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). 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). 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 repentance.
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.
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. 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 contract.
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 law.
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.
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