Defending the Right to Bodily Integrity for Iranian Women

Defending the Right to Bodily Integrity for Iranian Women - Civic Space

In recent years there have been continuous debates on a woman’s right to choose. From abortion debates throughout the world, to the current Hobby Lobby protests in the US. Women are constantly demanding to maintain autonomy over their bodies without intrusions from patriarchal governments. It is thus not surprising that this issue is even more pronounced in Iran were a woman’s body has historically been used as a political weapon.

Iran is notorious for its altering stance on abortion depending on the regime in power. Since the 1979 revolution abortion has been strictly forbidden in Iran, safe for exceptional cases of health threats endangering the mother or foetus. In such cases there is still a need to obtain an official abortion permit at a public hospital. Due to the bans and limited choices, more and more women are resorting to illegal and often dangerous abortion methods on the black and underground market. In January of this year Dr. Mohammad Esmaeel Motlagh, director of the Health and Population Bureau of Iran’s Ministry of Health, was the first Iranian official to present statistics related to illegal and underground abortions in Iran. The report noted that estimated number of illegal abortions taking place in Iran over the course of an average year is around 250,000; bringing it to an hourly average of 28.5 cases. The report also indicated that this rate has tripled over the last 15 years.  At the time when this report was published, Motlagh emphasised that “the Ministry of Health is simply obligated to provide overall health to both mothers and infants, and it has no agenda regarding the rate of increase or decrease in the national population.”

With the increasing hostile climate in Iran, economic difficulties, unemployment and a rise in depression, we can expect to see an augmented demand for these underground abortion procedures. If from a wealthier background, you have the option to consult the more established physicians that are agreeing to illegally preform abortion for a hefty price. Yet, if you are not able to pay these exigent amounts, you are forced to consult unsanitary procedures or medications that may cause permanent damage to your body, as there is simply no other choice. People have realised that with smaller families there is a better opportunity to provide for their children’s education and grant them an ability to maintain a level of financial stability.

Since the 1980’s Iran has experienced the largest and fastest drop in fertility ever recorded; from about seven births per woman to fewer than two. It is no secret, nor is it complex to see that this drop has been a result of the Islamic government. In the late 1980s, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader, issued fatwas making birth control readily available and thus acceptable to conservative Muslims. Until then, Khomeini had fostered a baby boom to produce soldiers for the war against Iraq. After the war, however, he had realised that the Iranian economy could no longer support this rapidly growing population. So, alternations were made in another attempt to manipulate the most intimate of affairs – reproduction. Under his new decrees, contraceptives (regardless how they were viewed under religious theory) became obtainable free at government clinics and thousands of new rural health centres, which were granting compulsory “family planning” consultations. This naturally caused an increased cultural awareness of the benefits of contraception. The birth-rate indeed plunged, but it also ushered in social changes, particularly in the role of women. The empowerment of women became the unintentional side-effect of these policies.

Regardless of this enablement, Iranian women still have minimal legal rights compared to men. There is an attempt to regulate every aspect of their lives, from jobs they can hold, to what they can wear and what events are acceptable for them to attend. Yet, this has not stopped the ever battling women of Iran from becoming dominant figures in the country. For example, in public universities, female students now outnumber males 65% to 35%, leading to calls in parliament for affirmative action for men – women are even postponing childbirth to further their education and careers.

With the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, however, the government sought to counter this trend in women’s empowerment and generate ideals for bigger families. For him this was a diplomatic and political gesture: increasing the country’s population of 75 million to 150 million would enable Iran to threaten the West. To further his agenda he denounced the contraceptive program as “a prescription for extinction,” and called on Iranian girls to marry no later than 16 or 17, offering bonuses of more than $950 for each child. Although, this failed to alter the mind-sets of Iran’s self-aware women.

More recently, under President Rouhani’s administration, we have seem more attempts in the regulation of women’s freedom of expression – whether Rouhani has the ability to counter this is an issue of heated debate – and the right to have control over the lives. Regardless of Mr. Motlagh’s address stressing that the Health Ministry does not intend to dabble in the population rates in Iran, last week the Iranian parliament passed a new legislation that would criminalise sterilisations and any form of permanent contraception (including vasectomies). It also allows for a more strict enforcement of the abortion bans.

This new law creates unduly lengthy prison terms for offenders. The most concerning aspect of this ban is that it does not specify who will be liable to criminal proceeding – patients or their healthcare providers. It is not difficult to see that this law will disproportionately affect women, forcing them to take routes that risk their health.   It is again another tool created to battle the countries decreasing population. The Iranian lawmaker, Mohammed Davatgari, in opposing the legislation, warned: “passing this bill will definitely lead to illegal procedures in dark corridors and unregulated offices.” He also noted that the decreasing population is not due to the availability of contraceptive methods, but rather a part of deep-seated socio-economic problems in Iran: “We have to take cultural action and I’m pleading with the speaker of parliament that we cannot force people to have children with prison terms and lashes.”

An obvious move to further snub women’s rights in Iran, Thomas Erdbrink, notes that “it will make them (women) more financially dependent on their husbands and the political system, prioritise the family’s well-being over women’s health and education and as a result of all these will make women’s mobilization much more difficult.”

Dr. Motlagh has pleaded against this legislation which he sees will affect the health of mothers and children and also be detrimental to Citizen’s Rights. Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, the spokesperson of Rouhani’s administration, has also rightly called the parliamentary bans on different methods of birth control a “possible violation of human rights”. These violations to basic human rights in Iran need to be urgently addressed. Reproduction cannot be forced, and Iranians have demonstrated that they will not cripple under the pressures to conform to these unreasonable reproductive demands.