For most Iranians the reciprocal obligations and privileges that
define relations between kinsfolk--from the parent-child bond
to more distant ones--have been more important than those associated
with any other kind of social alignment. Economic, political,
and other forms of institutional activity have been significantly
colored by family ties. This has been true not only for the nuclear
family of parents and offspring but also for the aggregate kinsfolk,
near and distant, who together represent the extended family at
its outermost boundary.
Historically, an influential family was one that had its members
strategically distributed throughout the most vital sectors of
society, each prepared to support the others in order to ensure
family prestige and family status. Since the Revolution, this
has meant that each of the elite families of Tehran and the major
provincial centers included a cadre of clergy, bureaucrats, and
Pasdaran (Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Islami, or Islamic Revolutionary
Guard Corps, or Revolutionary Guards--see Special and Irregular
Armed Forces , ch. 5). Business operations have continued to be
family affairs; often large government loans for business ventures
have been obtained simply because the owners were recognized as
members of families with good Islamic and revolutionary credentials.
Political activities also followed family lines. Several brothers
or first cousins might join the Islamic Republican Party. Another
group of siblings might become members of a clandestine opposition
group such as the Mojahedin (Mojahedin-e Khalq, or People's Struggle)
(see Opposition Political Parties in Exile , ch. 4). Similarly,
one member of a family might join the clergy, another the Pasdaran
or the armed forces. Successful members were expected to assist
less successful ones to get their start. Iranians have viewed
this inherent nepotism as a positive value, not as a form of corruption.
A person without family ties has little status in the society
at large. The severing of ties is acceptable only if a family
member has done something repugnant to Islam. Even then, the family
is encouraged to make the person aware of his deviance and encourage
Religious law supports the sanctity of the family in diverse
ways, defining the conditions for marriage, divorce, inheritance,
and guardianship. Additional laws have been passed by the Majlis
that reinforce and refine religious law and are designed to protect
the integrity of the family (see The Judiciary , ch. 4).
The head of the household--the father and the husband--expects
obedience and respect from others in the family. In return, he
is obligated to support them and to satisfy their spiritual, social,
and material needs. In practice, he is more a strict disciplinarian.
He also may be a focus of love and affection, and family members
may feel a strong sense of duty toward him. Considerable conflict
and irresolution have resulted in many families, especially in
urban areas, because young Iranians, imbued with revolutionary
religious views or secular values, have not been able to reconcile
these new ideas with the traditional values of their fathers.
Marriage regulations are defined by Shia religious law, although
non- Shias are permitted to follow their own religious practices.
Before the Revolution, the legal marriage age was eighteen for
females and twenty- one for males, although in practice most couples,
especially among lower- class urban and rural families, actually
were younger than the law permitted when they married. Consequently,
the average marriage age for both sexes was 18.9 years. Since
the Revolution, the minimum legal age for marriage for both males
and females has been lowered to fifteen and thirteen years, respectively,
although even younger boys and girls may be married with the permission
of their fathers. The average age of marriage is believed to have
fallen as a result of official encouragement of earlier marriages.
The selection of a marriage partner is normally determined by
customary preference, economic circumstances, and geographic considerations.
Among the Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, the choice may be
restricted by religious practice. There is a distinct preference
for marriage within extended kin networks, and a high incidence
of marriages among first and second cousins exists. A traditionally
preferred marriage is between the children of two brothers, although
this kind of consanguineous marriage was declining among the old
regime elite and secular middle class by the eve of the Revolution.
Marriage arrangements in villages and among the lower and traditional
middle classes of urban areas tend to follow traditional patterns.
When a young man is judged ready for marriage, his parents will
visit the parents of a girl whom they believe to be a suitable
match. In many cases, the man will have already expressed an interest
in the girl and have asked his parents to begin these formalities.
If the girl's parents show similar interest in the union, the
conversation quickly turns to money. There must be an agreement
on the amont of the bride-price that will be given to the bride's
family at the time of marriage. In principle this payment is supposed
to compensate the girl's family for her loss, but in practice
it is used primarily to finance the cost of the wedding. The exact
sum varies according to the wealth, social position, and degree
of kinship of the two families.
Once the two families have agreed to the marriage, the prospective
bride and groom are considered engaged. The courtship period now
commences and may extend for a year or more, although generally
the engagement lasts less than twelve months. The actual wedding
involves a marriage ceremony and a public celebration. The ceremony
is the signing of a marriage contract in the presence of a mullah
(see Glossary). One significant feature of the marriage contract
is the mahriyeh, a stipulated sum that the groom gives
to his new bride. The mahriyeh usually is not paid at
the time of the marriage, especially in marriages between cousins.
The contract notes that it is to be paid, however, in the event
of divorce or, in case of the husband's death, to be deducted
from his estate before the inheritance is divided according to
religious law. If the mahriyeh is waived, as sometimes
happens in urban areas, this too must be stipulated in the marriage
Marriage customs among the secularized middle and upper classes
tend to follow practices in the United States and Europe. The
prenuptial bride-price may be paid in installments or even eliminated
altogether, especially if a substantial mahriyeh is guaranteed.
It is typical for the marriage partners to have chosen one another.
The bride and groom usually sit together at the reception, to
which both male and female guests are invited.
Polygyny in Iran is regulated by Islamic custom, which permits
a man to have as many as four wives simultaneously, provided that
he treats them equally. During the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah,
the government attempted to discourage polygyny through legal
restrictions, such as requiring the permission of the first wife
before the state would register a second marriage. The practice
of kin marriages also tended to work against polygynous marriages,
since families would exert pressure on men not to take a second
wife. No reliable figures existed on the number of polygynous
marriages in the 1960s and 1970s, but they were believed to be
on the decline and largely confined to the older generation. After
the Revolution, the republican government abolished the secular
codes relating to marriage and decreed polygyny acceptable as
long as such marriages were in accordance with Shia religious
Shia Islam, unlike Sunni Islam, also recognizes a special form
of temporary marriage called muta. In a muta
marriage, the man and woman sign a contract agreeing to live together
as husband and wife for a specified time, which can be as brief
as several hours or as long as ninety-nine years. The man agrees
to pay a certain amount of money for the duration of the contract.
Provision is also made for the support of any offspring. There
is no limit on the number of muta marriages that a man
may contract. Traditionally, muta marriages have been
common in Shia pilgrimage centers such as Mashhad and An Najaf
in Iraq. Under the monarchy, the government refused to grant any
legal recognition to muta marriages in an effort to discourage
the practice. Since the Revolution, however, muta marriages
have again become acceptable.
Under both Islamic law and traditional practice, divorce in Iran
historically has been easier for a man to obtain than for a woman.
Men could exercise the right of repudiation of wives according
to the guidelines of Islamic law. Women were permitted to leave
their husbands on narrowly defined grounds, such as insanity or
impotence. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the royal government attempted
to broaden the grounds upon which women could seek divorce through
the Family Protection Law. This legislation was frequently criticized
by the clergy and was one of the first laws abrogated after the
Revolution. In 1985, however, legislation was passed permitting
women to initiate divorce proceedings in certain limited circumstances.
Statistics on divorce since the Revolution were unavailable in
early 1987. The government claimed that the divorce rate in Iran
was much lower than in industrialized countries. Furthermore,
members of the clergy have preached that divorce is "reprehensible"
under Islam even though it is tolerated.
Data as of December 1987