Child marriage is a central theme in the latest season of the TV series Capital that is being aired by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). But many of the show’s viewers, whether children’s rights activists or just commenters on social media, have criticized this; they say that the storyline follows the policies and attitudes of the Islamic Republic, allowing under-age marriage, and that national television is now promoting these ideas. Children’s rights activities especially say that child marriage is just a mask for child molestation.
The issue has a long history. Several members of parliament have, at various times, tried to raise the minimum marriage age. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Islamic Republic first set the age of marriage at 9 for girls and 13 for boys, but civil rights activists pushed for changes in the law and the ages were raised to 13 for girls and 15 for boys. But legal provisions still allow the minimum age to be bypassed if a child’s guardian or a court of law allows it.
Now some current MPs are trying to raise the minimum age of marriage for girls to 15 and do away with the legal loopholes. But so far they have gotten nowhere.
The Definition Confusion
In developed countries, 18 is considered the minimum age of adulthood, when an individual is physically and mentally mature enough to make his or her own personal, political, cultural, financial and social decisions. But under the Islamic Republic, such definitions do not follow the same standard, or even the same standards across the country. Individuals under 18 are considered children by the military draft system. In the labor laws, however, a child is anybody under 15, while Iran’s Statistics Center counts children over 10 years of age as part of the workforce. Government agencies are banned from hiring anybody under 18 and the national insurance system considers people over 16 as adults.
Children rights’ experts believe that this confusion distorts and perverts how children are viewed and treated.
Ali Tayefi, a sociologist and children’s rights activist, believes the term “marriage” is inappropriate when applied to children under 18. Tayefi argues that such minors have been forced into marrying, through family or cultural pressure, while they are not yet sufficiently mature to accept family and social responsibilities. The result is that these children lose their chance for education and advancement. He says the proper term is not that they are “married” but that they have been “raped.”
Tayefi says that a girl of 13, who has been forced to marry a man between 20 and 70, lacks the ability to choose and cannot even understand what kind of world she has entered.
“This child is neither sexually educated nor does she have the physical or mental capacity to enter into a sexual relationship,” Tayefi says. “This one-way sexual relation is rape and its consequences are also the consequences of rape,” meaning that such children lose their self-confidence, become isolated and fall under the control and domination of their much older husband and the prevalent beliefs of society.
Tayefi, who is not currently based in Iran, says that when he was in Iran he would visit medical research centers and read about many graphic cases of how the sexual organs of very young girls were damaged by sexual relations with adult men.
“The sexual organs of a girl child are not elastic enough to deal with the various sizes of male organs,” Tayefi says. “These children become pregnant at a very early age and have to go through dangerous childbirths that often leads to the death of the mother, the child or both. These girls and their children also later suffer from health problems like malnutrition.”
The mental consequences are no less serious. For many of young girls, the sexual relationship turns into a permanent trauma.
“Now imagine that, while they are pregnant, these children are either divorced or their rapist [husband] dies,” says Tayefi. “They are left by themselves without education and without legal or financial support.”
Tayefi’s point is simple. The legal definition of marriage is a contract between two sides who have the necessary knowledge, the ability to choose and are rational. But when one side is a child, the child lacks these capacities and is not yet socially, physically or mentally able enter such a contract. Therefore, it cannot be considered a “marriage” but a form of rape and child molestation.
Tayefi emphasizes that the rape of children, under cover of marriage, is also wrapped within a complex experience of violence “from verbal and mental to physical, social and cultural.”
“Many mothers take the side of fathers,” Tayefi adds, “and take away the right of protest from their children, especially from the girls, telling them to be silent. It is here that small girls are socially mutilated. When a girl is trying to escape from her husband, but he catches and rapes her, she cannot even protest. Her only option is to yield to this rape that is called marriage. The married life that starts with the rape of this child is the end of her life.”
Preserving Men’s Power
“Seeing women as vehicles for procreation and as tools to preserve men’s power in the family has, of course, a long history,” Tayefi says.
“In this context, the woman’s only role is to give birth to children. By imposing marriage and rape on a child they want to guarantee the she will be fertile for longer. In other words, she is exploited and used to transfer men’s power to the next generation. In this context, women are mere tools for passing on this power. Of course, boys are also damaged,” Tayefi adds, because they grow up thinking this is normal.
Tayefi says the questions of rape-as-marriage and pedophilia are intertwined. “Consider sexual relations between a girl of 13 and a man of 25,” he says. “This is pedophilia because the child cannot defend herself. I have talked to many people who have been raped as children. When that happened they either thought they were playing a game or tried to escape the violator.”
The question of age difference in sexual relations has been studied and discussed extensively in developed countries. In some of these countries, sexual relations among people with the same age are not problematic and it is left to them and their own judgement when to become sexually active. At the same time, children receive education at school to learn about their bodies and the bodies of the opposite sex.
“Children [in other countries] are taught how to manage their sexual behavior,” says Tayefi. “Based on their laws, children between 16 and 21 can have sexual relations but a 22-year-old man has no such right, because society has judged that a child of 16 cannot defend herself when dealing with a man of 30. Such a relation would be unequal and harmful to the child.”
Laws Are Crucial
Tayefi argues that laws play a crucial role – and that by telling society about the “ugliness” of what happens because of child marriages, families might think and lawmakers might take the issue more seriously.
“The work must start with changing the law,” he says. “You cannot wait for culture to change. It might take 200 years and, in the meantime, thousands of children would be sacrificed. By changing the law and by providing punishments for violating children, we can make it clear that child marriage is not a marriage but a rape.”
According to Tayefi, every year 10% of marriages in Iran involve children under 18. In other words, 10% of marriages should in fact be understood as legalized rape. “This is something that must be made illegal,” he says, because it also leads to “illiteracy, addiction and poverty,” a vicious cycle that repeats itself in the next generation.
In the existing religious, political, legal and cultural context, airing a TV series like Capital by IRIB — a series made by an organization affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards — can only make the problem worse.
The issue of child marriage should also be viewed in the context of policies for increasing the population of Iran, something that is constantly promoted by the authorities and especially by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is another instance of looking at women as mere tools for bearing children.
In the face of this criticism, the actors on Capital have scrambled to say that, in the end, the series will make its doubts about child marriage clear. But no matter what, numerous children continue to be sacrificed to a primitive and inhuman practice.