Beyond the Shari'a: "White Marriages" in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, significant changes have overtaken laws pertaining to marriage and the family in Iran. The Family Protection Law of 1967 was abrogated and replaced by new legislation meant to “strengthen the institution of the family,” and to protect women and motherhood.

Serious economic problems, unemployment, rising poverty, political and social uncertainties, the internet and the social media have helped further aggravate the situation which in turn has led to a significant decline in marriage and a sharp rise in divorce. The rise is further pronounced in Tehran whereby for every three marriage there is one registered divorce. The social consequences of this problem have led to a significant rise in the number of single parents, and an increasing number of unregistered co-habitations. Regardless of the condemnation or the denial of the Islamic Republic, what has emerged is the concept of “White Marriage,” where men and women voluntarily choose to cohabit without formal commitment or fear of social and religious stigma, or its political consequences. It is known as a “White Marriage” since there is no marriage involved and individual birth certificates in which marriages are registered remain a clean slate. While the government is well aware of “illegal co-habitations,” it has been unable to turn the growing trend, and no serious action has been taken to prevent co-habitation other than condemnation.

This paper aims to inquire into the social and political consequences of the “White Marriage” in the Islamic Republic. Who are these unmarried couples and what are their backgrounds? Why have they selected such a life style and what explanations do they provide their parents and relatives? How do they cope with the social stigma, and why do they maintain such a life style? Is this a natural phenomenon towards modernity, emerging out of social necessity and maturity or is it a rebellion against the oppressive measures of the regime, or perhaps a blind imitation of the west? Preliminary studies show that nearly all unmarried couples come from diverse walks of life yet most are born after the revolution, nearly all have university education, and are well aware of their new unorthodox life styles.