The Family Law in Iran was codified in 1928 and 1935 as part of the Iranian Civil Code. The law set a legal age requirement for marriage, prohibiting the marriage of girls under 13 and requiring court permission for the marriage of those under 15. In 1931, a separate legislation, known as the Marriage Law (qanun-I izdivaj) was enacted; it made marriage subject to state provisions and required the registration of all marriages and divorces in civil registrars. The law of 1931 expanded the grounds on which women could initiate divorce proceedings and required such actions to be brought before civil courts rather than Islamic sharia courts.
In 1967, the Family Protection Law (qanun-I himaya-I khanivada) was enacted. This law was considered a departure from the traditional Islamic sharia. It abolished the husband’s rights to extra-judicial divorce and polygamy, and increased the age of marriage to 15 for females and 18 for males. The law established special religious tribunals, headed by judges trained in modern jurisprudence. This law was criticized by Muslim clergy, calling it un-Islamic, and was regarded in violation of Islamic shria principles.
In 1975, the Family Protection Law was replaced by another law carrying the same title. This law increased the minimum age of marriage from 15 to 18 for females and from 18 to 20 for males, and provided the courts with discretionary power to decide cases involving child custody, disregarding Islamic sharia provisions.
Following the Iranian revolution or 1979 under Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989), the Family Protection Law was annulled and replaced by the Special Civil Court Act. The new law was entirely enacted in compliance with the Shiite law of ithnai Ashar (Twelvers), the courts are empowered to deal with a whole range of family issues, including divorce. According to the new law, legal marriage for girls plummeted to nine; 15 for boys, and members of the Iranian society were strictly segregated along gender lines. Women were forced to put hijab and were not allowed to appear in public with a man who was not a husband or a direct relation such as brother, father, or son. Women could be stoned to death for adultery, which incidentally, includes being raped. But the reformists under former president, Khatami, allowed single women to study abroad and raised the legal age for marriage from nine to 13 for girls. However, a woman’s testimony in Iran is worth half that of a man in court and in the case of blood money that a murderer’s family is obliged to pay to the family of the victim, females are estimated at half the value of a male.
In mid 2007, the government of Ahmadi Najad began enforcing restrictive laws; women wearing too much make-up and not enough scarf were arrested; they were first banned from attending the country’s popular soccer matches held in public stadiums, but later, under pressure, the president allowed women to attend the games on the ground that their presence would be “morally uplifting” and make the men behave better.
The new law requires marriage and divorce to be registered with the courts; the husband has unconditional right to divorce his wife for which he needs not to give any reason and his wife is almost certain to lose custody of her children. The new law allows the wife to divorce her husband under khul’, and even then she would have to present to the court a power of attorney from the husband allowing her to divorce herself on behalf of her husband. A woman is allowed to seek divorce if her husband was insane, impotent or infertile, absent from home without reason, imprisoned, or unable to support his wife. A woman seeking divorce in Iran must provide the court with supporting evidence to get a divorce decree.
Iranian Muslim couples faced with a divorce situation in the United States, see themselves in a dual process of having to go through civil as well as religious divorce, especially for a Muslim woman; she is prohibited by Islamic sharia from marrying a non-Muslim man unless he converts. Divorced Muslim men and women must obtain an additional religious divorce decree from Muslim authorities should he or she decides to remarry in compliance with sharia; civil divorce alone is not recognized in Islam. Under Islamic sharia, a Muslim woman or man is still considered married even though she or he has obtained a civil divorce. Failure to obtain an Islamic divorce before remarrying, the woman would be considered adulterous and might risk her life if she travels to a country where stoning for adultery is still in place, such as Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia.
American Muslim men with Iranian passports may choose to go back to Iran and obtain a fast track divorce in that country. They get divorce decree by stating three times, “I divorce my wife” in the presence of two male witnesses, show proof of the “mahr” payment, record the divorce in Iran, authenticate the documents, return back to the U.S. and seek recognition of the Iranian divorce in a state court. Divorce obtained in Iran is less expensive to the husband; women get the amount of “mahr” as stipulated in the marriage contract, usually less than what a U.S court may rule on, and the divorce is obtained in a short time, without having to hire an attorney. Islamic divorce does not allow women to receive compensation other than the amount of “mahr” she and her family agreed upon before her marriage.
State courts in the U.S. deal with Islamic divorce obtained overseas on the basis of “comity”, a discretionary doctrine that governs the recognition of divorce rendered by the courts of a foreign country. Although occasionally, courts in England and the United States use the term “international comity” in the meaning of general international law, the more accepted concept of this doctrine defines it as rules of courtesy or goodwill which states observe in their mutual relations without any sense of legal obligations under international law. The desire for a Muslim man to obtain divorce from Iran and have it recognized and enforced in the United States, is generally entitled to recognition if it was valid and effective in Iran, and that Iran was the residence or domicile of both parties or at least one party. In other cases, recognition in the United States of a divorce obtained in Iran will depend on the way the divorce was obtained by mail, by default, by phone, or upon the appearance of both parties. A divorce obtained in Iran should not violate U.S. public policy and cannot be “repugnant” to major principles of U.S. law. State courts have the sole competent to recognize or to deny recognition of a divorce decree obtained in Iran.
Although divorce recognition within the United States is dependent on the concept of domicile, an Iranian divorce may be recognized where both parties appear in the action, even in the absence of domicile. In New Hampshire, a Muslim husband secured a Lebanese divorce, based on Islamic sharia by declaring that he pronounced the divorce of his wife by saying three times “I divorce you” in her presence and by going to Lebanon to consult an attorney and sign divorce papers. The New Hampshire family court refused to recognize the Lebanese ex parte divorce. The court reasoned that the wife would be forced to bear the burdensome cost of an ex parte divorce obtained in a foreign nation where neither party is domiciled.
DISCLAIMER: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.
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Gabriel Sawma is a lawyer with Middle East background. Professor of Middle East Constitutional Law, Islamic sharia, and Islamic economics. Expert consultant on Islamic divorce in U.S. courts; editor in chief of International Law blog, http://www.gabrielsawma.blogspot.com
; Lecturer on Islamic economics, http://www.islamiceconomics101.com
; Author of “The Aramaic Language of the Qur’an, http://www.syriacaramaicquran.com
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