Haleh Esfandiari doubts Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will succeed in boosting his country’s birthrate; at least not by his current methods.
“They are trying to encourage women to marry at an early age,” said the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars inWashington, D.C., in a recent phone interview. “For 35 years, the Islamic Republic has been waging wars on women but they have not succeeded.”
The international sanctions imposed on Iran for its nuclear program took a toll on the economic health of the country. But as the United States and other Western countries have begun to ease sanctions, Iran’s economy has started to bounce back.
Young people’s reluctance to have children, however, isn’t just about the recent hard times, said Esfandiari.
“The young people in Iran are educated and they know what is happening in the outside world. They know that entering an early marriage and having a lot of children could be detrimental to their future,” Esfandiari said. She added that even less educated people have begun to think they can’t afford more than one or two children.
Nina Ansary, a scholar of the women’s movement in Iran, agrees. Today’s Iranian youth, women included, have priorities other than getting married and having several children, Ansary said in a recent interview held at Women’s eNews’ office here.
Young women are putting off marriage, said Ansary, because they “no longer subscribe to the ideology” as presented by the Ayatollah. Iran’s youth want to be free, she said. “Islam has become a constraint for young Iranians.”
Iran’s population is young: nearly 70 percent of the country’s 77 million people are under 35. The large majority of Iranians are of reproductive age, but paradoxically the population growth rate is plummeting.
Last winter, Khamenei announced a push for families to have more children. As part of that he is seeking to limit access to contraception for women and ban vasectomies for men.
In June, Iran’s parliament passed a text criminalizing birth control surgeries and vasectomies. The bill also includes a prohibition on any advertisement that promotes a decrease in the birth rate. The text has yet to be approved by the Guardian Council of the Constitution, the other institution endowed with legislative power.
No Demographic Problem
Ansary, who lives in California, rejects the argument that Iran is facing a demographic problem. She said the decline of the population is “a good thing” and speaks of “overpopulation” at the moment. She said Ayatollah Khamenei is looking for ways to enlarge the Shia population in order to get a new generation that will subscribe to his ideology.
Iranian women tend to marry at around 25 years old, although the law permits marriage starting at age 13 for girls and 15 for boys. The marriage rate fell by 4.4 percent between March 2014 and a year earlier, according to the country’s Registration Office, which records the number of new marriages and divorces. In addition, more than 1-in-5 marriages ended in divorce.
Iran’s fertility rate is currently at 1.9 children, below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman, according to the World Bank. Iranian authorities have been looking for ways to reverse the trend with the hope of doubling of the population, to 150 million, by 2050.
In the wake of the 1979 revolution, Iran’s birthrate was 3.6 children per couple, according to the Statistical Organization of Iran and experts. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Iran was faced with the devastating consequences of its war with Iraq. The country’s economy was shaken and the growth of the population started to be problematic.
Iran began calling for the “regulation of the family.” The country started to promote contraception and vasectomies and withdrew state subsidies after the second child. Within 10 years, from 1986 to 1996, the population growth rate fell to 1.5 percent from 3.8 percent.
Now authorities are struggling to reverse all that. “A single blossom is not spring” or “More children, better lives” have replaced the old slogan “Fewer children, better life” promoted in the 1990s. Billboards showing happy and large families are now mushrooming in Iran, Al-Monitor reported.
Push for Traditional Roles
Some women’s rights activists suspect the clergy will be looking for ways to push women back into more traditional roles: wife and mother.
Esfandiari recalls many attempts to keep women away from universities under Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “His government tried to make it harder for women to access higher education in certain fields of study . . . It even tried to dissuade women from studying in cities other than their hometown,” Esfandiari said. Women’s problems accessing different fields was case-by-case depending where they were enrolled or trying to study; while one university would ban women from studying economics, another banned mathematics, she said.
Milah Jokar, a French-Iranian political analyst, agrees there is a gap between Khamenei’s vision and that of younger people. In a recent phone interview conducted in French, he described the current leadership as “anachronistic” and said power holders and young Iranians were also far apart under Ahmadinejad, who held office from 2005 to 2013.
“One of the turning points was the Green Revolution in 2009,” said Jokar, referring to a series of protests following the 2009 Iranian presidential election triggered by the disputed victory of Ahmadinejad and in support of opposition candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
At the same time he emphasized that Iran is not a monolithic society but diverse and complex.
Iranian society, he said, is “conservative and progressive at the same time,” adding that some young Iranians support the discourse of the Ayatollah and still live by conservative rules.
2012 Fertility Push
The fertility push began under Ahmadinejad in 2012 when health authorities eliminated funding for the population control program, which is the equivalent of the family planning. Instead, parents who have five children have become eligible for $1,500 in compensation. Condoms are no longer free. However, hospital delivery stays are now free. Last year, maternity leave was extended to nine months for working mothers and two weeks leave with pay granted to working fathers.
In addition, Iran has become a hub for fertility treatment, attracting couples looking for in vitro fertilization, or IVF, from all over the Middle East.
Iran now has more than 70 clinics nationwide that cater to infertile couples, wrote Azadeh Moaveni in the article “The Islamic Republic of Baby-Making” for Foreign Policy. In order to allow all social classes to access the technology, the state runs subsidized clinics so the cost for treatment is lower than anywhere else in the world, the article said. A full course of IVF in Iran costs about $1,500.
Because of its declining population growth, Jokar, the political analyst, predicted Iranwill face an economic problem in the long run. “There was a baby boom during the Iraq-Iran war, which means that Iran is maybe one of the youngest populations in the world aged between 30-34 years. This generation in 30 years will be in its 60s and who is going to pay for retirement pensions?”
For now, Iranian youth are busy getting educated. Eighty-two percent of the Iranian adult population is now literate, well ahead of the regional average of 62 percent. This rate increases to 97 percent among young adults between ages 15 and 24. About 60 percent of university students are women.
Jokar says Iranian women tend to stay at university longer than male peers because the job market offers them less opportunity. As a result something interesting is now happening in Iran, he says: you often find a wife who is better educated than her husband.
Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa women in Islam.