In the United States, conversations surrounding birth control and abortion access are controversial, heavily politicized and deeply infused with debates about religion. In Iran, a state known as a rival to the US, perceived as a threat to both American security and American values, the debates around family planning and women’s healthcare are…not very different from the ones we have here. The history of Iran and the US, and the western hemisphere at large, is much more nuanced than just two worlds colliding, and gaining an understanding of that history makes modern day global politics a little less overwhelming, and makes the Iranian people easier to recognize as just that: people. In this blog, I will be discussing the history of those interactions between Iranian and western leadership and how gloabal politics are manifested in the modern regulation of Iranian women’s bodies. Specifically, I will be focusing on women’s healthcare policy regarding birth control and abortion access in post-revolutionary Iran.
Before we discuss policy, we should talk about how the Iranian government works. In Iran, the government is made of a combination of highly educated Muslim Shi’i clerics, known as the ‘ulama, who sit on the Islamic Guardian council and elected officials, who serve in the Iranian parliament. Additionally, the Iranian Supreme Leader sits at the top of the Iranian power structure, is the highest-ranking cleric in the state and is not elected by the public. There are more actors involved, which you can learn about here, but for the sake of brevity, this is what we will focus on. The ‘ulama have the power to veto policy passed by parliament, due to the value Iran has placed on creating a state that can be recognized as thoroughly Islamic. It is worth noting that this alone is a thoroughly modern notion, because the world has never seen a nation-state whose government is so deeply intertwined with religious leadership. So, how did we get here?
Shi’i Muslims believe that their true leader after the Prophet Muhammad, known as an Imam, is in occultation, or in hiding, and will return when the time is right. This means that any government overseeing a Shi’i populace can never be truly legitimate because its constituency sees that government as merely a temporary solution until the Imam’s return. In the meantime, the Shi’i ‘ulama in Iran is focused on making sure that the regime in charge, whether it be a monarchy or democracy, rules in the appropriate Islamic manner. For several centuries, the ‘ulama has been able to remove leaders from power when they have felt that said leader is not ruling in a way that appropriately represents the will of the Imam.
This religious oversight was dismantled through imperial meddling from major western powers, including Russia, Great Britain and later the US, during the twentieth century. These powers wanted to maintain access to Iranian oil reserves as cheaply as possible. To do this, European leaders imposed a new, pro-West secular regime, known as the Pahlavi dynasty, that would sell out the Iranian public and violently repress any forms of opposition. When the Iranian public attempted to overthrow this regime in favor of democratic reform, the CIA executed a coup d’état and reinstated the Pahlavis in 1953.
During the 1960s and 70s, Dr. Ali Shari‘ati, an Iranian Islamic theorist, commanded public attention with his controversial views on Islam and the future of Iran. In his work, he saw Islam as an all-encompassing “ideology,” rather than merely religion reserved for the private sphere. He discussed ideas of unity, and argued that while Shi’is were waiting for the return of the Imam, “they had to pave the way for [his return] by bringing about a just and pious society,” but that would not be possible under the repressive Pahlavis. In 1979, inspired by Shari‘ati, the Iranian public took their resistance to the streets, and the world bore witness to the Islamic Revolution. Unfortunately, Shari‘ati would never see this revolution, as he passed away in exile in 1977, but his messages echo in Iranian politics to this day.
After the Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini came into power and the Islamic Republic based on Shi’ism was pieced together, reestablishing the political role of the ‘ulama. During his tenure as Supreme Leader, Khomeini took Dr. Shari‘ati’s ideas of Islam as an all-encompassing ideology to heart. In order to establish a thoroughly Muslim society, Khomeini and other revolutionary leaders were tasked with codifying Shari’a law to create a new Iranian constitution, which meant formally deciding what was and was not Islamic. This left little room for plurality of interpretation or practice. Additionally, Khomeini advocated to bring traditionally private debates into the public sphere in order to engage Muslims and create a more pious society. Additionally, Khomeini, advocated for an “expediency-driven ijtihād,” which refers to interpretation of sacred texts for the purpose of jurisprudence. He was focused on answering the questions of the people quickly and definitively. By creating spaces for public “debate” among clerics, this meant drawing more lines about Islam, Shi’ism, and what it meant to be an Iranian citizen.
For Iranian women, not only did the new constitution mean that their identities as Muslims were restricted and regulated, but their bodies were, too. Since the Revolution, abortion has been debated heavily, but the regime took decades to pass meaningful legislation that would increase access to abortion services. That is not to say that abortions were not happening in Iran. Between 1995 and 2000, over two and a half million unsafe abortions were performed in Iran, and 5,697 of the women who underwent those procedures died from complications. This was the highest maternal mortality rate from unsafe abortions in the entire Middle East and North Africa region. Abortion was forbidden until the passage of 1991 law that states that abortion is strictly prohibited except when it is necessary to save the life of the woman. In 2005, the Iranian parliament passed a law that would allow abortions in cases of “fetal impairment” as well as risk to the woman’s life, but the law was rejected by the Guardian Council. In 2007, abortion in cases of “fetal deformity” was legalized. That is not to say that abortion services are easily accessible for women, as Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi outlines here:
“The deformity of the fetus in these cases has to be certified by three licensed physicians, and the parents must prove that raising a special-needs child would pose upon them undue emotional and financial burdens.”
For women in more rural communities, or with limited resources, jumping through these hoops is no easy task, and can force women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, which can come with serious mental health consequences, or to seek out “back alley” abortion services, which are extremely dangerous, both physically and emotionally.
Regarding birth control access, the options for Iranian women are not nearly as bleak. Iranian discussions surrounding birth control and Islam are rooted in evidence that coitus interruptus, also known as the pull-out method, was allowed during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. About a decade the Revolution, Iran faced an economic crisis due, in part, to its rapidly growing population and an inability to meet the basic needs of that population. As Khomeini had advocated for expedient ijtihad in the past, he quick to respond. He discussed the important role of family planning while leading a Friday prayer, and ratified a national birth control policy in 1989, expanding access to the masses.
The way we regulate bodies and determine who is worthy of bodily autonomy is a thoroughly modern discussion. In the Iranian context, the processes that determines how women access healthcare is a consequence of a long history of being imperialized. In the process of reestablishing a unique national identity, Iranian women have been sidelined when it comes to accessing healthcare, much like women in the US. The similarities are striking between two states who claim to have nothing in common, but for women in both countries, the uncertainty surrounding healthcare access is frustrating at best, and can have deadly consequences at worst. Perhaps a unique feminine modernity will include healthcare access for all.
 Hamid Algar, “Iran and Shi’ism” in Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Four Lectures by Hamid Algar (Oneonta, NY: Islamic Publications International, 2001), 20.
 Ibid., 25.
 Ibid., 28.
 Hamid Algar, “Islam as Ideology: The Thought of Ali Shari`at” in Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Four Lectures by Hamid Algar (Oneonta, NY: Islamic Publications International, 2001), 93.
 Ibid., 96.
 Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, “Women’s Rights, “Shari’a” Law, and the Secularization of Islam in Iran.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 26, no. 3 (2013): 237, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24713369.
 Ibid., 241.
 Ibid., 240.
 Ibid., 80.
 Ibid., 303.
 Ibid., 308.
Algar, Hamid. “Iran and Shi’ism.” In Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Four Lectures by Hamid Algar, 13-46. Oneonta, NY: Islamic Publications International, 2001.
Algar, Hamid. “Islam as Ideology: The Thought of Ali Shari`at.” In Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Four Lectures by Hamid Algar, 85-117. Oneonta, NY: Islamic Publications International, 2001.
Aydin, Cemil. The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.
Cavna, Michael. “Iranian Artist Farghadani, Who Drew Parliament as Animals, Sentenced to 12-plus Years.” The Washington Post. June 01, 2015. Accessed April 27, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2015/06/01/iranian-artist-farghadani-who-drew-parliament-as-animals-sentenced-to-12-plus-years/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.af988154e767.
Ghamari-Tabrizi, Behrooz. “Women’s Rights, “Shari’a” Law, and the Secularization of Islam in Iran.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 26, no. 3 (2013): 237-53. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24713369.
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Moinifar, Heshmat Sadat. “Religious Leaders and Family Planning in Iran.” Iran & the Caucasus 11, no. 2 (2007): 299-313. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25597339.