In the midst of economic circumstances affected both by international sanctions and widespread government mismanagement, many of the youth of Iran are choosing to avoid the expense of marriage and are delaying the formation of families. But the Associated Press reports that the Iranian constitution specifically tasks the government with facilitating the formation of families. As such, the currently popular practice of cohabitation without marriage is strongly discouraged.
In April, the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance forced the closure of the nation’s only women’s interest magazine, Zaman-e Emrouz, alleging that the publication had endorsed cohabitation, known in Iran as “white marriage.” In fact, the magazine only reported upon and explained the existence of the trend, suggesting that the regime is intent not only on discouraging white marriage but also suppressing awareness of it as an option.
Such measures are only part of a broader effort to control the lives of Iranian citizens in such a way as to bring about marriage and speedy reproduction. This year, the regime outlawed vasectomies and tubal ligation and withdrew government support for virtually all forms of contraception. At the same time, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has issued statements personally urging all women to marry and to begin having large families at an early age.
This series of policies is often explained in terms of efforts to reverse the low Iranian birthrate, which could lead the population to contract in coming years as older members of society die off. But the promotion of traditional family structure is also connected by some observers to broader efforts to reassert conservative control over Iranian society and to discourage a female presence in public life.
Currently, women comprise a majority of those pursuing higher education, but they experience a disproportionate level of unemployment, largely as a result of institutional discrimination. This has gotten worse over the past year as measures have been taken to increase gender segregation throughout Iranian society, as by barring men and women from working in the same space in certain localities. As such measures continue, they are expected to lead to large numbers of women losing their jobs.
Meanwhile, women have also been targeted by efforts to tighten the country’s Islamic dress code. Last year, the Iranian parliament introduced legislation known as the “plan to promote virtue and prevent vice,” which will give the civilian militia under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps expanded authority to confront citizens in public over perceived violations of religious laws and principles. This move was quickly blamed for a series of acid attacks apparently targeting women who were seen as wearing their legally-required hijabs improperly.
The authority to confront women over this issue is already vested in Iran’s active and virtually omnipresent morality police. An editorial published Tuesday in the Express Tribune pointed out that 3.6 million Iranian women were “warned, fined, or arrested,” by these officials in the last year alone.
Yet there has been resistance to the government’s evident crackdown on women’s rights. The same editorial calls renewed attention to the “My Stealthy Freedom” campaign launched by Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad, which encourages women to post pictures of themselves unveiled on Facebook.
Other women have maintained political activism for other aspects of women’s rights and for other causes altogether. In early May, Iranian schoolteachers, who are mostly women, organized massive demonstrations demanding improved standards of living, as well as the release of political prisoners affiliated with the movements for teachers and laborers.
Within this political climate, there is certain to be resistance to the newly launched official matchmaking service, as well. In addition to pressuring Iranians to marry and reproduce, the service clearly has been fashioned as an attempt to oppose Western influence on Iranian lifestyles. But the overwhelmingly young and educated Iranian population has largely embraced such influence already, regularly defying government bans and restrictions on social media, music and dance, and crucially, dating.
Many of these activities are practiced in secret locations, away from the prying eyes of the Iranian security officials, where the genders are allowed to mingle in a way that is opposed with increasing fervor by the regime. The official matchmaking service has clearly been fashioned as an attempt to reverse current trends and to promote a type of Iranian society that includes arranged marriages based not on love but religiously-sanctioned compatibility.
As such, the Washington Post reports that the service requires users to “detail their ages, physical characteristics, hobbies, interests, languages spoken, and levels of education and religiosity,” and pairs them up with people who are expected to be accepted or rejected as spouses immediately. “The matchmaking Web site you are seeing today is not a Web site for introducing boys and girls to each other,” emphasized Deputy Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports Mahmoud Golzari.
But the growth of an underground dating scene and the illegal use of dating apps inside Iran strongly suggests that much of the population will remain averse to this traditional model of the Iranian family as long as it remains relatively free from direct government coercion.