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Iran passed restrictions on contraception and abortion. Will that distract protesters from the economy?

Controlling women’s bodies may not work as well this round

- December 21, 2021

While the United States is focused on the question of abortion and the future of Roe v. Wade, another conversation on women’s reproductive rights is taking place across the globe in Iran. Last month, the Iranian government announced new laws further limiting abortions and restricting access to contraception. But, as in the United States, this is not the first time we have seen a government flexing its muscles by attempting to control women’s bodies.

My research on Iran’s sexual revolution helps explain the politics of sexual and reproductive rights in post-revolutionary Iran — and why these rights frequently come under attack. When the Iranian regime feels it’s losing power, leaders tend to focus on policies related to gender and reproduction.

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And what we’re seeing now appears much like the stance of the conservative Islamist hard-liners who were in power in the 1980s, in the early days of the Islamic republic. Recent speeches by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iran’s political and religious head of state — and a protege of republic founding figure Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — mention calls for unity, a need for increased birthrates and warnings about the looming danger of the West.

These speeches suggest that Iran’s leadership is concerned about anti-government protests — which signal waning government popularity among urban and rural Iranians alike. Meanwhile, Khamenei and hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi are restricting access to abortion and contraceptives.

This is a double power move: The government is pushing Iran’s pro-natalist agenda, encouraging a new generation to have more children — and hoping to boost the population of loyal Iranians. Simultaneously, these restrictions allow the government to curtail women’s choices on the timing and spacing of their children, among other things, sending a message to all families about how quickly private privileges can be taken away.

How Iran controls citizen bodies

In the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, the Islamic republic has often prioritized controlling the bodies of its citizens. The Islamic republic was founded on the promise of restoring a “moral order” that would combat “Westoxication” and bring back a sense of “true Iranian-ness” to the country.

One of Khomeini’s first moves after taking power was to enact mandatory veiling laws to cover women’s bodies, to return Iran to a strict interpretation of Islamic laws. Khomeini also put into motion restrictions on any and all sexual relationships outside marriage, as part of morality-based legal codes.

But the government explicitly encouraged reproduction within marriage. In the 1980s new policies aimed to boost the birthrate. Any woman giving birth to more than two children received a tax break, while any family with five or more children was gifted a free plot of land from the government.

The Islamic regime wanted a new generation that would be loyal to the Islamic republic — and this effort produced a population boom, though these Iranians are now among those most disenchanted with the regime. In the 1970s, Iran’s crude birthrate (CBR) averaged about 40 births per 1,000 people. Within the first three years of the Islamic republic, this number shot up to 50 births per 1,000 people and then reached a height of 60 in 1984. Iran called those born during this period “Children of the Revolution” and believed this generation would help transform the nation.

Many of Iran’s priorities — and restrictions — loosened considerably in the late 1990s, when reformist president Mohammad Khatami came to power. Notably, Khatami supported the creation of an infrastructure that allowed for the dispersal of free contraceptives for all married people.

During my fieldwork, I observed that these clinics would offer support to anyone who walked through the door — regardless of marital status. Iran’s reformists also created mandatory sex education laws for all couples wishing to get married and allowed for abortions “in the case of saving a woman’s life.”

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Iran’s crude birthrate dropped dramatically to a low of 17 births per 1,000 in 1998, only a year after Khatami entered office. The young people I interviewed between 2000 and 2005 reported that contraceptive use had doubled among their peers and that the numbers of “back door” abortions decreased dramatically.

A frustrated generation

Over the last two decades, the “Children of the Revolution” — Iranians now age 25 to 42 — have grown increasingly frustrated with the regime. Discontent has increased with spiking gas prices, a 40 percent unemployment rate and the heavy weight of sanctions hitting home.

When I began my fieldwork in 1999, it was mostly young, urban Iranians who articulated disenchantment with the regime. The Islamist government tried to cement its rule through a moral code that included clamping down on sexual and reproductive rights and any socializing across genders. Iran’s young people resisted with what they called a sexual revolution — pushing back their headscarves and engaging in sexual activities outside marriage. They attacked the regime by attacking that fabric of morality under which the regime was exercising its power.

But by 2017, it was no longer just young people in cities like Tehran, Shiraz or Isfahan who were voicing their frustration with the regime. Iranians throughout the country are wary of Raisi, one of the country’s most conservative leaders to date. Since his victory, Iranians have been pushing back hard by organizing labor movements and widespread strikes, such as one this year by oil workers. Iranians overseas have also been pushing for global visibility for Iran’s human rights issues and economic missteps, appealing to the United Nations and other international organizations for increased pressure on the regime and an end to sanctions.

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Iran’s president and supreme leader both appear to be scrambling to respond to demands for change, including demands to improve the economy and increase jobs. Unable to meet these pleas, they are attempting to deflect attention with these new laws.

When the government is pushed up against a wall, its traditional response has been to turn the focus of the population to women’s bodies. And that’s exactly what appears to be happening now. Those who view the current moment only through the lens of politics and the economy, without understanding the politics of sexuality, are missing something critically important about the nature of today’s Iran.

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Pardis Mahdavi is the dean of social sciences and a professor at Arizona State University. She is the author of the forthcoming book “This Goes Out to the Underground” (Hachette Book Group, 2022). Follow her on Twitter @pardismahdavi.