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Photo: kate geraghty

A country where contraception is illegal is a country that is hostile to women. Last week Iran’s parliament passed legislation that would criminalise abortions, sterilisations and any form of permanent contraception such as vasectomies. With lengthy prison terms for convicted offenders, the drastic move is designed to combat the country’s sharply decreasing population. 

The steep decline is intriguing given that, unlike western countries experiencing similar downturns, the country’s population is mostly very young. Almost 70 percent of Iran’s 77 million people are under 35. And until relatively recently, the birth rate was booming.

It certainly isn’t news that women’s bodies frequently become the battleground in politics. Just yesterday the US Supreme Court ruled that closely held corporations (i.e. those with only a few shareholders) who oppose women’s contraception on religious grounds did not have to include reproductive healthcare in their employees’ insurance, as required under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. 

An Iranian woman and a boy shop at a grocery store in Tehran.

An Iranian woman and a boy shop at a grocery store in Tehran. Photo: ATTA KENARE

Meanwhile, here in NSW, women are still waiting for the Upper House to debate Zoe’s Law, which, if passed will see personhood endowed on a foetus of 20 weeks. Increasingly, it appears, both corporations and foetuses are entitled to more human rights than women.

Ironically, Iran’s current move to ban contraception overturns a previous campaign, “Fewer kids, better lives” first issued under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s rule in the 1960s, and which called for couples to have less children. But the population didn’t really explode until the early 80s, in the years following the Islamic Revolution, when the population still harboured enthusiasm for the new regime and the future.

Now with Iran's dwindling population, and with the goal of doubling the population by 2050, the government is doing everything it can to boost the rate of birth. 

Initially, the issue was tackled with incentives including free delivery stays in hospital and longer maternity leave, and by cancelling birth control subsidies.

That quickly made way for the more forceful and worrying measures outlined the recent legislation. Although abortion was already technically illegal in most circumstances, it remains widely practiced. This ban will now be more strictly enforced, as will the ban on permanent contraceptives.

Alarmingly, the legislation doesn’t identify who will face criminal proceedings - the patients or the healthcare providers - but it’s not difficult to see where this will lead. Wherever contraception and abortion are restricted, desperate women resort to drastic measures, putting their own safety and lives at risk. This means women will suffer disproportionately.

The Iranian lawmaker, Mohammed Davatgari, who opposed the legislation, agrees. “Passing this bill will definitely lead to illegal procedures in dark corridors and unregulated offices,"  he warned. “We have take cultural action and I’m pleading with the speaker of parliament that we cannot force people to have children with prison terms and lashes.”

There are also fears that this is little more than a move by the government to force Iranian women back into the home. In the words of one concerned sociologist, “It will make them more financially dependent on their husbands and the political system, prioritise the family’s well-being over women’s health and education and as a result of all these will make women’s mobilization much more difficult.”

Iran is certainly not the first country to meddle in the reproductive choices of its people with disastrous consequences for women. China’s one-child policy when combined with its cultural preference for boys led to a shortage of women, which in turn fuelled the trafficking industry, with thousands of women kidnapped and sold to families of men who cannot find brides.

For their part, Iranians seem largely unimpressed with the government’s campaign. “We are always told how there is a bright future ahead, but we are not allowed to live now,” 25 year-old Hadi Najafi -who says he cannot afford to marry, let alone have kids- told The New York Times. “If only things were better in my lifetime, I would have a dozen children to share my happiness with.”

Iranian women have been protesting the hardline rule of their government for some years now, as the Stealthy Freedoms of Iranian women Facebook page, where tens of thousands of women have uploaded pictures of themselves flouting the strict law on hijab attests.

This time their protest is taking a different – and more personal -- form.

 “I just don’t want to bring children into this hell,” says Bita, a recent college graduate. She cites the intrusive state and its conservative ideology, as well as economic and political instability, as the reasons behind her and her husbands decision not to have children.

Not only will these measures come at the expense of women’s freedom, they will in all likelihood fail, as they do not take into account the economic reasons behind the populations reluctance to reproduce, as reported in The New York Times:

“The critical factor, said Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, head of the demographics department at Tehran University, is the economy. “A young and unmarried boy or girl who does not have a permanent job and relies on one-month contracts cannot dare to marry or have children,” he said, “because in that case he endangers his job security and his or her own living condition.” The solution is simple and very complicated at the same time, he said. “We must try to create jobs, so people can feel secure and follow their plans.”

Of course, much of those economic woes are a result of western sanctions designed to cripple the government’s nuclear program. But, with zero population growth possible within 20 years, Iranians themselves are finding what could ultimately prove a more effective method of punishing the regime. After all, you can’t oppress a population that doesn’t exist.