At an October meeting of young Iranian-American leaders at the residence of the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, I asked Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif about the country’s unfair nationality laws. By these statutes, no Iranian woman married to a non-Iranian man can pass on her citizenship to her children, whereas an Iranian man can pass it on not only to his children, but also to a non-Iranian wife.
Much to my surprise, Zarif said redress of this imbalance is highly important to him. He expressed disappointment and frustration that just the week before Iran’s parliament, the Majles, had voted down a bill that would have given Iranian women the right to pass on citizenship. Forty-nine signatories presented the bill in late September, and by a margin of 140-36, the deputies agreed to put the measure to a vote in less than a week’s time. Despite the seeming urgency, and despite reports that the reform enjoyed majority support, in the end, only 74 MPs voted in favor of the bill, with 84 votes against and 12 abstentions.
If the draft law had such firm backing, what accounts for the sudden about-face?
Iran’s nationality law long predates the Islamic Republic—it was enacted under the Pahlavi monarchy in 1929. For the duration of Pahlavi rule, women were not allowed to pass on citizenship, and the Islamic Republic kept the restrictions in place. In 2006, out of concern for an estimated 120,000 children born in Iran who are not citizens, the Majles amended the civil code. The amendment sought to clarify the conditions under which children born in Iran to an Iranian woman and a foreign man could attain Iranian citizenship. It was only a tentative step forward. The 2006 law does recognize such a right for Iranian women, but not across the board. Its biggest drawbacks are that 1) it applies only to children born in Iran and 2) it does not account for children (even Iranian-born) who are born into unregistered marriages, out of wedlock or to a stateless father.
Iranian women inside Iran, as well as the adult children of those born to non-Iranian fathers in Iran, have been pushing to change the nationality laws for decades. In 2015, however, there was a new groundswell of support for reform, because the wives of Iranian diplomats swung behind it. These women have befriended others living in the diaspora, especially Iranian women married to diplomats from other nations. Through these relationships, they have witnessed the bias in the law, as their friends are forced to apply for visas for their children at the embassies where their husbands work in order to visit family in Iran. As the wife of one Iranian diplomat who had spent time in various East Asian countries told me, “All of us could see how frustrating it was for our friends to go through these extra hurdles to get their children to Iran. This law is not fair and it needs to change.” Another woman whose husband was stationed in Latin America said, “God knows there are many laws in Iran in relation to women that need changing, but this is one that sticks out and seems to have an easier fix than the others. There is no real reason why this law should continue to exist today.” The wives of Iran’s diplomatic corps have exerted pressure on both their husbands and lawmakers back home.
And yet the bill failed to pass. One of its main foes was President Hassan Rouhani’s deputy interior minister, Hossein Ali Amiri. He delivered a speech on the day of the final vote, stating his opposition in terms of national security, with reference to the wars not far from Iran’s borders. “This plan will lead to an increase in immigration and illegal marriages in the country,” he declared. Another major concern for opponents of reform was that some 400,000 to 1 million people in Iran do not have citizenship despite having Iranian mothers. The majority of these undocumented men and women are the offspring of Afghan fathers in mixed marriages. In 2010, the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants’ Affairs estimated that in addition to the 30,000 registered marriages between Iranian women and Afghan men, there are roughly 32,000 additional unregistered marriages in the country. Most of the unregistered couples are poor, adding to the government’s fear of the costs of granting these children citizenship rights, which would make them eligible to receive benefits under social welfare programs. The talk of economic and “national security” masks the massive discrimination in Iranian society against Afghan refugees and their children.
Despite the defeat in the Majles, Zarif stated in New York that there is critical mass in the political echelons of the Islamic Republic to change the law, particularly given the many Iranian women in the diaspora who have married non-Iranians. It remains an open question, and a crucial one, whether whatever reform is achieved will include the children of Afghan refugee fathers in Iran.