Iran family law bill stirs controversy

Iran’s parliament approved the outlines of a marriage bill on Tuesday after taking out a controversial pro-polygamy amendment that had been endorsed by President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s government.

The “family support bill”, which will be the first comprehensive law to cover different marriage- and divorced-related issues, was drafted by Iran’s judiciary. But the government had made some changes, including effectively encouraging polygamy by removing curbs on the practice provided that the man had the financial means to support a new wife.

Although polygamy is permitted under certain conditions, including when the first wife gives her permission or has an acute illness, it is rare outside tribal and rural areas.

Opposition to the government’s changes had mobilised a variety of political forces, from religious fundamentalists to secular feminists, as well as the conservative clergy. As a result, parliament deleted the controversial clauses before approving the bill.

Parliament will now move to studying details of the bill and it may take several months before it is finally approved.

Analysts believe the debate was partly motivated by a fight for women’s votes and that government opponents seized on the bill as an opportunity to turn women against Mr Ahmadi-Nejad ahead of next June’s presidential election.

Ali Shahrokhi, head of parliament’s judicial committee, denied any political motivation, saying his committee had decided to remove the amendments to ease the concerns created for families, in particular for women.

The outlines approved yesterday do not represent a fundamental shift from the current laws, which are based on Iran’s civil code dating back to 1928 - itself based on the Sharia, or Islamic law. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, clerics have stuck largely to this law, making only minor changes to improve women’s rights on marriage and divorce.

Mr Shahrokhi said the family bill was in conformity with the “framework of society” in which most women remain housewives with no source of income and tend not to pursue their right to divorce.

Maryam Behrouzi, a fundamentalist at Zeinab Society, an NGO, agreed that the bill did not reflect new realities in Iran where women have for several years constituted over 60 per cent of university graduates.

The bill, however, offers certain improvements for women, such as establishing family courts in which decisions will be taken by three judges, one of them female.

The reforms are far from meeting the demands of secular feminists, whose activities have been suppressed in recent years and some of whom have been imprisoned.

Shahla Forouzanfar, a social activist, said women’s rights on divorce and child custody were still being ignored and denounced temporary marriage, which is mentioned in the bill, as “legal prostitution” that leaves thousands of children without any legal identity.

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