Young couples walking hand in hand are a common sight in Iran’s bigger cities and especially the capital Tehran. While there are no public displays of affection, these young people have nevertheless crossed a red line, and risk being stopped by police who will check whether they are married.
Despite attempts by the authorities to block “unseemly” contact between unmarried couples, these young people are trying to get to know one another so as to avoid being trapped in a traditional arranged marriage. In smaller towns and in the countryside, this avenue is not open to them. Women there lead such restricted private lives that they would not dare flout the rules in this manner.
Girls in these areas are commonly married off without even meeting their husband-to-be, who may be significantly older than them.
If married life becomes intolerable for them, asking for a divorce is not usually an option. Iran’s civil code gives only husbands the right to initiate a divorce, which they can do at any time.
In spite of legal obstacles, divorce rates are on the rise in the sophisticated metropolitan areas. This includes divorces reached by consensus, which accounted for about a third of the 125,000 legal separations in Iran last year, according to data from welfare centres.
By contrast, divorce rates in traditional rural communities are extremely low. In the western province of Ilam, for example, there were just over six divorces for every 100 marriages last year, compared with a 27 for every 100 in Tehran.
In such areas, legal restrictions are compounded with social attitudes that stigmatise divorce as a disgrace.
The pressures facing women desperate to leave their marriage can lead to three outcomes – suicide, the murder of husbands, or adultery, a choice which for women can result in execution.
Hassan Mousavi, director of the office for social problems at Iran’s State Welfare Organisation, said this February that suicide rates among women under 30 had reached alarming levels in western provinces like Khuzestan, Lorestan and Kohgilouyeh-Boyerahmad was alarming, and had passed crisis point in Ilam and Kermanshah.
There are no accurate statistics for suicide, but there are an estimated 400 to 500 in Ilam alone every year.
Most suicides in these largely rural provinces take the form of self-immolation, which is viewed as the most extreme way for women to express protest.
When a woman survives an attempt to burn herself to death, hospital admission staff are required by law to seek her husband’s consent before going ahead with treatment. This applies even to women hospitalised after their husbands have thrown acid on them.
The difficulty of obtaining a divorce is also a contributory factor in cases where wives kill their husbands. Again, there are no accurate statistics, but a study which the Criminology and Forensics Research Institute at the University of Tehran carried out in 2002 showed that 58 per cent of murders of this kind involved women who had been unable to get a divorce because their husbands or families would not agree to it, or who had children and would have had no means of supporting themselves if they had separated from their spouses.
The study showed that when husbands were murdered, only a third of the crimes were committed by the wife herself, and the rest involved a third party acting on her behalf. Often these were men involved in illicit relationships with the wives.
In less extreme cases, too, unhappy wives embark on extramarital relationships. But the penalties are severe, as the high-profile case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani shows.
Ashtiani was sentenced to be stoned to death for committing adultery during marriage, but in July the sentence was put on hold following an international outcry. Campaigners fear, however, that she could still be executed by hanging.
Sex between partners who are not married is forbidden under Iran’s Islamic laws, and carries a penalty of flogging – but if the offender is married at the time of the offence, they may be stoned to death.
Men are broadly subject to the same rules, but with important distinctions that mean there are massive gender differences in the way cases are handled.
First, the conditions of marriage differ greatly. Men are under certain conditions allowed to take more than one wife, they are also allowed to have sex with as many women as they want using the “temporary marriage” system, and they can obtain a divorce without problems.
If they are prosecuted for a relationship with a married woman, they may evade punishment by claiming they were unaware that she was married. In practice, women are never able to offer the same defence.
Discrimination shows its ugly face even when it comes to execution by stoning.
The convicted person of either sex is dressed in a shroud and buried in the ground, after which rocks are thrown at him or her. Technically, if a person sentenced to stoning manages to free him or herself and run away, there is no further punishment. But men are buried up to the waist and their hands are not bound, meaning they have some chance of extricating themselves. Women are buried up to the chest and are tied up.
In the more traditional parts of Iran, communal justice can be even more arbitrary than that meted out by the state. Even the wrongful suspicion that a woman has brought dishonour on the family can result in her being murdered by her husband, his relatives, or even her own side of the family.
Such so-called “honour killings” are not uncommon. According to the deputy head of Iran’s police force, Brigadier-General Ahmad Mohammadifar, there were 50 cases of this kind in Iran over a seven-month period of 2008.
In stark terms of casualty rates, the truth is that the number of executions by stoning is far exceeded by female suicide, murder and honour killings.
Rasa Sowlat is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and social affairs analyst based in Mashhad.