The family is the most important element of Iranian culture and society and is defined in the Constitution as the fundamental unit of society. Kinship and family constitute a tightly linked network, in which the highest priority is assigned to the welfare of the members rather than to individual goals. People rely on family connections for influence, power, and security. In traditional Iranian families the individual’s life is dominated by the family and family relationships.
The typical Iranian family household is extended to include grandparents. The extended family has traditionally been the basic social unit. In rural areas the maintenance of this pattern is crucial for survival in hard times and so is generally preserved. In urban areas the significance of the extended family has diminished because of the geographical dispersion of the extended family and differences in status and material wealth.
Marriage in Iran is traditionally viewed not only as the only socially acceptable pathway to sexual relations but also as a permanent commitment, bonding not only the married couples but also their families. Procreation is a primary goal of marriage, and infertility is seen by some as an adequate justification for divorce.
Arranged marriage is common in Iran, especially in rural areas. A delegation of parents and elders from the man’s side are usually responsible for the khastegari, the formal marriage proposal. During their first meeting, the two families discuss the marital contract, in which matters such as the size of the dowry are settled.
Among upper- and middle-class urban families, the khastegari still plays an important role, but the initiative lies with the couple intending to marry. Marriages arranged by parents on behalf of their young children are rare.
Polygamy is allowed in Iran. According to Shiite marriage law, a man may have as many as four wives simultaneously. Polygamy is, however, frowned upon by many in Iran and is rarely practised.
After the Revolution, the new government adopted a pro-natalist approach. Family planning was seen as a Western influence, and contraception was no longer promoted. The legal minimum age for marriage was lowered to nine for girls and twelve for boys. After the war, the Iranian leadership revised its perception of family planning. With a ruined economy, job shortages, and overcrowded cities, population growth was seen as detrimental to development.
Thanks to family planning education, the widespread use of contraceptives, and the sharp decline in fertility, family size has declined, and socio-political changes have affected young people’s view of marriage and the structure and functioning of the family.
Although the Islamic regime encourages early marriage (based partly on the disapproval of premarital sex), the average age at first marriage during the period 1976-1996 increased from 19.7 to 22.4 for women, and from 24.1 to 25.6 for men, and divorce rates increased gradually. Divorce is strongly discouraged in Islam and disapproved of in Iranian culture. For women, especially, divorce has far-reaching consequences, because of their usual economic dependence on men and because of social disapproval of divorced women.
‘Temporary marriage‘ (siqeh) is another form of legal cohabitation between men and women. While no duration is specified in permanent marriage, a temporary marriage can last for a specified time. A man (either married or single) and a single woman agree on the period of the relationship and the amount of compensation to be paid to the woman.
In siqeh, the wife is not entitled to any financial support or inheritance from the husband. Proponents of siqeh argue that it curbs free sex, controls prostitution, and supports divorced or widowed women, but siqeh is very unpopular with many Iranians, particularly those of the middle and upper classes. Opponents argue that siqeh is, in fact, a form of legalized prostitution.
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