In October, the Iranian magazine Zanan-e Emrouz (Today's Women) published a story on unwed couples in the country that live together in arrangements referred to as "white marriages." Elsewhere, such an account depicting cohabitation, which is common in much of the world, would have been innocuous. But on Monday the country's judiciary suddenly banned Zanan-e Emrouz from publishing, accusing it of "encouraging and justifying" a practice that flouts Iran's laws on extramarital relationships.
The move is the latest in what has become a perennial tug of war between Iran's powerful conservative clerics, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a generation of more open-minded couples whose lifestyles and sexual preferences Iran's religious leaders would prefer not be discussed.
Last year, a report published by researchers at the Iranian Parliament found that 80 percent of unmarried women reported being in relationships with the opposite sex — a crime under the country's legal code. Shortly after being published, the findings were taken down from a government website.
Janet Afary, a professor of religious and feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara, said it appeared Zanan-e Emrouz fell victim to the same censure.
"They basically banned the journal for talking about this issue," Afary told VICE News. "They don't want it discussed, and they obviously can't do much about it."
As the government of President Hassan Rouhani engages in unprecedented talks with the US and European powers over Iran's nuclear program, observers say clerics may be pushing back on moral practices they associate with the West.
'You can shut a magazine, you can imprison the messenger, but you cannot stop this.'
Zanan-e Emrouz is edited by Shahla Sherkat, a well-known figure in Iran. A previous incarnation of the magazine was shuttered in 2008 by the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who complained it was "portraying the situation of women in a dark light."
"To prevent our revelations about women and their issues from disturbing the public's consciousness, Zanan was closed," Sherkat wrote in 2009.
In 2014, however, officials in the administration of Rouhani — who is considered more progressive than his predecessor — gave her the go ahead to start printing again. But the October issue was apparently too much for press watchdogs.
The magazine, which did not promote the practice, depicted what most already knew — that so-called white marriages are commonplace in Iranian society, particularly in cities. Though in Iran, sex outside of marriage is officially punishable by flogging, Afary said that unless someone reports couples, police do little to bother them.
"It is more like don't ask, don't tell," she explained.
On an economic level, the costs attached to marriage, including dowries, are simply too much for many young Iranians. According to the World Bank, nearly a quarter of Iranian youth are unemployed. Though this could change, as the tentative nuclear framework reached last month may bring a lifting of some sanctions on Iran. Regardless, the country's economy will likely take years to recover from years of restrictions.
Rather than discouraging cohabitation, the restrictive legal code of Iran may actually cause more couples to partake in these white marriages.
Under Iranian law, women are at a marked disadvantage during divorce proceedings, which contain arduous requirements that force them to prove fault on the part of their partner — something men don't have to do. The same laws lead many wedded couples to remain married, in so called "grey marriages" — for all purposes separated, except in the eyes of the government.
"In most cases, women have to forgo any right to obtain financial benefits that may have been agreed upon in order to obtain divorce," Michelle Kissenkoetter, Asia director at the International Federation for Human Rights, told VICE News.
In the event of divorce, custody of a couple's children devolves to the father when they reach seven years of age. Though legally mothers can dispute that transfer and possibly keep their children, those who remarry automatically lose custody to their ex-husband.
Iranian law does offer a workaround in the form of sigheh, a type of temporary marriage. The arrangement, which is called nikah mut'ah in Arabic and evolved from pre-Islamic Arab customs, requires only a verbal agreement between partners, and can last from just minutes to 99 years. Though the specifics of sigheh are unique to Shia Islam, other arrangements that temporarily allow relations also exist in predominantly Sunni countries.
Sigheh theoretically allows young couples a way to avoid the precariousness of cohabitation, but in Iran the practice is often associated with prostitution, a use that Iranian officials have on occasion encouraged to avoid the dissonance of the sex trade. Many families, particular those well off and in cities, frown upon it. Moreover, young Iranians often see it simply as yet another intrusion into their personal lives.
"Some couples may use it to avoid fallout with the law, but most urban young people regard it as insulting and prefer to have boyfriends and girlfriends," said Kissenkoetter.
Iran's policy towards gender rights and family planning has undulated since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Shortly after overthrowing the Shah, clerical leaders pushed for Iranian women to have more children, and in short order they were giving birth to an average of 6.5 children. During the mid-1980s, in the midst of a grinding war with Iraq, the government switched tracks, fearful of not being able to sustain such unchecked growth.
"They introduced birth control, and gave it an Islamic rationale," said Afary. "They combined it with variety of necessary services — for example, you would go to a clinic and get birth control and vaccinate your children. They removed the stigma."
Today, Iran's policies have come full circle. Faced with a meager birth rate of 1.6 per woman, religious authorities are once more promoting procreation, and cutting back on planning services.
But now the children of the post-revolution baby boom are Iran's young adults, and they are pushing the envelope.
In showing its disapproval, Iran's clerical leadership has not minced words. Last November, Khamenie's Chief of Staff Mohammad Mohammad Golpayegani called white marriages "shameful" and said "their halal generation will be extinguished and they will become bastards."
Other officials have cited the media and foreign influences as a cause for the trend of cohabiting. Last year's parliamentary study blamed the "adverse teachings of Western culture" for a rise in "sexual relationships and behaviors beyond rational and religious restrictions of Islamic Societies."
But the report also acknowledged, a "lack of suitable circumstances for permanent marriage" in Iran.
Whether young people — 60 percent of Iranians are under 30 — are choosing to remain unmarried for economic, political, or entirely personal reasons, observers say the trend will not shift by censoring outlets like Zanan-e Emrouz.
"You can shut a magazine, you can imprison the messenger, but you cannot stop this," Farzaneh Milani, a professor at the University of Virginia who has written extensively about gender issues in Iran, told VICE News.
Milani said Zanan-e Emrouz is well known and respected by Iranians — both men and women — inside the country and abroad.
"To me," she said, "shutting it down is the last struggle of a patriarchal system."
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Photo via Flickr/Adam Jones