The tensions between reformers and ultra-conservatives in Iran are intensifying — and this time the battleground is women's reproductive rights.
Two newly proposed Iranian laws would restrict access to contraception, ban voluntary sterilization, dismantle state-funded family programs, and allow discrimination against female job applicants if they are single or without children.
In July 2012, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that the number of Iranian citizens — currently numbering around 80 million — could and should sustainably reach 150, or even 200 million. In October, he reiterated that. "Why do men or women avoid having children through different means?" he asked. "The reasons need to be studied."
Practical measures to encourage the realization of this population boom are turning women into "baby-making machines," according to Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa. She said the desire for population growth was part of a "zealous quest to project an image of military might and geopolitical strength by attempting to increase birth rates."
A new Amnesty report, released on Wednesday and titled You Shall Procreate, called Iran's plan "misguided." If the new laws are implemented, it says, "not only will Iran breach its international human rights obligations to ensure access to family planning and modern contraception, but generations of women and girls will face a perilous future marked by ill-health, inequality, discrimination, limited reproductive choices, and restricted freedoms."
The first of the marked legislation is the Bill to Increase Fertility Rates and Prevent Population Decline (Bill 446), which Amnesty says will force women and girls with limited financial resources to undergo "unsafe, clandestine abortions" to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
If approved into law, this legislation would also ban access to information about contraceptive goods and information — which could be particularly dangerous in rural and poverty-stricken areas of the country.
The other spotlighted measure, the Comprehensive Population and Exaltation of Family Bill (Bill 315), would impact on women's ability to engage with the legal system, discouraging penal and judicial intervention in family disputes and domestic violence cases, and make divorce more difficult. Women's testimony (and life) is already valued at half that of a man's in the Iranian legal system.
This proposed law would also allow discrimination against women in the workforce. Cementing and increasing working restrictions against women has reportedly led to 100,000 fewer employed women every year for the past eight.
Current Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was elected in June 2013. A moderate, he has been vocal about the need to reform women's rights in the country. In a speech last April, Rouhani said that Iran still had a "long way to go" to achieve gender equality, and objected to "those who consider women's presence in society as a threat." This past weekend he tweeted that women must enjoy "equal opportunity, equal protection, and equal social rights."
However, his political victory and expressed views have prompted a backlash from the country's Islamic and hardline conservatives, who feel that Rouhani's suggested reforms are "Western," and therefore inconsistent with the kind of state that they want to live in.
Raha Bahreini, Iran researcher for Amnesty International and one of the authors of Wednesday's report, told VICE News that there is currently a clear "attack on women's attempt to have a stronger presence in society."
"With the path that the authorities are pursuing, they are disregarding and trampling over the fundamental rights of women," she said.
Bahreini added that one of the dangerous components of the fertility bill was the vague and broad manner in which it was drafted, resulting in the possibility "that anyone who provides information about sexual contraceptive methods — be they pharmacists or teachers or activists — they could face a risk at this point."
"As a result, women who have unwanted pregnancies won't be able to terminate, and you have the criminalization of abortion as well as lack of access to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Women will have no option but to continue with unwanted pregnancies against their choice, or to terminate them through illegal and unsafe abortions."
Abortion is currently illegal in Iran unless necessary to save a woman's life, or if the fetus suffers from "mental retardations" or "congenital anomalies" that would cause "unbearable hardship" to the pregnant woman. Bahreini said that there were no adequate figures on how many unsafe abortions are currently performed in the country, but emphasized that "authorities have expressed concern in the past that many, many unsafe abortions are taking place."
She pointed out that unsafe terminations are one of the highest causes of death among women globally — the World Health Organization estimates that unsafe and clandestine abortions directly cause 13 percent of all maternal deaths.
Other Iranian human rights groups have agreed that the country may be moving backwards, and pointed to additional evidence of a conservative "push back."
"There are attempts to really push back on the advances women have made in the economic, social, and cultural sphere of the country," Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told VICE News.
In briefing paper released last Friday titled Vigilante Violence, Ghaemi's organization highlighted another incoming law — the Plan to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice — that they say will further discredit and threaten any advances that Iranian women have achieved.
Ghaemi told VICE News that the expression of ultra-conservative views are emanating from the top — "the supreme leadership" — right down to government-associated clerics who believe that "first of all, the idea of equality between men and women is a Western idea and, secondly, their prime purpose is to be a mother and wife." Ghaemi also pointed particularly towards the notable gains that Iranian women had made in higher education.
This isn't the first time that the Iranian authorities have shown a keen interest in their citizens' sex lives.
Last year VICE News obtained a copy of an Iranian parliamentary report that noted: "Under present circumstances, sexual desires are intensified due to high-calorie diets and sexual stimulants such as images and movies containing lustful nudity, pornographic images, and movies, etc."
"Therefore," it continued, "the average sexual maturity age is decreased, resulting in earlier puberty of teenagers. On the other hand, lack of suitable circumstances for permanent marriage, as well as the adverse teachings of Western culture, have resulted in sexual relationships and behaviors beyond rational and religious restrictions of Islamic societies."
The level of control exercised over the country's citizens has fluctuated when it comes to family planning. A campaign introduced to the country in the 1970s told couples that "two children is enough." This slogan was abandoned following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, but then reintroduced during the 1990s. Contraceptives and vasectomies were encouraged, resulting in a reduction of the growth rate to 1.6 percent.
According to Amnesty, the number of births per women went from seven per woman in 1980 to 5.5 in 1988 — falling further to 2.8 in 1996 and down to 1.85 in 2014.
Some Iranian politicians have already been outspoken about the proposed legislation in the Amnesty report.
Government spokesperson Mohammad Bagher Nobakht said the bill banning surgical sterilization is "inconsistent with individual freedoms and civil rights," and Minister of Health Seyed Hassan Hashemi warned on his website that the law may lead to "more illegal and clandestine abortions, recurrent infections in women, and other serious physical and mental harms."
Amnesty said that affordable contraception is necessary so that women can live "autonomous, dignified and healthy lives, without prejudice and discrimination."
The rights group also pointed to the destructive nature of early marriage. According to Amnesty figures, 41,226 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 were married in 2013-14, and at least 201 girls under the age of 10.
In Iran, where donning a hijab is compulsory for females, more than 2.9 women received a police warning during the year ending March 2014. A further 207,053 were compelled to sign a statement agreeing not to recommit the crime of "improper veiling."
Last year, multiple women were targeted in vicious acid attacks in the country, believed to have been carried out by vigilantes who objected to their appearance.
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