who also blamed young
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people who had lost their belief “in the unseen power of God to solve life’s problems.” But most experts agree that nothing has contributed as much as a deep-rooted awakening in Iranian women that is altering traditional attitudes toward marriage, relationships, careers and, generally speaking, women’s place in what is still an overwhelmingly patriarchal society. Twenty percent of Iranian women are employed or actively looking for jobs, according to government figures, compared with 7 percent in the first years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Female undergraduate students outnumber men in Iran’s universities almost two to one. “This economic freedom has had an effect on the behavior of women in the home,” said Saeid Madani, a member of the Iranian Sociological Association. “In the past, if a housewife left her home, she would go hungry; now there is a degree of possibility of finding a job and earning an income.” But something more is at work than simple economics, many experts say. “Women have found the courage to break with tradition and say no to the past,” said Azardokht Mofidi, a psychiatrist and the author of several books on psychoanalysis. “They are no longer prepared to put up with hardships in marriage, and their expectations have risen to include equality in relationships.” Nazanin, a woman nearing 50 who has been divorced twice, has experienced the change in attitudes. Married at age 18, during the politically charged years of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, Nazanin divorced two years later in the face of a society that still held firm to the Persian adage that a woman enters her husband’s home wearing a white wedding dress and leaves it in her white funeral clothes. “For years, I hid the fact,” said Nazanin, relaxing without a hijab in the modest, sparsely decorated apartment where she lives with her adult son. “For a while, my family told the neighbors stories and lies, saying he had gone to work abroad. At work, because I was still young, I kept wearing my ring and didn’t tell anybody.” After she broke up with her second husband 14 years ago, her religious parents were once again mortified, but friends were more accepting. In the years since, Nazanin says she has
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again mortified, but friends were more accepting. In the years since, Nazanin says she has seen a reversal in society’s attitudes. “Now, it has become so normal that society has become neutral,” she said. “Our generation has completely lost its sensitivity to divorce. It’s so common that you can see it in your own family. Y ou just accept it.” Even so, she would give only her first name and refused to be photographed, for fear of being punished by the authorities. Iran’s rising divorce rate is all the more noteworthy given the laws on divorce. While husbands are empowered to end their marriages in a matter of weeks without stating any reason, women must establish sufficient grounds for divorce in a process that can take several years, even with professional legal advice. Facing such an uneven playing field, marital lawyers say, Iranian women have increasingly turned to leveraging their legal right to a mehrieh — a single payment agreed on before marriage that constitutes a kind of Islamic marriage insurance. Husbands are obliged to pay this sum to wives when they divorce. Under what are known as “divorces of mutual consent,” a woman may forgo part or all of her mehrieh to provide a financial incentive to her husband to let her leave. In recent years, there have been exponential increases in the value of mehriehs, which now often reach the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars. Some conservatives have raised the idea of capping mehriehs to reduce the divorce rate. Clerics and government officials promote the idea of having a purely symbolic mehrieh, like a handful of gold coins or a Koran. Whether such measures can stem the tide of divorce remains to be seen, particularly in a society where it seems to be losing its stigma. “At first I was afraid of how society would treat me after divorce,” said a seamstress named Sara, 33. “But after all the support that I got from my friends and my father, my uncle and aunts and the people who I turned to for advice, I thought, ‘No, the period in which people were prejudiced against divorce is over.’ No one ever judged me.”
A version of this article appeared in print on December 7, 2010, on page A1 of the New York edition.
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