Young Iranians In Mashhad (photo: Abbas Borzou)

Marrying Late: Young Adults and the Marriage Crisis in Iran

The reasons for Iran’s marriage crisis run deeper than the economy: they are also tied to growing exposure to Western values, primarily through new media and social networks. The regime’s failure to raise the birth rate in recent years attests to the limits of its power over its citizens, and especially the younger ones.

In October 2013, a young Iranian woman anonymously responded to a Facebook post by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in which the minister described his impressions of a recent round of nuclear talks in Geneva. The woman, 26, detailed her daily hardships: she has been engaged for three years but cannot marry her fiancé, an unemployed doctoral student, due to financial difficulty. “Having no money or work has ruined our lives”, she wrote.

The young woman added that she had been accepted for graduate studies in a top Tehran university, but could not afford the bus fare to attend classes three days a week. “My partner cannot support me, nor can my father. Student loans won’t help much, plus I haven’t received them yet. I’ve often considered dropping out, but I choke up with tears when I think how hard I worked to get in […] I don’t know whether you have children”, she wrote to the Foreign Minister, “or how you and your children could study […]. Imagine studying under the worst possible conditions […]. I’m on the brink of depression.”

The anonymous writer stressed that she was demanding her rights, not asking for sympathy. “I am an Iranian. Why is it that in my own country, to which my family gave many martyrs and veterans, I lack basic welfare? Why am I unemployed? Why am I undernourished? Why am I destitute? Why am I treated like scum, despite my GPA and my resume? This nuclear energy – where is it? What portion of it trickles down to me? Will I or my talented partner ever be hired in the nuclear program? Our bills are constantly increasing, life is becoming more expensive. […]During summers, electricity is constantly cut – so where is this supposed energy security? Even if it is good for our country’s future, why must we be sacrificed for it? Why does the development of future generations have to be over our ashes? What is our sin? […] What words shall I use to tell you, sir, that I do not wish to pay the price of nuclear energy with my youth and my life? I have only one life to live and I wish to be happy. I’ve had my share of sadness. I am prepared to sell my absolute right [to nuclear energy] to the first bidder. In return, I ask for work, to have a way to provide for myself, and to be able to afford a simple dowry, a house, and health insurance.”

The young woman ended her plea by demanding that the minister work towards lifting the economic sanctions imposed on Iran. “I am writing this so you know that there are people like me out there, who are alive but wish to die. Do something to end the sanctions. Do something to bring down the prices of food and housing. Do something to create job growth. Do something so the high price of medical treatment does not result in the loss of human life. Do something for us to have security and welfare. Do something so that someone like me, who loves to study, who has worked hard all her life, who has been patient and has never strayed, won’t have a nervous breakdown and constantly think about leaving school. Do something so that young people will be able to marry easily […]. But be quick about it. I am afraid it will not come about in our lifetime. Enough with the sanctions. Someone said once that Iranians who were born in the eighties need deeper graves, so we can be buried with all the wishes we will take with us when we die.” [1]

The post generated an outpouring of heartfelt responses on websites and social media in Iran and around the world. It struck a chord for a reason. Many commenters felt that the nameless woman represented the despair that millions of young Iranians feel in light of the country’s growing economic crisis. The 1979 Islamic Revolution set out to mitigate socioeconomic problems, among other things, yet 36 years later it seems that Iran’s leaders have yet to make true on their promise. Growing hardships are alienating the younger generation from the core beliefs of the regime and driving social processes that pose a significant challenge to the Islamic Republic and to the values of the Revolution.

Iran’s young adults and the deepening economic crisis

Iran is currently considered a young country, thanks to a 1980s spike in its birth rate. The national family planning policy instated in 1967 to slow population growth was suspended after the revolution in 1979. Although then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini decreed that Islam permitted the use of birth control, the family planning council was dispersed, many clinics were shut down or restricted, and the supply of contraceptives was limited. After the Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980, the government began showcasing Iran’s large population as a source of military might and national security. The policy of encouraging fertility led to a sharp rise of up to 3.9% a year in the number of births from 1980 to 1985.

In the second half of the 1980s, the regime began to recognize that uncontrolled population growth could hold back economic development. In December 1989, the government adopted a family planning program to limit the number of children per family. This policy remained in place until 2012, when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered that it be changed to slow the aging of Iran’s population. Although the birth rate dropped sharply since 1989, reaching 1.27% in 2012, the “baby boom” of the early 1980s meant that millions of citizens born were now entering the job market. A 2011 census found that Iran had more than 75 million citizens, approximately 72% of them under the age of 40. About half of the population consisted of young adults under 30 – 31.6% of them at an employable age (15-30) and the rest children.[2]

In recent years, Iran has been facing an economic crisis caused by a combination of factors: structural market problems such as reliance on income from oil, a weak private sector, and widespread corruption, along with flawed economic planning – especially under former president Ahmadinejad – and the international economic sanctions imposed on Iran due to its nuclear program (which were removed once the nuclear deal was signed). The crisis has left its mark on the entire population, but especially on young adults, in two major areas: employment and housing. In a 2012 survey conducted among some 1,000 Iranians between the ages of 16 and 25, respondents were asked to name the two major challenges that Iran was facing. Forty-one percent replied unemployment, 28% noted economic issues in general, 19% said inflation, 8% stated the cost of living, 7% replied drug abuse, and 5% were concerned with other matters.[3]

The high population growth rate until the 1990s and the economic recession led to a decline in jobs available for young adults entering the workforce every year. Iranian economists claim that Ahmadinejad’s populistic economic policy (2005-2013) damaged production and industry and increased unemployment. At the same time, annual inflation of more than 30% raised production costs, taking a great toll on many factories.  Ahmadinejad’s reform of the subsidy policy also hurt Iranian industry, as the government failed to meet its commitment to use 20% of income from the reform for boosting production. Many factories collapsed and unemployment rose.[4]

The unemployment crisis hit young adults, and particularly university graduates, especially hard. In late 2013, the head of the Statistical Centre of Iran announced that unemployment had reached 26% among 15-24-year-olds that year – twice the general unemployment rate, which was 12.2%. He referred to unemployment among young adults as “a crisis”.[5] According to the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, more than 40% of young university graduates were unemployed at the time.[6] In a 2015 report, the Statistical Centre revealed that among Iranians between the ages of 15 and 29, 15.2% were unemployed in the province of Bushehr, and as many as 48.7% in Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad. In most provinces, young adults were suffering from a 20-30% unemployment rate.[7]

The economic crisis, and especially the recent hike in housing costs, has made it hard for many young Iranians to purchase homes. Prices have skyrocketed due to lack of supply along with growing demand for urban housing, and have risen by double-digit percentages. At a conference held by the Iranian Sociological Association, sociologist Azam Khatem stated that an average apartment now costs ten times the annual income of medium-level earners and thirty times the annual income of low-level earners. Sociologist Kamal Athari noted that before the revolution, an apartment had cost only four times the annual income of an average family. After the revolution, it dropped to three, in the 1990s it rose to six or seven, and in the ‘00s it rose to ten to twelve times the annual income of an average family.[8]

The social implications are considerable, especially for young adults who have not yet bought property. Economist Djavad Salehi Isfahani found that since the 1980s, young Iranians have increasingly opted to continue living with their parents. In 1984, 33.9% of urban Iranian men between the ages of 25 and 29 and 11.8% of their female counterparts were still living at home; by 2008, the former had risen to 56.2% and the latter to 29.8%. This means that in 2008, a whopping 86% of Iranians under the age of thirty were still living at home.[9]

Growing poverty has driven some young Iranians to crime, including drug abuse. In December 2012, Police Chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam stated that the growing economic crisis and rising costs were escalating crime levels, and especially theft.[10] The connection between crime and the flailing economy has been the subject of vigorous debate in Iran in recent years. For example, the 2013 execution of two young men who were convicted of armed robbery in Tehran led to a public and media outcry after CCTV footage of the robbery went viral. During the trial, one of the defendants claimed that he had to commit the robbery to obtain medical care for his ailing mother.

Many Iranians criticized the execution, blaming the government for inducing crime by failing to improve the economy. Conservative website Alef ran an opinion piece titled “High Inflation is a Form of Armed Robbery”, citing research findings that most criminals are unemployed and under 25. Although unemployment and poverty cannot excuse theft, the column emphasized, the fact that most robbers are out of work should jolt Iran’s senior economists into solving the unemployment crisis.[11]

Some young adults in financial straits have gone as far as organ trafficking; this sector has become heavily involved in Iran’s illicit organ trade in recent years. In July 2011, Hossein Biglari, director of the Association of Special Patients and Refractory Diseases in Kermanshah, said that lack of job options in the province drove many men and women between the ages of 20 and 30 to offer their kidneys for sale. According to Biglari, many are willing to travel to cities throughout Iran, and especially to Tehran, to obtain the highest possible price for their organs.[12]

Young adults, marriage, and divorce in the Islamic Republic

A telling symptom of young Iranians’ financial hardship is the sorry state of marriage in the country. The average age of marriage is rising significantly in Iran, as is the divorce rate. Although this is a global phenomenon, it is seen by the Iranian regime as a dangerous adoption of Western culture that is threatening the core values of Islam, including the sacred family unit. Unsurprisingly, “the marriage crisis” is at the heart of academic, political, religious, and media debate in Iran.

After the Islamic Republic was established, the legal age of marriage in Iran was set at 9 for girls and 14 for boys. In 2002, the Guardian Council raised the bar to 13 for girls and 15 for boys, after compromising on a bill proposed by the sixth Majlis (the parliament of 1996-2000), which was controlled by a reformist majority, to raise the bar to 15 for girls and 18 for boys. In practice, the average age of marriage is much higher for both men and women. Sociologist Majid Abhari claims that in the ‘00s, the average age of marriage in Iran rose by 27%.[13] According to the National Organization for Civil Registration (NOCR), the average age of marriage in the last nine months of 2015 was 29 for men (as opposed to 25.6 in 1996-1997) and 24 for women (as opposed to 22.4). In Tehran, the average was higher: 30.1 for men and 26 for women. In the high-end neighbourhood of Shemiran in northern Tehran, men married at an average of 32.4 and women at 28.9.[14]

NOCR figures also show a drop in the number of weddings and a hike in divorces. Beginning in the early 1990s, the marriage rate in Iran climbed steadily in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war and subsequent economic rehabilitation. This trend stopped in 2010-2011, with 891,000 weddings that year; by 2014-2015, the number had dropped to 724,000. Meanwhile, the divorce rate has quadrupled over the last twenty years. In 1996-1997, 37,000 couples filed for divorce in Iran; by 2014-2015, the figure was 163,000. The wedding-divorce ratio fell from 12.7 to 4.3, respectively.[15]

As a result, Iran now has many more young singles. According to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, 25%-30% of young urban Iranians were single in 2012-2013. The 2011 census found that in Tehran alone, between the ages of 15 and 39 there were more than one million unmarried men (single, widowed, or divorced) but only 790,000 married men. Among women in the same age group, 840,000 were unmarried and slightly more than one million were married.[16] According to NOCR figures from early 2016, more than 11 million Iranians between the ages of 20 and 34 have never been married; among men over 34 and women over 29, 1.3 million have never married.[17] Dr. Mohammad Zahedi of the Department of Social Work at Allameh Tabataba’i University coined the term “the singles’ decade” to describe present-day Iran, warning that by the end of the decade, the average age of marriage could reach 40 for men and 35 for women.[18]

Iranian researchers point to financial problems, shifting values among young adults, and the expansion of women’s education as the major reasons for the rising age of marriage. Dr. Abhari believes it is primarily the result of rampant unemployment, inflation, and high living costs, all of which work against marrying young, as does the steady increase in the number of women pursuing university degrees before settling down.[19] His research shows that a resident of Tehran needs an average of 30 million toman (approx. 9,900 USD) to meet the expenses of marriage, such as purchasing an apartment and paying dowry. As a result, many young Iranians prefer to wait until they are older and have improved their financial prospects.[20]

In October 2013, Iranian TV hosted a special debate on the marriage crisis with a range of politicians and researchers. Most participants explained that the significant rise in the average age of marriage was caused by social and economic factors, primarily high unemployment rates and soaring housing prices. They also blamed exposure to Western values, which was pushing youngsters away from the traditional Islamic lifestyle and encouraging a more liberal approach to relationships. Mohammad Abbasi, Minister of Youth Affairs under Ahmadinejad, said that although it is hard to determine the main reasons for the trend of marrying late, young Iranians themselves have pointed to the failing economy.[21]

Abbasi’s comment was broadly supported by a 2013 study carried out by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports among 800 residents of Tehran between the ages of 18 and 40. In a survey conducted as part of the study, more than 35% respondents stated that they believe marriage is vital, but under the current circumstances cannot marry and start a family. Most unmarried men cited financial problems and low income as the major reason for delaying marriage, while most unmarried women stated their wish to pursue higher education first.[22] Fifty-nine percent of university applicants in 2014-2015 were women. Recent studies found that attending university delayed marriage by an average of two to three years. In a study carried out by Tehran University in 2012-2013 among 1,200 single women between the ages of 25 and 44 in five cities in Iran, 21% stated that they were single primarily because they wanted to continue studying.[23]

Another reason for the delay is shifting views of marriage. According to a Tehran University study, 90% of young Iranians think men should marry only after securing a steady income, and some 50% believe that women should marry after completing a university degree and achieving financial independence.[24]

In recent years, a creative solution known as “white marriage” has gained popularity throughout Iran, especially in big cities. Under this arrangement, couples can live together without officially marrying, thus avoiding heavy wedding expenses. This allows women to retain financial independence and avoid the legal discrimination that comes with marriage and divorce.[25] While the authorities and the religious establishment view this as adultery, the state does not take action against such couples – probably for fear of a public backlash. However, in recent years, the regime has made considerable use of state-controlled media to dissuade citizens considering this option.

In the last decade, the marriage crisis has become a major subject of research among Iranian sociologists. In a special conference held on the topic by the Iranian Sociological Association in 2007, Dr. Afsar Afshar-Naderi claimed that young Iranians are delaying marriage because they have little hope of improving their financial prospects and cannot afford to start a family. She added that the possibility of having sex without marriage or even commitment is a contributing factor, along with changing cultural beliefs. Many young adults are also deterred by the rapid rise of divorce.[26] Iranian clerics have also offered economic explanations for the marriage crisis.[27]

The extent of public debate shows that the Islamic Republic is willing to enable open discussion of this issue, including explanations that focus on social and economic problems. However, it is clear that the regime is allowing the debate in order to come up with practical solutions for what it sees as a profound cultural crisis threatening the sanctity of the “Iranian and Islamic lifestyle”.

Rise of the temporary marriage

Along with postponed marriage and a higher divorce rate, Iran has also seen a spike in temporary marriages (mut’ah or sigheh), an institution permitted in Shi’ite Islam. The regime encourages this as a solution for the social need for contact between men and women. Unlike the “white marriage”, which does not exist in Islamic law and is not acknowledged by the religious establishment, temporary marriage is a premarital relationship that is both legal and accepted by the religious establishment.

In 2009, the district of Tehran alone saw a 28% increase in temporary marriages compared to the previous year. The NOCR estimates that the real figure is higher, since most couples who enter this arrangement do not bother to officially register. In an attempt to encourage couples to register, a senior official with the organization pointed out that unless they do so, they may encounter problems if they have children.[28]

According to NOCR figures, 146 temporary marriages were registered in the first six months of 2013-2014 – 10% more than in the first half of the previous year. In a survey carried out by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, 60% of young adult respondents stated that temporary marriage helped reduce sexual problems in society and prevent extreme violence.[29]

In January 2012, Iranian media reported that the soaring price of gold in Iran had increased the number of temporary marriages. Sociologist Dr. Amanollah Qara’i Moqaddam explained that since the ‘bride price’ that men must pay the family of the bride is measured in gold, the higher value of gold meant a significantly higher bride price. Consequently, many men prefer to avoid formal marriage and are increasingly opting for temporary marriage to avoid the heavy payment. Moqaddam says that wedding costs are also considerably higher and now out of reach for many families. In this reality, many women tend to continue living with their parents while men choose not to start families. He cautioned that this trend may eventually undermine the social unit of the family. Psychologist and family advisor Ali-Asghar Keyhannia also noted that the higher price of gold and the fact that many families insist on a large bride price for their daughters have made many men opt for temporary marriages. He says that an average family demands 500-700 gold coins, whose value has approximately doubled since the price hike.[30]

The marriage crisis as a threat to Iranian values

Family values are especially important to Iran’s Islamic regime. The government and the religious establishment see the marriage crisis as yet another symptom of the corrupting influence of the West over Iranian society, and especially over the younger generation. Researchers and media repeatedly caution against the consequences of the marriage crisis: stress, psychological problems, a decline in population growth, damage to the family unit, and undermining religion and sexual morals.[31]

The growing divorce rate is considered especially problematic in Iran as divorced people, and especially women, are held in very low esteem. Dr. Mostafa Eqlima, a leading social worker in Iran, explained that unlike in the West, divorce is considered a “disaster” in Iran. When a woman leaves her husband, she loses her social status and her position within the family. According to Eqlima, most Iranian men looking to remarry are not interested in women their age and prefer to marry young girls. This makes it difficult for divorced women to find new husbands.[32]

The fact that people are marrying later is urging young Iranians to have sex before marriage, another aspect that worries the regime and its clerics. In October 2012, news website Meliyat ran an investigative piece on the “sexual revolution” of the last twenty years. The piece, whose very publication indicates growing acknowledgement of the phenomenon by the regime, discussed the proliferation of sex before marriage among young adults in Iran and argued that the practice had spread from specific sectors to almost all parts of Iranian society.

According to Meliyat, this is not an imitation of the West but rather a response to changes within Iranian society, and especially the younger generation’s changing ideas about intimate relationships. Young Iranians no longer see religion as a collection of binding rules; unlike the generation that came of age during the revolution, they do not see sex as a political act. Meliyat listed four leading causes of the sexual revolution:

  1. Urbanization: The move from rural life to cities freed many youngsters from the supervision of their families and communities, enabling them to engage in intimate relationships with relative ease.
  2. New means of communication: Although young women from traditional families live under tight parental supervision, the new forms of communications technology (mobile phones, text messages, and the Internet) help them evade surveillance and contact potential partners.
  3. Introduction of non-governmental media: Over the last thirty years, various forms of non-governmental media have entered Iran, including video tapes (and later DVDs), satellite TV, and the Internet. This exposes Iranians to different models of intimate relationships.
  4. More university graduates: Some 4 million students, about 60% of them women, are currently pursuing higher education or teacher training in Iran. Despite restrictions on contact between men and women (exercised primarily through the institutes’ enforcement of separate classrooms), students regularly communicate with members of the opposite sex and these ties spill over from campus life to the home environment.

The article cited evidence that sex before marriage is on the rise in Iran. In 2008, Ali-Akbar Asarnia, head of the Culture and Society Department at the National Youth Organization of Iran, declared that 58% survey respondents had admitted to being in a relationship with a woman in their youth. Twenty-six percent of these relationships were sexual, 13% them ending in unwanted pregnancy and abortion. The district of Tehran reported that in 2008, one-third of divorced women in the district had been charged with a “moral crime”.

Many young Iranians know that sex without marriage is now a possibility, noted the website. Religious and moral constraints have lost their power, and even young believers find ways to circumvent Islamic rules in this area. Many youngsters no longer see premarital relations as taboo, are not ashamed to discuss them, and even openly criticize restrictive traditions. The sexual revolution is playing a part in the increasing tendency to marry late, as it allows young men and women to live independently without having to wed.[33] This argument is supported by vibrant discussions on social media in recent years, in which young Iranian men and women voice opinions on various matters, including sexual relationships.

The regime’s response

The Iranian regime is highly invested in ending the marriage crisis, given the perceived threat to fundamental Islamic and national values. The leadership recognizes that the answer lies in alleviating the socioeconomic problems troubling Iran’s younger generation. Nasrollah Torabi, a member of the parliamentary Social Affairs Committee, proposed that the government advance housing and employment for young adults as a way of curbing the marriage crisis. He called on the government and on society to do everything they can to solve the problems facing today’s young adults and help them start families.[34]

Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to introduce solutions. One of his early initiatives after being elected for his first term in 2005 was to allocate over a billion dollars for the “Love of Reza” fund, which was intended to provide subsidies to young couples for the purpose of finding a job, marrying, and purchasing a home. By the end of his presidency it was clear that the plan had failed. Most of the apartments were still under construction, and those that were fully built still lacked infrastructure and could not be inhabited, even by couples who had paid in full. Minister of Roads and Urban Development Abbas-Ahmad Akhoundi declared shortly after the current government was sworn in that thousands of new residential units lacked functioning water, gas, and sewage facilities, and some 200,000 were therefore uninhabitable.[35] Another initiative was a bill passed in December 2005 to incentivize young couples to marry with financial benefits and aid programs. The economic crisis deepened and the law was never enforced.[36]

Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani has also acknowledged the urgency of helping Iran’s younger generation. Immediately after forming his government in 2013, he announced that resolving unemployment among young adults, and particularly university graduates, was a top priority.[37] As financial aid efforts had not resolved the marriage crisis, the government sought new avenues. In 2007, then-Minister of the Interior Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi caused a public uproar when he suggested that the government and the religious establishment encourage temporary marriages as a solution for young Iranians of limited financial means. He noted that Islam permitted this arrangement not only to fulfil the needs of married men who leave home for a period, but also to meet the sexual and emotional needs of young people who cannot marry.

The proposal was harshly criticized by reformist factions who warned that its implementation could severely undermine the family unit and further damage women’s social status, as it was tantamount to institutionalizing prostitution. Yet Majlis members and clerics supported the proposal, arguing that the trend of late marriage was driving young men to have forbidden relations with women before marriage, thereby corrupting Iranian society. The Vice-Chairman of the Majlis’ judiciary committee even proposed adding the practice of mut’ah marriage to the school curriculum in order to educate young people about this institution.[38] Another effort to address the marriage crisis resulted in the launching of several urban marriage counseling centers for the benefit of Iranian youth. The head of the National Youth Organization of Iran, Hojjat-ul-Islam Hajj Ali Akbari, made it clear that these centers were meant to correspond with the needs of the country’s younger generation for counseling and advice about starting a family.[39]

At the same time, recent years have seen growing oppression of young singles in Iran. In April 2008 the Governor of North Khorasan, Mohammad-Hossein Jahanbakhsh, threatened to fire unmarried men occupying executive positions in the province unless their marital status changed.[40] Similar notions were expressed by an official of the Pars Oil & Gas conglomerate, who vowed to fire any employee that did not marry by September 2008. He explained that marriage and raising a family are among the employment criteria of the company, and therefore all single men and women must perform their religious and moral duty.[41]

A particularly ambitious initiative was a bill to encourage young adults to marry brought before the Majlis in 2013 and passed in November 2015. The Comprehensive Program for Population and Advancement of the Family also aimed to encourage fertility, following the 2012 directive from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to review Iran’s family planning policy in order to halt the aging of the population.

Two of the law’s five major sections are devoted to the marriage crisis. Section 2 details measures for lowering the average age of marriage: education and awareness-raising programs; encouraging employers to hire women for positions suited to “the role of women in the family”; allocating at least 15% of research budgets in academic institutes to the subject of family planning and fertility promotion; building dormitories in universities for married students and mothers; preferring fathers, then married men with children, and then mothers for employment in the private and public sectors; strict limitations on enrolling singles in universities; special government aid for married soldiers and students; discounts and bank loans for young married couples; and housing aid for married couples, primarily those with children.

Section 3 details measures for lowering the divorce rate. These include tougher criteria for qualifying members of the judiciary to deal with family conflicts; heavier involvement of state organizations, including the Basij, in counselling married couples; benefits for lawyers and judges who manage to prevent divorce; and education and awareness-raising campaigns encouraging marriage and cautioning against the severe outcomes of divorce.[42]

The bill was criticized largely by women’s rights advocates, who worried that it would enhance discrimination against women. The harshest criticism was directed at Article 9, which prioritizes the employment of men, whether married or single, over women and particularly unmarried ones. Detractors argued that this would raise the already high rate of unemployment among women, and especially educated ones.[43] Sociologist Shahla Kazemipour explained that the bill offered no solution to the social and economic problems besetting Iran – primarily poverty and unemployment – which are the primary cause of the marriage crisis. She believed that Article 9 would heighten discrimination against women in the job market and noted that it contradicted the declared goal of the law to use “the demographic window of opportunity” for economic development based on the abilities of the younger generation.  

Kazemipour argued that the bill ignored research on the dubious benefits of the proposed couples’ counselling, and warned that insuring only married women would push many single women below the poverty line. Although the proposed bill could slightly improve the wellbeing of married couples, she argued, it would have very limited success in achieving its major goals, as it did not address the root social, economic, and cultural problems troubling Iran’s younger generation.[44]


In a 2012 Intermedia survey of young Iranians, 60% responded that the Islamic Republic should adopt new ways of thinking to guarantee its future. One-third of respondents between the ages of 16 and 25 stated that they would leave Iran if they could.[45] In January 2014, Minister of Science, Research and Technology (RCT) Reza Faraji Dana admitted that approximately 150,000 educated Iranians emigrate abroad every year. At a ceremony honoring winners of Iran’s 18th Scientific Olympiad of Students, the minister described brain drain, also known as “human capital flight,” as the main cause of the current economic losses of developing countries. He stressed that Iran does not oppose students traveling aboard for educational purposes. However, many do not return because suitable conditions are lacking, which causes Iran to suffer significant economic losses.[46]

It appears that 36 years after the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s regime has failed to solve the problems ailing its youth. In 1999, Sadiq Zibakalam, a professor at Tehran university and senior political pundit, claimed that young Iranians are dissatisfied with the achievement of their parents’ generation “and are now asking: ‘What was the revolution all about?’”.[47]

The marriage crisis is a blatant indication of the socioeconomic problems plaguing Iran’s young adults, and the regime’s efforts to resolve it are likely to continue. However, a real resolution will be hard to achieve without improving Iran’s economy. Ongoing financial problems, social change, and increasing Western cultural influence over the younger generation will continue to feed the marriage crisis, which will in turn continue to generate broad public debate and challenge the regime. Unless their problems are adequately addressed, Iran’s young adults – a major agent of change in any society – may instigate another revolution and destabilize the regime.

Vigorous public debate over the marriage crisis in recent years reflects growing recognition on the part of Iran’s religious-conservative establishment that this is a real social phenomenon, and willingness to discuss it in a relatively open manner. The regime is trying to resolve the crisis through education and propaganda, state-controlled media, legislation, and steps to improve the economy. Yet the reasons for Iran’s marriage crisis run deeper than the economy: they are also tied to growing exposure to Western values, primarily through new media and social networks. The regime’s failure to raise the birth rate in recent years attests to the limits of its power over its citizens, and especially the younger ones.

Translator: Michelle Bubis


[1] The young woman’s response was published on Minister Zarif’s Facebook page: See Persian original here:

[3] “Youth in Iran: A Story Half Told, Values, Priorities and Perspectives of Iranian Youth”, Young Public Research Paper 3 Series, no. 1 – Iran (Intermedia, May 2013), .Paper-Series-Iran.pdf 

[4] Iranian daily Tehran Emrooz, October 26, 2013.

[5] Fars News Agency, October 25, 2013,

[6] Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), November 1, 2013.

[7] Tasnim News, January 5, 2016,

[8] Iranian Sociological Association, May 31, 2008,

[9] Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, “Iranian Youth in Times of Economic Crisis”, Iranian Studies, Vol. 44(2011), p. 800.

[10] Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), December 3, 2012,

[11] Alef, January 20, 2013,

[12] Tabnak, July 9, 2011,

[13] Asr Iran, March 11, 2008,

[14] Alef, January 12, 2016,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Farda, January 7, 2016,

[17] Mehr News, February 1, 2016,

[18] Iran Emrooz, July 15, 2013,

[19] Asr Iran, March 11, 2008,

[20] Gooya News, September 26, 2009,

[21] Alef, October 12, 2013,

[22] Asr Iran, May 16, 2013,

[23] Mehr News, February 1, 2016,

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Iranian Couples Are Increasingly Living Together Outside of Marriage”, Global Voices, February 9, 2016,

[26] Iranian Sociological Association, December 3, 2009.

[27] Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), August 25, 2013,

[28] Farda News, December 12, 2009,

[29] Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), August 25, 2013,

[30] Khabar Online, January 27, 2012,

[31] Mehr News, February 1, 2016,

[32] Tabnak, October 27, 2013,

[33] Meliyat, October 10, 2012,

[34] Fars News, December 7, 2008,

[35] Tasnim News, October 23, 2013,

[36] For the bill, see:

[37] JARAS, October 19, 2013,

[38] Farda News, December 13, 2009,

[39] Rasa News, December 3, 2008.

[40] Asr Iran, June 9, 2008, http://w

[41] Aftab News, June 2, 2008,

[42] For the full text of the law, see: Tasnim News, June 16, 2013,

[43] Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), October 21, 2013, 

[44] ILNA, September 30, 2013,

[45] “Youth in Iran: A Story Half Told, Values, Priorities and Perspectives of Iranian Youth”, Young Public Research Paper Series, No. 1 – Iran (Intermedia, May 2013),  

[46] Entekhab, January 7, 2014,

[47] Scott Peterson, “Tug of war to win Iran’s youths”, The Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 1999,

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