Islamic ban on pre-marriage interaction clashes with reality in Iran

September 07, 2013

By MANABU KITAGAWA/ Correspondent

TEHRAN--When a 25-year-old Iranian woman in Tehran had an unwanted pregnancy three years ago when she was a university student, she could not discuss it with anyone and also could not seek an abortion unless her health was threatened.

"I couldn't talk about it with my parents or close friends, and I even considered suicide," she said in an e-mail interview. "I cursed this country where they force Islamic law on us."

She tried aborticide pills and got an illegal injection aimed at inducing abortion. When her bleeding would not stop, a hospital finally give her an abortion.

According to researchers, there are 80,000 abortions performed each year in Iran, of which the majority, 80 percent, are illegal operations mainly involving unmarried women. When including methods such as drug-induced miscarriages, the total number of abortions is even higher.

One of the reasons why unmarried women are forced to seek out abortions is that even if they do give birth, the authorities won't issue the birth certificate, and the child will be treated as a person with no nationality.

Because Islamic teachings emphasize family relationships, children born to unmarried mothers are beyond the scope of the government's assumption.

While Islamic law "strictly forbids" people from mixing with members of the opposite sex other than relatives, it can no longer hold the younger generation back from waking up to the idea of free love.

Instead, the gap between Iranian youths and the ideals demanded by the religious establishment is only widening.

The 25-year-old woman with the unwanted pregnancy became impregnated by a classmate because neither knew anything about contraception.

"He invited me over to his house to study together," she said by e-mail. "We drank alcohol, danced to music and then ended up having sex."

In Iran, a country founded on Islamic teachings, those who have sex with someone other than a spouse may be charged with the "crime of fornication." If one of the convicted is married, he or she may be stoned to death, while an unmarried person could be subjected to a lashing.

The woman interviewed visited 15 hospitals asking for an abortion, but they all refused because the law restricts abortions to cases in which there is a risk to the mother's health.

Desperate, the woman bought 10 aborticide pills and got the injection from an illicit dealer at a black market for pharmaceuticals in Tehran. The father earned the money to pay the price of 5 million rials (20,000 yen, or $200) from his part-time job.

"I took the pills and put the injection in my vein," she said. "The bleeding wouldn't stop for three days." She rushed to a hospital where she could finally have an abortion.

The woman married a different man in October of last year, but they have not yet been able to have a child. As she worries that "maybe the abortion made it impossible," her anger boils over at the police who stop unmarried couples from dating in public.

"By encouraging men and women to meet each other at home, they unintentionally promote unhealthy relationships," she said. "It's an adverse effect."

Many of the surgeons who consent to perform the 80,000 abortions in Iran each year are unlicensed, and due to their inexperience, more than a few women become unable to bear children. In that case, these women can only silently accept their situation.

An obstetrician who operates on five to six unmarried women a month justified the practice "because I prevent unhappy consequences for the woman and the unborn child."


In Iran, unmarried parents who cannot get an abortion end up having to either abandon the child or give it to an orphanage. Around 300 children ranging in age from a few months to 7 years live at the Ameneh Orphanage on the north side of Tehran. The orphanage said 70 percent of them were born to parents not married to each other.

Traditionally, arranged marriages were the norm in Iran, but the present regime established by the 1979 Islamic Revolution is supportive of education.

This means that women now account for more than 60 percent of undergraduate and graduate students at universities, and as more women enter the workplace, gradually more Iranians are marrying spouses out of love.

While dating in public is not allowed, one can spot couples here and there who are ignoring the rule.

"Almost all of my students are dating someone, and more university students are living together in secret," a University of Tehran instructor said. "Unlike their parents' generation, they have a strong desire to do as they please."

Despite restrictions, Western lifestyles and customs that filter in through the Internet and satellite broadcasts also seem to be having an effect.

The government's hands, however, are tied by the principle of religious rule. Hamid Reza Shirmohammadi, a 42-year-old doctor, said that sex education at school is confined to discussion of religious values such as "not associating with members of the opposite sex until marriage."

And there is no way to make any headway because talking about sex in detail is considered taboo.

President Hassan Rouhani, a cleric who took office in August, has said he will "return freedom to the people" and has gained the overwhelming support of young citizens who dislike religion.

Shirmohammadi, offering a critique, said, "We shouldn't disregard sexual issues as taboo. Instead I want him to set up a team of experts and take measures that take into account the reality of the situation as well as educational concerns."

By MANABU KITAGAWA/ Correspondent
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Children at an orphanage in Tehran. (Manabu Kitagawa)

Children at an orphanage in Tehran. (Manabu Kitagawa)

  • Children at an orphanage in Tehran. (Manabu Kitagawa)
  • A black market in Tehran where a woman bought aborticides. Instead of a store, illicit dealers gather on the street to take orders. (Manabu Kitagawa)

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