Women have long faced legal, political, economic and social challenges in Iran. Iran's 1906 constitution, written by its first parliament, promised “equal rights before the law” for all Iranians, but it said nothing specific about women. Between 1967 and 1975, women gained new rights—to vote, initiate divorce, run for office, inherit property—during the monarchy. The legal age of marriage was also raised to 18. The second constitution, written by Islamic revolutionaries and passed overwhelmingly in a referendum in 1979, specifically stipulated that women were “equally protected.” But in practice, it gave women fewer social rights and personal liberties.
The Islamic Republic annulled many of the monarchy’s reforms, although it did not revoke the right to vote or run for office. It adopted a civil code based on conservative Islamic law or Sharia, dropped the age of marriage to 13, and eliminated a woman’s right to divorce her husband. The Islamic Republic imposed new restrictions on women’s dress, child custody, inheritance and foreign travel.
Female activists and civil society organizations faced “harassment, intimidation, detention, and smear campaigns,” the State Department reported in 2019. Iranian courts have imposed harsh sentences on dozens of activists who challenged compulsory hijab laws. Between 2018 and 2020, the best-known cases included:
- Narges Mohammadi, who was sentenced to 11 years for leading a human rights organization, “colluding against national security," and "generating propaganda against the state." She was released in October 2020 after a court commuted her sentence.
- Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was sentenced to 38 years for representing a woman protesting the compulsory hijab covering, "espionage" and "collusion against national security." Sotoudeh will be eligible for parole after 12 years in 2030.
- Sepideh Gholian, who was sentenced to to 19 years and six months for reporting on labor protests, "publishing false news," and "propaganda against the state. Her sentenced was commuted to five years and she was released on bail in October 2019.
- Yasman Ariani, her mother Monireh Arabshahi, and Mojgan Keshavarz, who were sentenced to a total of 16 years for protesting the dress code, “collusion” against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “encouraging” moral corruption and prostitution.
- Saba Kordafshari, who was sentenced to 24 years in prison for “encouraging” for moral corruption and prostitution, collusion against national security, and “propaganda against the state.”
- Sahar Khodayari, who was arrested for trying to enter a stadium to watch football and charged with “wearing improper hijab” and “confrontation with the police.” She set herself on fire in front of the courthouse after she was threatened with a six-month imprisonment.
- Zahra Rahnavard, who has been under house arrest since February 2011 for her role as the spokesperson of the opposition Green Movement and wife of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. She and her husband tested positive for COVID-19 in November 2020.
More in this series:
- Part 1: Phases of the Women's Movement
- Part 2: Profiles of Women Politicians, Activists
- Part 4: Khomeini and Khamenei on Women
- Part 5: Statistics on Women in Iran
Marriage: The Islamic Republic initially lowered the age of marriage to nine for girls. In 2002, parliament raised the age to 13. The judiciary has blocked subsequent efforts to raise the age of marriage higher.
Divorce: A woman could only get a divorce in court with a judge’s order, while a man could get divorce by declaring it verbally. In 2002, the parliament amended the law to allow a woman to divorce her husband if he were imprisoned, mentally ill, physically abusive or an addict.
Dress Code: All females are required to cover their hair and dress modestly from the age of puberty. The law vaguely defined what constitutes acts against morality, and authorities have long prosecuted hundreds of people for such acts, as well as for consensual extramarital sex.
Child Custody: A divorced woman forfeited child custody if she remarries, even if her husband died.
Nationality: For 40 years, women could not pass their nationality to foreign-born spouses or their children. In 2019, parliament passed a law allowing women married to foreign men to request Iranian citizenship for children under age 18.
Travel: A married woman could not obtain a passport or travel outside Iran without her husband’s written permission. A husband could choose where the couple lives and prevent his wife from taking certain jobs that he deemed against “family values.”
Inheritance: A widow only inherits one-eighth of her husband’s estate, but a widower inherits his wife’s entire estate. A son inherits twice as much as a daughter. In 2009, parliament voted to let women inherit land.
The following are specific laws on women in the constitution and enacted by parliament. They differ in the language of the law and how they are applied in practice.
In the law: The rules on marriage are the most discriminatory. A man can marry up to four women at one time; women can only marry one husband. A woman needs a male guardian’s consent — either from her father or paternal grandfather—to marry. Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men, while Muslim men can marry Jews, Christians or Zoroastrians. The revolutionary government lowered the age of marriage for women from 18 to 13 (in 1979) then to nine (in 1982). In 2002, the Majles raised the age of marriage back to 13 for girls (and to 15 for boys). In a marriage contract, women are required to be obedient to receive funds for housing, clothes, food and furniture.
In practice: Polygamy is not common among men. Most women also do not marry until their twenties. In 2014, the average age of marriage for women was 23, although hundreds of girls under 13, even under 10, were forcibly married by their families. The average age for men was 28, the government reported.
Text of the laws:
Article 1041 of the Civil Code: “Marriage before the age of puberty is prohibited. (Marriage before puberty by the permission of the Guardian and on condition of taking into consideration the ward’s interest is proper).”
Article 1041 of the Civil Code (amended in 2002): “Marriage of girls before reaching the age of 13 full solar years and boys before reaching the age of 15 full solar years is subject to the permission of the Guardian and on condition of taking the child’s best interest into consideration and approval of the relevant court.”
Article 1043 of the Civil Code: “The marriage of a girl who has not married previously is dependent on the permission of her father or her paternal grandfather even if she has reached the full age of puberty. If, however, the father or the paternal grandfather withhold the permission without justifiable reason, the girl can refer to the Special Civil Court giving full particulars of the man whom she wants to marry and also the terms of the marriage and the dowry money agreed upon and notify her father or her paternal grandfather through that Court.”
Article 1059 of the Civil Code: “Marriage of a female Muslim with a non–Muslim is not allowed.”
Article 1061 of the Civil Code: “The Government can make the marriage of certain Government servants and officials and students supported by the Government with a female foreign national dependent upon special permission.”
Articles 1106 to 1108 of the Civil Code: “The cost of maintenance of the wife is at the charge of the husband in permanent marriages. Cost of maintenance includes dwelling, clothing, food, furniture in proportion to the situation of the wife, on a reasonable basis, and provision of a servant if the wife is accustomed to have servants or if she needs one because of illness or defects of limbs. If the wife refuses to fulfil duties of a wife without legitimate excuse, she will not be entitled to the cost of maintenance.”
In the law: Women also face discrimination in divorce. Females can only get a divorce in a court, while a man can get a divorce simply by declaring it verbally—and not even necessarily in her presence. In 1982, judges were empowered to grant a divorce to a woman facing “difficult and undesirable conditions.” The Majles amended the law in 2002 to allow a woman to divorce her husband if he was imprisoned for five or more years, mentally ill, physically abusive or an addict.
In practice: Divorce cases often end in mutual agreement between husband and wife in court. Women must prove that their husband is physical abusive or psychologically unstable, if the man is unwilling to divorce. In 1992, President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani approved a bill allowing women to claim alimony payments, if husbands initiated a divorce. In 2014, more than 20 percent of all marriages ended in divorce.
Text of the laws:
Article 1130 of the Civil Code (amended in December 1982): “In the following circumstances, the wife can refer to the Islamic judge and request for a divorce. When it is proved to the Court that the continuation of the marriage causes difficult and undesirable conditions, the judge can for the sake of avoiding harm and difficulty compel the husband to, divorce his wife. If this cannot be done, then the divorce will be made on the permission of the Islamic judge.”
Article 1130 of the Civil Code (amended in 2002): “The osr-va-haraj (difficult and undesirable conditions) mentioned in this article refers to the conditions that make the continuation of [marital] life intolerable and difficult for the wife; the following circumstances, if proved in the relevant court, shall be considered as a case of osr-va-haraj:
1: The husband’s leaving of marital life for, at least, six consecutive months, or, nine alternative months in a one year period, without any acceptable reason.
2: The husband’s addiction to any kind of drugs or alcohol that, damages the marital life, and his refusal, or impossibility of compelling him, to quit the addiction in a period prescribed by the doctor. If the husband does not fulfill his promise [to quit], or, again begins his abuse, the divorce shall be granted by the request of the wife.
3: Final conviction of the husband to five years, or more, imprisonment.
4: Wife battery or any kind of mistreatment of the wife that is intolerable in the wife’s condition.
5: Husband’s affliction to incurable mental illnesses or contagious disease or any kind of incurable diseases that disrupts the marital life.
The circumstances mentioned in this article are not exhaustive and the court may grant the divorce in other cases that osr-va-haraj is proved in the court.”
Article 1133 of the Civil Code: “A man can divorce his wife whenever he wishes to do so.”
In the law: Women have preferential custody over children under seven. Courts determined whether a mother or father gets custody of children older than seven. A divorced woman forfeits child custody if she remarries, even if her husband is dead.
In practice: Divorced women are likely to lose custody of their children, especially if they are financially dependent on alimony.
Text of the laws:
Article 21 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran: “The government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria, and accomplish the following goals... the awarding of guardianship of children to worthy mothers, in order to protect the interests of the children, in the absence of a legal guardian.”
Article 1168 to 1170 of the Civil Code: “Custody of children is both the right and duty of the parents. A mother has preference over others for two years from the birth of her child for the custody of the child and after the lapse of this period custody will devolve on the father expect in the case of a daughter who will remain under the custody of the mother till 7 years. If the mother becomes insane or marries another man during her period of custody, the custody will devolve on the father.”
Article 1169 of the Civil Code (amended in 2002): “For the custody of children whose parents are separated, the mother has priority until the age of seven; and then, custody will devolve upon the father. After reaching seven years of age, in the case of dispute, considering the best interest of the child, the court will decide who receives custody of the child.”
In the law: Women face restrictions on dress and severe punishment for violations. The Islamic Republic mandated wearing head covering, or hijab, in public. Violators face punishments that include up to two months in prison, fines of up to 500,000 rials and up to 74 lashes.
In practice: Fewer women in major cities wear the all-enveloping black chadors, while many young women wear scarves that barely cover their hair. So many women started wearing tight leggings that lawmakers summoned the interior minister in June 2014 to question the lax enforcement of the dress code.
Public opinion has shifted significantly, the Parliamentary Research Center reported in 2018. In 2006, 55 percent of respondents said that state should “confront” women who disobey hijab; by 2014, only 40 percent said that the state should confront violators.
In May 2017, women launched the White Wednesday protests against hijab by removing their headscarves in public places and waving them on a stick. Many were arrested and charged with crimes, such as collusion against national security, propaganda against the state, and encouraging moral corruption and prostitution. They risked fines or lashings.
Text of the laws:
Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code: “Anyone in public places and roads who openly commits a harām (sinful) act, in addition to the punishment provided for the act, shall be sentenced to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes; and if they commit an act that is not punishable but violates public prudency, they shall only be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes.”
“Women, who appear in public places and roads without wearing an Islamic hijab [veil], shall be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or a fine of fifty thousand to five hundred Rials.”
Proposed 2023 law:
“Bill to Support the Culture of Chastity and Hijab”: In May 2023, President Ebrahim Raisi’s hardline government submitted a bill to Parliament that would impose harsher penalties for violating the Islamic dress code. The legislation was a response to nationwide protests that had erupted in September 2022 over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman detained for “improper hijab.”
The broad bill, which consisted of 70 articles, would expand punishments for violating Iran’s mandatory hijab. If passed, it would “further entrench discrimination, deprive women and girls…of their human rights,” and “place them and those supporting the right of women…at risk of lengthy prison sentences, flogging, travel bans and other harsh penalties,” according to Amnesty International.
Parliament was due to vote on the legislation by October 2023, Mehr News Agency reported in August. The bill determined that violations included “clothes that show a part of the body below the neck or above the ankles or above the forearms” and “revealing or tight” clothing. It stipulated how various government bodies should enforce the mandatory hijab and enumerated a wide array of penalties for perpetrators.
Punishments for defying the dress code under preexisting law included between 10 days and two months in prison or a 50,000- to 500,000-rial fine ($1.18 to $11.82). New punishments under the proposed legislation could included:
- Between five and 10 years in prison in addition to a fine of 360 million rials ($8,508)
- Fines of three months’ worth of profit, travel bans, and bans on cyber activities for business owners who did not enforce the law
- Fines of up to one-tenth of wealth as well as work, travel, and social media bans for celebrities
- Fines, travel bans, and six-month to two-year bans on cyber activities for “any person who insults the principle of hijab in virtual or non-virtual space”
- A five-million rial ($118.17) fine for people who violate the dress code in a motor vehicle or accompany someone violating the dress code
- A six-month to five-year suspension for officers who do not uphold the enforcement requirements of their position
Other measures included:
- Support for use of artificial intelligence to surveil alleged violators
- Stricter gender segregation at universities
- Implementation of “content moderation mechanisms” by online platforms to “prevent the publication” of content that promoted “nudity,” “indecency,” or “lack of veil”
If Parliament passes the bill and the powerful Guardian Council approves it, the law would be implemented on a trial basis for three to five years. Parliament could then make the law permanent.
In the law: Women can’t automatically transfer citizenship to children or spouses.
In practice: Women have gradually gained rights on citizenship issues involving family members. In 2019, parliament passed a law allowing the children of women married to foreigners to apply for Iranian citizenship. In the past, many have effectively been stateless. The law went into effect in 2020.
Text of the law:
Article 976 of the civil code: “The following persons are considered to be Iranian subjects… Persons born in Iran of a father of foreign nationality who have resided at least one more year in Iran immediately after reaching the full age of 18.”
Article 1 of law amending citizenship of children (2019): “Children born to legal marriage of Iranian women to non-Iranian men who were born or will be born before or after the adoption of this law before reaching the age of eighteen … [can] become citizens of Iran at the request of the Iranian mother. The above-mentioned children can apply for Iranian citizenship after reaching the age of 18, if the Iranian mother does not apply.”
In the law: Women face restrictions on travel abroad. A woman requires a husband’s permission to obtain a passport or travel outside the country.
In practice: Husbands could choose to provide blanket permission for his wife’s travel or require her to ask for permission for each trip abroad. Single women over the age of 18 could obtain a passport without permission but still required their guardian’s approval to leave the country. Women arriving at airports would sometimes find their permission to travel abroad had been revoked by their husband or male guardian and were prevented from boarding flights. In rare circumstances, authorities would intervene to allow female athletes to compete abroad over a husband’s objections.
Text of the law:
Article 18 of the Passport Law of 1973: “A passport shall be issued for the following persons according to this article…Married women, even if under 18 years old, with the written agreement of their husbands.”
In the law: Under Islamic inheritance law, a man is granted his deceased wife’s entire estate, while a widow receives only one-eighth of her husband’s estate. A son inherits twice as much as a daughter. Until 2009, widows could not inherit land. Parliament then voted to let women inherit land.
In practice: Affluent families have circumvented the law by transferring the property titles before death. In some cases, men have also bought property in the names of their wives or children in case they die first to avoid civil code requirements.
Text of the laws:
Article 949 of the Civil Code: “If the deceased has left no living children, and no living children’s children of whatever degree, either of the parents, if alone, takes the whole estate; and if the father and mother of the deceased are both alive, the mother takes one - third and the father two - thirds. But if the mother comes after someone else, one-sixth of the estate belongs to the mother and the rest to the father.”
Article 907 of the Civil Code: “If the deceased leaves no parents, but has one or more children, the estate will be divided as follows:
“If the offspring consists of only one, whether son or daughter, the whole of the estate belongs to that child. If there are several children, but all are sons or all daughters, the estate will be divided equally among them.
“If there are several children, some being sons and some daughters each son takes twice as much as each daughter.”
Article 908 of the Civil Code: “If the father or the mother of the deceased, or both parents, are alive, together with one daughter, the share of each one of the father and the mother will be one-sixth of the estate.; and the share of the daughter will be one - half there of. The remainder must be divided among all the rest of the heirs in proportion to the share of each; unless the mother comes after someone else, in which case the mother takes no portion of the remainder.”
Article 909 of the Civil Code: “If the father or the mother, or both the parents of the deceased are alive, together with several daughters, the share of the whole of the daughters will be two-thirds of the estate ,which is to be divided equally among them; and the ‘share’ of each one of the father and the mother will be one - sixth . And if there be a remainder it will be divided among all the heirs in proportion to their shares unless the mother comes after someone else, in which case the mother will not take any portion of the remainder.”
Article 911 of the Civil Code: “If the deceased leaves no sons or daughters, his grandchildren are the legal representatives of his sons or daughters, and in this way are reckoned as belong in to the first degree of descendants, and take inheritance with each one of the parents who are alive.
“The division of the inheritance among the grandchildren will take place in accordance with their sex, that is to say, each individual will take the portion the person through whom he claims descent from the deceased; hence, the children of a son take twice as much as the children of a daughter.
“In the division among individuals of each sex, a boy takes twice as much as a girl.”
Article 913 of the Civil Code: “In all the conditions mentioned in this subsection, whichever of the married pair is the survivor takes his or her, share and this share means one half of the estate for the surviving husband and one-quarter for the surviving wife, provided that the deceased left no children or grandchildren; and it means one - quarter of the estate for the husband and one - eighth for the wife if the deceased left children or children’s children. And the remainder of the estate is to be divided among the other heirs in accordance with the preceding Articles.”
Article 914 of the Civil Code: “If, owing to the existence of several persons entitled to shares, the estate of the deceased be not sufficient to satisfy of them, the deficiency falls on the daughter or the two daughters; and if, after deduction of the portion of those entitled to shares there still remains something, and there be no heirs entitled to take the remainder by way of relationship, this remainder will be divided among the persons entitled to shares in accordance with the provisions of the preceding Articles; but the husband and the wife in all case, and the mother if she comes after someone else, take no part of the remainder.”
Article 945 of the Civil Code (amended in 2009): “If a man marries a woman when he is ill, and dies of that disease before consummation of the marriage, the wife does not take inheritance from him; but if he dies after consummation, or after recovery from that disease, the wife takes inheritance from him.”
Article 946 of the Civil Code: “The husband takes inheritance from the whole of the estate of the deceased wife; and the wife inherits one-eighth of the actual movable property and one-eighth of the price of immovable property including site and buildings, if the deceased husband has children. If the husband has children, the share of the wife will be one-fourth of the property stipulated as follows.
Article 949 of the Civil Code: “If there is no other heir except for the husband or wife, the husband takes the whole of the estate of his late wife; but the wife takes only her portion, and the rest of the estate of the husband is considered as the estate of a man without any heir, and will be dealt with in accordance with Article 866.”
Photo Credits: Judiciary Logo via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 4.0); Zahra Nemati via Tasnim News Agency (CC BY 4.0), Wedding via Tasnim News Agency (CC By 4.0), Mother and Child via Tasnim News Agency (CC By 4.0), Rayhaneh via ILNA
Andrew Hanna, a former program specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, originally published this article in December 2020. Connor Bradbury, a senior program assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace, updated this article in August 2023.