As Iran’s birthrate drops, parliament springs into action
But new legislation will do little to dissuade Iranians from marrying later and having fewer kids, Israeli expert says
Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel
New Iranian legislation is attempting to tackle Iran’s dwindling birth rate and the trend toward late marriage, but is unlikely to achieve either of those goals, an Israeli expert told The Times of Israel.
The draft law, titled “The comprehensive program for population and family advancement,” comprises 50 articles and is currently being debated in the Iranian parliament, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center revealed in a new report published Wednesday.
A baby boom following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 resulted in economic crisis, pushing the ayatollah regime to adopt a birth control policy in December 1989. The new policy had a dramatic effect: It reduced the country’s annual growth rate from 3.9 percent in the late 1980s to 1.3 percent today. These data apparently worried Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who in the summer of 2012 called for a reexamination of the country’s birth control policy.
Today, an Iranian woman has 1.6 children on average, just over half of Israel’s 3 children per woman and significantly lower than the US average of 1.9. Nevertheless, half of Iran’s population of 78 million is under the age of 35.
Experts fear that a few decades down the line, Iran’s population will not only age but begin to shrink, placing a growing economic burden on a country already suffering severe economic hardships. An aging population would inevitably require higher government expenditure on pensions and health care, with a smaller workforce shouldering the burden.
Hoping to raise the birth rate to 2.5 children per woman by 2025, the draft law proposes to lengthen paid maternity leave from six to nine months, to allow flexibility in mothers’ working hours, and even to introduce a 10-day paternity leave for men.
But Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert at Tel Aviv University’s Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, said the law is unlikely to significantly change the birth rate, both because of its astronomic costs and because of Iran’s modernization process.
“The fact that young Iranian couples usually raise two children surely stems from economic constraints — which will not be solved — but also from cultural changes, especially in the large cities,” Zimmt told The Times of Israel. “I can’t see a young Iranian woman telling herself, ‘Now that I get benefits I won’t go to university, but instead get married and have children.'”
Meanwhile, studies show that the average age of marriage in Iran has risen by some 30 percent in recent years, another trend addressed by the draft law. Unlike the economic dangers posed by a low growth rate, late marriage presents moral and social challenges to the conservative Iranian society.
But this too, Zimmt said, is unlikely to change through legislation. A similar law was already passed by the parliament in 2005, promising grants for weddings and subsidies for young couples. That law was never implemented due to a budgetary shortfall.
“Just like in the West, in Iran youngsters are getting married later,” Zimmt said. “But the country still regards bachelorhood, and especially spinsterhood, as a moral challenge and a real social problem. It’s seen as the adoption of a Western lifestyle.”
Bachelorhood is anathema to some in the Iranian political elite. In 2008, the governor of North Khorasan province Mohammad-Hossein Jahanbakhsh proposed banning bachelors from government positions, threatening to fire unmarried men if they do not promptly wed.
The government, however, believes that the solution to bachelorhood may lie within Shia religious law practiced in Iran. Shia sharia, Zimmt noted, allows for “pleasure (mut’ah) marriage,” a short-term wedding contract banned by Sunni orthodoxy.
While critics of the practice — mostly women’s organizations — regard it as a religiously-sanctioned form of prostitution (such “marriages” can theoretically last a number of hours), the Iranian government has been turning a blind eye to websites that encourage the practice.
“The former minister of interior under Ahmadinejad publicly stated that temporary marriages should be encouraged,” Zimmt said. “Many such statements have emerged by Iranian clerics and officials over the past few years, arguing that this is the best solution for youngsters who cannot fulfill their needs any other way.”