First Published: 2017-03-19

Iran 'affection' leaves thousands of men in jail
Thousands of Iranian men face ruin, prison from 'mehrieh' (affection) system in which husbands agree to pay certain number of gold coins in event of divorce.
Middle East Online

Iranian couple sit in a park in the capital Tehran

TEHRAN - When Sadegh married his college sweetheart, he never thought he'd end up as one of those Iranians facing ruin and even prison because of huge sums demanded by his wife's family.

But the "mehrieh" ("affection") system, in which future husbands agree to pay a certain number of gold coins to the bride in the event of divorce, has left thousands of men in Iran languishing in jail and many more destitute.

"Our mehrieh was high, around 800 gold coins, but when we were planning the wedding, we didn't think about how it might end," said Sadegh, who was divorced last year after eight years of marriage.

Each gold coin is worth around 10 million rials ($300). A worker on Iran's average wage would need 50 years to earn 800 gold coins.

"Even when the problems started and we talked about separation, it was supposed to be mutual and no mehrieh was going to be paid," said Sadegh, who spoke on condition that his full name not be used.

But then his wife's family got involved, and suddenly Sadegh found himself in court where he was told to pay 110 coins immediately or go to jail.

"The thought of ending up in prison for this, like in the movies, seemed ridiculous," he said.

"Mehrieh is good as a financial support for women in a patriarchal society like Iran, but it has become a business."

Pleading he was broke, the judge brokered a deal in which Sadegh agreed to pay the equivalent of 120 coins, one per month.

That meant a decade of payments, each taking just under half his photographer's salary.

Then, five months in, he lost his job.

- 'Sword over man's head' -

It could have been even worse. At last count, the judiciary said some 2,297 men were in jail for failing to pay their mehrieh after a divorce.

A glimmer of hope surfaced this week in Tehran, where a ceremony was held to celebrate the work of donors who pay off the debts of prisoners as a show of Islamic charity.

They have freed 1,700 mehrieh-convicts over the past year.

"Unfortunately, today competition among families has led to ever-increasing mehrieh," said Hadi Sadeghi, a cleric and judiciary official who helps coordinate the releases.

He said mehrieh, whose level is negotiated by the families at the time of a couple's engagement as per ancient Islamic custom, had lost its simple traditional function as a form of dowry for the newly-weds to buy furniture.

Now the payment is usually delayed and brandished against men as a threat in case of divorce, or even worse, is used by unscrupulous families for extortion.

"The worst case is when families turn it into a business. Boys need to be careful not to be deceived," said the cleric.

"Using mehrieh as a sword over the man's head is wrong too. It only leads to more arguments and divorces."

Officials agree that mehrieh has in recent decades degenerated into a status symbol, and that families are often just too stubborn to back down when a marriage falls apart.

"Many families, when they go to wed their girls, their first question is mehrieh," said Alireza Afsary, who runs a foundation supporting prisoners.

"Some laws need to be amended and some cultural and social issues need to change."

The courts have tried to intervene, saying they will only force husbands to pay a maximum of 110 gold coins, but even this is beyond the means of many Iranians.

- Way to redress balance -

Still, many women see mehrieh as a way of redressing the balance for divorced women, who are often shunned by society.

Some exchange mehrieh for promises they will be allowed to work or study, or have child custody in the event of a divorce.

"A woman who gets married is always afraid of not having real rights at the time of separation, so she tries to guarantee her rights through mehrieh," said Safi, a married woman in her 20s.

But all agree it has done nothing to slow soaring divorce rates in Iran as the country modernises and women enjoy increased freedoms. There were more than 165,000 this year, up 15 percent compared to five years ago.

"If they are looking for ways to support women, and for men to show loyalty to their families, they should have new rules... for example giving them a legal right to half the man's property," said another young woman, Shima, 28.

As for Sadegh, he is trapped, still having to come up with 10 million rials a month despite being unemployed. He missed the last payment. The threat of prison hangs heavy over him.

"We were classmates and were together for a year or two before marriage. Her family said they have a tradition of high mehrieh and couldn't reduce it. My family tried to refuse, but I loved her so we didn't insist.

"We thought everything was going to go on smoothly forever."

 

Kurds ready for contentious vote in Iraq

The high cost of Syria’s destruction

Iran defies US, tests missile

Yemen's Hadi says military solution 'most likely'

The Sahara Forest Project, Jordan’s innovative water scheme

Palestinian negotiator awaits lung transplant in US

A Kurdish state: Reality or utopia?

Saudi intercepts missile fired from Yemen

Saudi Arabia marks national day with fireworks, concerts

Turkey warns of 'security' steps in response to Iraqi Kurd vote

Barzani delays Kurdish independence vote announcement

Syria's war off the radar at UN assembly

For many Iraqis, tradition trumps police

Darfur clashes kill 3 as Bashir urges reconciliation

Saudi cleric banned for saying women have ‘quarter’ brain

Veteran Syrian activist, daughter assassinated in Istanbul

Tunisia drops forced anal exams for homosexuality

Bomb used in Saudi-led strike on Yemen children US-made

Syria Kurds vote to cement federal push

Police charge teenager over London Underground attack

Nigerian official to meet Turkish counterpart over illegal guns

Thousands feared trapped in Raqa as IS mounts last stand

Iraqi forces achieve first step in new offensive on IS

Migrant boat sinks off Turkish Black Sea coast leaving four dead, 20 missing

Trump praises 'friend' Erdogan

Yemen leader promises UN to open entire country to aid

Rouhani vows Iran will boost missiles despite US criticism

Russia clashes with EU over Syria

UN Security Council warns against holding Iraqi Kurd vote

UN sets up probe of IS war crimes in Iraq

US, Iranian top diplomats confront each other for first time

Air strikes kill 22 civilians in northwest Syria in 48 hours

Iranian supreme leader lashes out at Trump UN speech

Thousands of Huthi supporters mark 3 years since Sanaa takeover

Iraq attacks all remaining IS territory at once

Moscow accuses US of hitting Syrian regime forces

Turkey jails lawyers representing hunger striking teachers

Turkey, Iran and Iraq make joint threat against Kurd vote

Syrian Kurds to hold first local elections in federal push

Qatari expats lauded as statesmen by Arab critics

Shipwreck off Libyan coast leaves over 100 migrants missing

Will Turkey’s opposition to Kurdish state translate into action?

US ups the ante on Iraq Kurds

Macron: Iran nuclear deal no longer enough

Trump’s mind made up on Iran but refuses to divulge