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Islamic rules of inheritance as expressed through Iran’s Civil Code prevent women in Iran from inheriting equally with men. However, a religious decree issued by Grand Ayatollah Sanei’i in 2008 that broke with Iran’s Shari‘a-based law spurred the implementation of legislation that expanded women’s inheritance rights the following year by allowing women to inherit all forms of their husband’s property. Similarly, a law approved in October 2019 concerning a woman’s right to transmit citizenship, while not putting women on an equal footing with men, now allows Iranian mothers married to non-Iranian men the right to transmit Iranian citizenship to their children under 18 under certain conditions. A girl in Iran cannot legally marry before the age of 13 without the approval of her guardian and a court. Iran’s Constitution does not ensure complete gender equality because the rights it affords are circumscribed by the requirement that they “conform to Islamic criteria” that do not give women equal status with men. Iran does not have a law specifically aimed at preventing and protecting women from domestic violence, and a recent bill that purports to expand protections to women against the different forms of violence they encounter does not adequately address the problem of domestic violence.

I. Women's Right of Inheritance

Iran’s Civil Code,[1] which is based on the principles of the Ja‘fari school of Shi‘a Islam,[2] lays down the following rules of inheritance:

  • Daughters may claim only half of the inheritance sons are entitled to when the deceased is not survived by parents.[3]
  • The mother of a deceased person is entitled to one-third of the estate, while the father receives the rest. However, if Islamic rules of inheritance give preference to another member of the family over her in sharing the estate, she inherits one-sixth of the estate.[4]
  • A woman who marries a man who dies of an illness before the marriage is consummated is not entitled to any inheritance from him. [5]
  • A wife may claim one-eighth of her deceased husband’s estate when he has surviving descendants; one-quarter of his estate when he has no other heirs; and, in the event of surviving multiple wives, an equal portion of the one-quarter or one-eighth portion that is shared with the other wives. The husband, on the other hand, may inherit one-quarter of his deceased wife’s estate when she has surviving descendants, one-half if she has no surviving descendants, and all of the estate if there are no other heirs.[6]

However, the UN Women’s Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence Against Women and Girls, states that Iranians have found “creative ways to ensure their spouse can inherit as they desire.”[7] UN Women cites a 2006 report by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions finding that

families evade the Shari‘a-derived inheritance rules and divide property and assets according to their own desires. Because the law allows only one third of a person’s estate to be willed, the most common method is to transfer the title of the property into the heir’s name while the benefactor is still alive. This method is especially common among married couples because . . . the share to which the wife is legally entitled is the lesser. In case they die first, husbands tend to buy property in their wife’s name, or transfer the title into her name. Fathers often do the same for their children and other heirs. In this way, the benefactors, rather than the law, determine how their estate is divided.[8]

In 2009, Iran’s Majlis (parliament) “began implementing controversial legislation that allow[ed] women to inherit all forms of their husband’s property.”[9] Previously, article 946 of the Civil Code had entitled a husband to a share of his wife’s entire estate, but the wife could not inherit any of the husband’s land; rather, she was limited to inheriting movable property and the monetary value of buildings and trees on her husband’s land, unless the heirs refused to pay her the value of the buildings and trees and a court subsequently ordered that she could receive her share of the allotted property.[10] The 2009 law allows a woman to inherit property from a deceased husband and removed the limits on the proportion of movable property a woman could inherit.[11] According to Iranian legal scholar and human rights lawyer and activist Dr. Leila Alikarami, the 2009 law’s enactment was catalyzed by a fatwā (Islamic legal decree) by Grand Ayatollah Sanei’i that “undermin[ed] the claim that the current state of legislation concerning female inheritance . . . correctly adhere[d] to Islamic principles . . . [and] put pressure on the political system to change its stance regarding inheritance.”[12] Sanei’i’s fatwā was so significant because his interpretation that a wife whose husband passes away with no other heirs becomes the sole heir of his assets markedly differed from Iran’s Shari‘a-based law.[13]

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II. Right of Women to Transfer Citizenship

Iran’s Civil Code provides that Iranian men automatically transmit Iranian nationality to their non-national spouses and to their children, regardless of where the children were born.[14] Iranian women, on the other hand, are not able to transmit their nationality to non-national spouses, and were unable to transmit citizenship to their children until the approval of a law by Iran’s Guardian Council in early October 2019.[15] This law gives Iranian mothers married to non-Iranian men the right to transmit Iranian citizenship to their children under 18 years of age if the mother and father were married in accordance with the Shari‘a, the mother files a request for the children’s citizenship, and no security concerns have been identified by the Ministry of Intelligence and the Intelligence Service of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.[16] Thus, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “[w]hile the law still doesn’t put mothers and fathers on a fully equal footing with respect to their ability to confer nationality, it represents a significant incremental improvement.”[17]

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III.  Legal Age for Marriage

The Civil Code of Iran prohibits a girl from marrying before attaining her majority—that is, before she reaches the age of 13—unless her guardian approves of the marriage and the competent court determines that the marriage is in her best interest.[18] A person’s age is determined according to the 365-day Iranian calendar rather than the shorter Islamic lunar calendar.[19] A boy cannot marry before the age of 15 without the approval of his guardian and the competent court.[20]

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IV. Constitutional Provisions Related to Ensuring Gender Equality

Article 20 of the Constitution of Iran provides all men and women of the country with “equal protection of the law and all human, political, economic, social and cultural rights in conformity with Islamic criteria.”[21] Article 21, the only article in the Constitution explicitly mentioning women’s rights, provides that “[t]he government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria.”[22] Thus, article 21 “strictly limits women’s rights according to the principles of Islam . . . [and ensures] that every dialogue about women’s rights must be understood in its religious context.”[23] Iranian lawyer and women’s rights activist Mehrangiz Kar notes that what constitutes “Islamic criteria” in articles 20 and 21 is very vague because the ultimate definitions of women’s rights in Iran have always been made by the ultra-traditionalists comprising the legislation-vetting Guardian and Expediency Councils rather than the reformists, but that the specific obligations of the government mentioned in article 21 (as reflections of the section “Women in the Constitution” in the Constitution’s preamble) center on protecting the family and women’s role as mothers.[24]

While “women ‘as citizens,’ can vote and be elected [to] some offices,”[25] the “Islamic criteria” mentioned above may effectively serve to disqualify them from running for president of the republic and serving as judges.

Article 115 of the Constitution sets the qualifications for candidates for president, providing that the president must be elected from among the rijāl who meet certain qualifications. Controversy arises because of the ambiguous use of the word rijāl, which in Persian means “respected religious and political figures” but can also be used in the Arabic sense of “men.”[26] According to article 98 of the Constitution, the Guardian Council is the only body with the power to interpret provisions of the Constitution, and it has never clarified in what sense rijāl is meant.[27] Significantly, the Guardian Council has not given its requisite approval to any woman candidate for president since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.[28]

Regarding women serving as judges, article 163 of the Constitution provides that “[t]he conditions and qualifications to be fulfilled by a judge will be determined by law, in accordance with the criteria of fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence—‘the science of ascertaining the precise terms of the Sharī‘ah, or Islamic law’].”[29] Iranian human rights lawyer and scholar Delaram Farzaneh writes that, to implement article 163, lawmakers drew up the Law on the Qualifications for the Appointment of Judges in line with “the famous consensus of opinion of the Shi‘a foqaha (Islamic jurisprudents).”[30] Article 1 of this Law explicitly provides that judges should be chosen “from among qualified men [mardān]. According to Farzaneh, after the Law was implemented, “all then serving female judges were either removed from the office or demoted to lower positions such as administrative and consultant roles,” and what the government of Iran has called its “women judges” are “not decision-making judges who preside as a real judge in the courtroom . . . [but] counselors in family courts or administrative authorities.”[31]  

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V. Domestic Violence Laws

Iran currently has no law aimed at preventing domestic violence and protecting women victims of violence.[32] In fact, human rights activists in Iran maintain that certain articles in the country’s Civil Code “effectively undermine protections for women against domestic violence” and “exacerbate the vulnerabilities of women to domestic abuse.”[33] For example, the Code provides that the husband is the head of the family and a wife who refuses to fulfill the duties of a wife without a legitimate excuse is not entitled to receive maintenance costs from the husband. The wife must also stay in the dwelling the husband allots for her unless doing so causes the risk of bodily or financial injury or loss of dignity, in which case she must be able and willing to go to court to prove she is endangered.[34] According to Iranian journalist and women’s rights activist Jelveh Javaheri, “[t]his leaves Iranian women deeply vulnerable to violence, including marital rape, especially given the requirement of witnesses, the fact that a female witness’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, and the stipulation that if a woman leaves the marital home, she is not subject to maintenance.”[35] Javaheri adds that “[m]any female victims of violence . . . have been ignored by the police because domestic violence is not considered a crime. . . . The police have treated these cases as public battery and urged the women to go back home and face their abuser.”[36] The fact that Iranian laws contain no protections that allow the police to take women victims of violence to safe houses or keep a violent person away from a woman’s place of residence also results in women being forced to return to their unsafe home environments and possibly even killing themselves.[37]

On September 16, 2019, about eight years after it was originally formulated and after two years of review and what critics have termed “disagreeable” changes, the Iranian judiciary sent to the executive branch its approved version of a bill aimed at protecting women from violence.[38] Originally titled the “Bill for the Protection of Women Against Violence,” the judiciary changed the name to the “Bill for the Protection, Dignity and Security of Ladies Against Violence.”[39] While calling the bill a “positive move” containing several “significant strengths,” the Center for Human Rights in Iran stated that the bill “does not provide effective and sufficient guarantees to protect women against violence and, in many cases, promotes and supports stereotypical, discriminatory, and sexist views toward women.”[40] Among the shortcomings of the bill specifically concerning domestic violence that the Center hopes will be addressed by the executive and the Parliament are the following:

  • The extreme caution in the bill’s use of the word “violence” and the complete absence of the term “domestic violence.”
  • The unaddressed legal and enforcement deficiencies in protecting women from domestic violence and the obstacles to taking effective legal action against the abuser (e.g., the difficulty of proving marital violence in court and the numerous obstacles and long period involved in obtaining a final criminal court verdict).
  • The bill’s insufficient and ineffective measures to institute protection orders that keep the abuser away from the woman’s home or workplace.
  • The bill’s limiting a wife’s separation from her abusive husband to three months, after which, if she refuses to return home, she loses her subsistence support.
  • The provision that before filing a lawsuit in the prosecutor’s office and the court, a woman who claims to have been physically or sexually abused by her husband or father must pass through a one-month compulsory reconciliation period and referral of the case to the Dispute Settlement Council.
  • The requirement that the husband be definitively convicted three times of committing violence against the wife before she can obtain a divorce on the grounds of abuse.[41]

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Prepared by Barry Lerner
Legal Research Analyst
February 2020


[1] Civil Code, May 3, 1928, as amended, https://perma.cc/M7SV-XHP4 (in Persian).

[2] Inheritance Laws, UN Women (last updated Feb. 27, 2011), https://perma.cc/WKQ4-FAMF.

[3] Civil Code art. 907; Inheritance Laws, supra note 2.

[4] Civil Code art. 906; Laura Jokinen et al., Legal Status of Women: Iran’s International Human Rights Obligations 25 (Legal Res. Series, Hum. Rts. in Iran Unit, Univ. of Essex, June 2014), https://perma.cc/J7TH-6EF2.

[5] Civil Code art. 945; Jokinen, supra note 4, at 25.

[6] Civil Code art. 913; Inheritance Laws, supra note 2.

[7] Inheritance Laws, supra note 2.

[8] Ctr. on Housing Rts. & Evictions (COHRE), In Search of Equality: A Survey of Law and Practice Related to Women’s Inheritance Rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region 36 (Oct. 2006), https://perma.cc/3AYS-U3TA.

[9] Gholam Vafai, Iran: New Women’s Inheritance Law Is Enforced, Global Legal Monitor (May 15, 2009), https://perma.cc/PW9T-8QPJ.

[10] Civil Code art. 946; COHRE, supra note 8, at 35.

[11] Vafai, supra note 9.

[12] Leila Alikarami, Women and Equality in Iran: Law, Society and Activism 209 (I.B. Tauris 2019).

[13] Iran: Ayatollah Support[s] Women's Right to Inheritance and Abortion, Payvand (Feb. 18, 2008), https://perma.cc/AW9A-YNWT.

[14] Civil Code art. 976(2), (6); Tara Sepehri Far, Iran’s Nationality Law Bill Highlights Challenges for Legislative Reform, Atlantic Council (Aug. 9, 2019), https://perma.cc/YB8V-3UNN.

[15] Law Amending the Law Establishing the Obligations of Citizenship of Children Resulting from the Marriage of Iranian Women with Foreign Men, Oct. 7, 2019, https://perma.cc/CU59-Z6T3 (in Persian).

[16] Id. art. 1.

[17] UNHCR Welcomes Iran’s New Nationality Law Addressing Statelessness, UNHCR Iran (Oct. 8, 2019), https://perma.cc/6KWV-5K46.

[18] Civil Code art. 1041; Jokinen, supra note 4.

[19] Sofia A. Koutlaki, Among the Iranians 6–7 (Intercultural Press 2010), bibliographic information at https://lccn.loc.gov/2010002959.

[20] Civil Code art. 1041.

[21] Const. of Islamic Rep. of Iran, 1979, as amended, art. 20, https://perma.cc/6N3Y-9N6L (in Persian); Delaram Farzaneh, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: A Brief History of Legal Discriminations Against Women in Iran and the Violations of International Human Rights, 20(1) Ann. Surv. Int’l & Comp. L. 201, 223 (2014), https://perma.cc/UMJ2-ZERQ.

[22] Const. art. 21; Farzaneh, supra note 21, at 223.

[23] Farzaneh, supra note 21, at 223 (citing Hammed Shahidian, Women in Iran: Gender Politics in the Islamic Republic 109 (Greenwood Press 2002)).

[24] Mehrangiz Kar, Session One: The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s View on Women, Tavaana, https://perma.cc/67T3-TAP5 (in Persian); Farzaneh, supra note 21, at 225.

[25] Farzaneh, supra note 21, at 223–24.

[26] Const. art. 115; Farzaneh, supra note 21, at 227; رجال , Dekhoda Dictionary (published online by Dictionary Abadis), https://perma.cc/69SV-5RXM (in Persian).

[27] Farzaneh, supra note 21, at 228.

[28] Id. at 229.

[29] Fiqh, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, https://perma.cc/B36C-TFA6.

[30] Law on the Qualifications for the Appointment of Judges, May 4, 1982, https://perma.cc/N5LQ-LYMC (in Persian); Farzaneh, supra note 21, at 232.

[31] Farzaneh, supra note 21, at 231, 233.

[32] Ahmad Zahedi Langroudi, Statistics on Domestic Violence Against Women Are Unmistakable: Interview with Jelveh Javaheri, Member of the Domestic Violence Against Women Campaign (Dec. 14, 2017), https://perma.cc/5JDH-G98B (in Persian); Iran Must Pass Legislation to Protect Women Against Violence, Ctr. for Hum. Rts. in Iran (Nov. 23, 2018), https://perma.cc/4UZF-XPV4.

[33] Iran Must Pass Legislation to Protect Women Against Violence, supra note 32.

[34] Civil Code arts. 1105, 1108, 1114.

[35] Iran Must Pass Legislation to Protect Women Against Violence, supra note 32.

[36] Id.

[37] Langroudi, supra note 32.

[38] Judiciary’s “Bill on the Protection, Dignity, and Security of Women Against Violence” Does Not Provide Effective and Sufficient Guarantees for Women, Ctr. for Hum. Rts. in Iran (Sept. 27, 2019), https://perma.cc/REG9-A27Q; Combatting Violence Against Women by Removing the Word “Women,” Deutsche Welle (Sept. 30, 2019), https://perma.cc/9WLX-SL3X (in Persian).

[39] Text of the Bill on the Protection, Dignity and Security of Women Against Violence Published, Mizan Online (Sept. 17, 2019), https://perma.cc/S5YD-QQNP.

[40] Judiciary’s “Bill on the Protection, Dignity, and Security of Women Against Violence,supra note 38.

[41] Id.

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Last Updated: 12/30/2020