Recent news reports point toward a major change in Iran’s population policy in near future. Worried about the falling birth rate and its consequences for country’s future, Iranian policy planners are reversing the population policy once again and hoping that the population will listen to them as it did twice before in the 1980s and 1990s.
While many Muslim ulema (traditionally trained scholars) would claim family planning is not allowed, Quran and Sunnah, the two main sources of Islamic law, are ambiguous on this issue. Family planning has been approved, partially approved and rejected using the same two sources. This multi-vocality of Islam has given the Muslim-majority states more leeway in designing population policies than the Catholic-majority states, though most of the Muslim-majority states have not used this leeway to the fullest extent. Iran is an exception in this regard. Though not giving full reproductive rights, Iran has managed to first convince its population to increase the birth rate and then decrease it to close to replacement levels, all in three decades. Let’s look at Iran’s population policies in a little more detail.
Iran presents a fascinating case of successful population control in a political system that many have called a Muslim theocracy. Iran’s first population policy was introduced in 1967 as part of King Muhammad Reza Shah’s modernization/Westernization drive and it was not very successful. A result not quite different from the experience of other modernizing Muslim-majority countries. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the new regime adopted a pronatalist policy. Although no change in population policy was announced, the emphasis shifted from population control to family and children and the family planning program was largely abandoned. War with Iraq, restrictions on women employment, lowering of age for marriage and allowing polygamy/temporary marriages created an enabling environment. Not surprisingly, birth per women increased to more than six, one of the highest in the world.
By the end of 1980s, many in the Iranian religious and political elite realized that continuing pronatalist policy could have disastrous consequences. Imam Khomeini and other ayatollahs were also convinced and they issued fatwas, terming family planning not only Islamic but necessary in some cases. This was the cue Iranian officials needed and from then on, they devised and managed a comprehensive family planning program. This program included production, distribution and promotion of contraceptives in a variety of ways. New laws and rules were also adopted to encourage use of contraceptives e.g. marriage license is only issued after the couple has attended family planning classes. The commitment of Islamic regime to family planning could be seen by the setting up of first and only state-supported condom factory in the Middle East. More educated women, decrease in restrictions on women employment, rise of the Islamic-feminist discourse, and a comparatively more liberal regime provided the enabling environment that helped the acceptance of government’s message. The results were miraculous. The births per women dropped to two. Iran achieved the decrease in fertility in two decades what other countries have taken more than hundred years to achieve and this was done under ‘mullahs’.
Not unlike Italy, Germany and South Korea, Iran is now trying to increase its birth rate. While its concerns are understandable, it is important to keep in mind what made the previous effort so successful. First, only laws and regulations do not change reproductive behavior. Rather, a singular focus on them makes people wary of the state’s motives. Individuals have to voluntarily accept state’s proposals. So, incentives are in, punishments are out. Legislating to ban vasectomies and to punish doctors for performing them, a recent effort in Iranian parliament, will not help. Second, state policies cannot be successful, if they ignore the context, the ground realities. As literacy in Iran becomes universal, a comparatively more independent Iranian generation enters adulthood and more better-paying jobs require higher education (thus favoring delay in marriage and children), it is important to tailor fertility incentives to working women, women in late 30s and nuclear or one-parent households.
Iran’s example shows that it is not Islam that is stopping other Muslim-majority countries (like Pakistan. Yemen etc.) from devising and implementing population policies that are best for their people. As is often the case, it is politics hiding behind religion, not religion driving politics or policy.