Iran, the second largest nation in the Middle East, has a population of more than 80 million, of which (on paper at least) 99% are identified as Muslim. The Muslim majority includes a Shia majority (90%) and 9% Sunni Muslims (Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis and Kurds). The remaining 1% of non-Muslim population are identified as Bahais, Christians, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and Yarsanis. A considerable part of the Muslim population practice Sufism. Iran experienced a far-reaching Islamization of law and society after the Islamic revolution in 1979. Hassan Rouhani is the state’s president since 2013.
Constitution and government
There is no freedom of religion or belief in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the freedoms of expression, association and assembly are severely restricted by the theocratic regime. Iranian law bars any criticism of Islam or deviation from the ruling Islamic standards. Government leaders use these laws to persecute religious minorities and dissidents.
The constitution declares that Islam (Ja’afari Shiism) is the state religion. Articles 12 and 13 divide citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran into four religious categories: Muslims, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians. Nonbelievers are effectively left out and aren’t afforded any rights or protections. They must declare their faith in one of the four officially recognized religions in order to be able to claim a number of legal rights, such as the possibility to apply for the general examination to enter any university in Iran. The authorities classify Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, although Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith. Similarly, Sabean-Mandaeans do not consider themselves as Christians, but the government classifies them among the Christian groups.
According to the constitution, the main Sunni schools of Islam have to be “accorded full respect”. However, all religious minority groups, including Sunni Muslims, face harassment, restrictions and discrimination in employment, education and housing.
The Bahai faith is not recognized and its members face immense discrimination. The members of the Bahai community are generally prevented from burying their dead according to their traditions and many cemeteries have been destroyed. Their community is prohibited from officially assembling. Authorities often prevent Bahai’s from leaving the country and generally disregard their property rights. According to the law, Bahai blood can be spilled with impunity and there is no restitution to their families. Some religious leaders state publicly that Bahai’s are “unclean” and that conducting business with them is forbidden. Several Bahai leaders remain in detention. The members of the Bahai minority face substantial societal discrimination.
Sufism is similarly denounced by Shia clerics in public statements. Security services harass and intimidate prominent Sufi leaders and the government restricts Sufi activities.
Article 110 of the Constitution lists all the powers granted to the Spiritual Leader (a Muslim religious and political leader), appointed by his peers for an unlimited duration. Among others, the Spiritual Leader exercises his control over the judiciary, the army, the police, the radio, the television, but also over the President and the Parliament, institutions elected by the people. Article 91 of the Constitution establishes a body known as the “Guardian Council” whose function is to examine the compatibility of all legislation enacted by the Islamic Consultative Assembly with “the criteria of Islam and the Constitution” and who can therefore veto any and all legislation. Half of the members of the Guardian Council are appointed by the Spiritual Leader and the other half are elected by the Islamic Consultative Assembly from among the Muslim jurists nominated by the Head of the Judicial Power (who is, himself, appointed by the Spiritual Leader).
The Guardian Council exercise a double control of any draft legislation, with two different procedures: conformity with the Constitution (all 12 elected members vote, a simple majority recognizes the constitutionality) and conformity with Islam (only the six religious leaders elected personally by the Spiritual leader vote, and a simple majority is required to declare the compatibility of a draft legislation with Islam). Consequently, four religious leaders may block all draft legislation enacted by the Parliament. The Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader thus centralize all powers in Iran.
Only Muslims are able to take part in the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and to conduct public affairs at a high level. According to the Constitution, non-Muslims cannot hold the following key decision-making positions: President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who must be a Shi’a Muslim (Article 1156); Commanders in the Islamic Army (Article 1447); Judges, at any level (Article 163 and law of 1983 on the selection of judges 8).
Non-Muslims are not eligible to become members of the Parliament (the Islamic Consultative Assembly) through the general elections and non-Muslims cannot become members of the Guardian Council—the most powerful governing body in Iran.
Iran operates harsh form of Sharia—Islamic law—that punishes a wide range of political, social and moral offenses with flogging, amputation, and execution. Amendments to Iran’s penal code in 2013 eliminated execution by stoning. However, Iran still carries out hundreds of executions by hanging every year. Many executions are for the crime of “enmity against God”(moharebeh).
Discrimination in application of the law
A study of the Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran reveals that, for a number of offences, the punishment differs in function of the religion of the victim and/or the religion of the offender. The fate of Muslim victims and offenders is systematically more favourable than that of non-Muslims, showing that the life and physical integrity of Muslims is given a much higher value than that of non-Muslims. This institutionalized discrimination is particularly blatant for the following crimes:
• Adultery: The sanctions for adultery vary widely according to the religion of both members of the couple. A Muslim man who commits adultery with a Muslim woman is punished by 100 lashes (Article 88). However, a non-Muslim man who commits adultery with a Muslim woman is subject to the death penalty (Article 82-c). If a Muslim man commits adultery with a non-Muslim woman, the Penal Code does not specify any penalty.
• Homosexuality: Likewise, homosexuality “without consummation” between two Muslim men is punished by 100 lashes (Article 121) but if the “active party” is non-Muslim and the other Muslim, the non-Muslim is subject to the death penalty…
• Crimes against the Deceased: Article 494 stipulates penalties for crimes against a deceased Muslim but the Penal Code does not edict any penalties for the violation of the corpse of a non-Muslim.
Education and children’s rights
Religious instruction is mandatory in public schools. All recognized religious minority groups are allowed to open private schools. However, the directors of the schools must be, with a few exceptions, Muslims, and the content of school books and curricula must be approved by the government. Christians and Jews are allowed to teach in Hebrew, but the distribution of Hebrew books is limited, what makes it difficult to teach the language. All languages have to be translated into Persian, in order to be approved by the authorities and impose significant translation fees on the religious minority groups. The government eliminated in the recent years almost all Persian-language church services, restricting them to Assyrian and Armenian languages. The teaching of languages has thereby become important for religious minority groups.
Sunni Muslims are not allowed to build new schools and report bans on teachings in public schools and on religious literature, even in predominantly Sunni Muslim areas. Jewish students are not required to attend school on Saturdays. However, Jewish schools have to remain open on Saturdays, violating the Jewish religious law.
Bahai’s are actively prevented from attending universities. They have to identify with a recognized religious minority group in order to inscribe at a university. A government order requires that Bahai’s must be expelled from universities if their religious affiliation becomes known and Bahais are sometimes required to sign a statement at university, which states that they will not attend any Bahai religious activity. Further, the order states that “Bahai children should be enrolled in Shia Islamic schools with a strong and imposing religious ideology”. The Bahai community reports that their children in public schools face attempts by their teachers and administrators to convert them to Islam. Teachers generally ask Bahai and other non-Shia children about their families’ religious practices, as for instance if their parents fulfill their duties of the religious prayers at home, etc.
Family, community and society
No civil or secular family law
The legal interpretation of Islam forces all citizens, with no regard to their faith, to follow strict rules based on religion.
Family law derives exclusively from religious law, for Shia Muslims it is the Sharia based on Shia interpretation and for other recognized religious groups, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, they can relate to their own norms. Sunni Muslims can apply their laws in marriage, divorce and inheritance matters. Bahai marriages and divorces are officially not recognised, but the government allows a civil attestation of marriage to serve as a marriage certificate. The legal age of marriage is 13 years for girls and 15 for boys and is the same for all sectarian groups. Generally both spouses have to agree to a marriage. However women are discriminated in law and practice.
Same-sex relationships are illegal in Iran for women and men.
Discrimination against women
Women are considered to be under male guardianship. Article 1105 of the civil code states that men are the exclusive head of the family and women do not have the same rights as men regarding child custody. Further, women are discriminated in inheritance law and inherit less than their male relatives. Women can hardly obtain a divorce, even with the Islamic principle of “khula”, where a woman obtains a divorce and forfeits all future financial support from her husband, she still needs the consent of her husband. There is no specific law criminalizing domestic violence. Rape is not recognised as a distinct offence, but rather as adultery and a rape victim must present four male eyewitnesses in order to prove the crime. Female witnesses count only the half of male witnesses. Spousal rape is not recognised. Men have the right to sign a temporary marriage contract (sigheh) according to Shia interpretation of religious law. Adultery is considered a crime and be punished with the death sentence. Polygyny is allowed, meaning that Muslim men can marry up to four wives. Women need the permission of their male guardian in order to obtain a passport and to travel abroad. Married women need their husband’s permission to work outside the home.
Gender segregation is enforced throughout the country. Women are required to cover their hair and fully covering their body in loose clothing. “Un-Islamic” dress is periodically punished by the authorities. In 2014 women in Isfahan protested against at least acid attacks against women. The women were targeted because their clothing was considred not to conform to Islamic norms.
Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values
The law does not provide religious freedom to Muslims and conversion from Islam is considered apostasy, which is punishable by death. A child born to a Muslim father is automatically considered to be Muslim. Proselytizing to Muslims can be punished with the capital sentence as well.
“Enmity against God”
The government jails and executes periodically dozens of individuals on charges of “enmity against God” (moharebeh). Although this crime is framed as a religious offense, and may be used against atheists and other religious dissenters, it is most often used as a punishment for political acts that challenge the regime (on the basis that to oppose the theocratic regime is to oppose Allah).
Furthermore, the penal code criminalizes the insulting or cursing of Islamic prophets with a death sentence.
Media and “morals”
The Press Court has extensive power to prosecute journalists and control print media. It uses this power to prevent publication of anything that could be seen as critical of the regime or contrary to its strict interpretation of Shi’a Islam. Numerous periodicals are closed for morality or security offenses every year. In 2012, even the head of the state news agency, Ali Akbar Javanfek, was jailed for six months for publishing content “contrary to Islamic standards.”
Freedom of expression is severely restricted by the regime. The government directly controls all television and radio broadcasting, and outlaws the reception of independent media, for example by making it illegal to own a satellite dish. Cooperation with Persian-language satellite news channels based abroad is banned; for example, a leading economist, Fariborz Raisdana, was arrested in December 2010 for criticizing Iranian economic policies on the Persian service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Professor Raisdana began serving a one-year prison term in May 2012. In addition, Iranian journalists living abroad have been intimidated by the Iranian government, for example by the harassment of family members who still live in Iran. Iran ranks second in the world for the number of jailed journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In July 2013, following the election of the new president of Iran, widely seen as more moderate than his predecessor, Iranian authorities jailed seven more journalists (see individual case below) and arrested several others in a renewed media crackdown.
Iranian filmmakers are subject to tight restrictions. In January 2012, the government ordered the closure of the House of Cinema, an independent association that supported around 5,000 Iranian filmmakers and artists.
On July 13, 2013, seven members of the Dervish religious minority were sentenced to a total of 56 years for running a news website.
Internet and protest
Access to the Internet has soared over the last five years in Iran. As with the “Arab Spring” uprisings, in 2009 many Iranians used mobile phones and social media to organize and publicize widespread protests—the “Green Movement” against the regime.
In fact the use of social networking technology was so central to the popular protests that the democratic uprising became known as “The Twitter Revolution.” The government responded by creating draconian new laws to restrict access to communication tools, persecute dissidents for their online activity, and strengthen the government’s already powerful censorship system. The major social-media sites—such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—were blocked after the 2009 election. In 2012, the authorities unveiled new regulations that require cybercafés to record the personal information and browsing histories of every customer. The first phase of a national intranet, aimed at disconnecting the population from the WorldWideWeb, was launched in September 2012.
Sattar Beheshti, an Iranian blogger and activist, died during torture and interrogation in Evin Prison in early November 2012, several days after being arrested by the Iranian Cyber Police unit for criticizing the government of the Islamic Republic. In 2016, a 16-year prison sentence was upheld against human rights defender Narges Mohammadi by Iran’s Appeals Court for her peaceful human rights work. Among other things, she had been calling for the prosecution and fair trial of Sattar Beheshti’s interrogator.
Freedom of association and assembly
Freedom of association and assembly are severely limited in Iran. The constitutional prohibition against public demonstrations that “are detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam” is used to ban any demonstration the authorities may not like. The government condones violent groups of vigilante, and extra-legal paramilitary groups—such as the Basij and Ansar-i Hezbollah—that are used to break up demonstrations by assaulting the protestors, often resulting in serious, permanent injuries and even death. Even peaceful, non-political protests are put down with brutal force.
In November 2014, the Supreme court upheld the death sentence of blogger Soheil Arabi for the charge of “insulting the Prophet Muhammad” on Facebook.
In February 2014, the Supreme court upheld the death sentence of Ruhollah Tavana for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
On Jan. 17, 2012, the country’s Supreme Court confirmed the previously handed down death sentence for 35-year-old web designer and Canadian resident Saeed Malekpour. He had returned to Iran in 2008 to visit his dying father and was arrested for “insulting and desecrating Islam” for allegedly creating a computer program used by others to download pornography.
“I only came out as an atheist with my closest friends. Being an atheist and saying this in public is considered as big crime and is being sentenced to death. Nobody says that he or she is an atheist so easily in Iran, although the majority of the population is in fact. That’s the reason I never had to fear bad consequences in my family and with my friends. They all think like me. It would even be more disturbing to them if I say I am a believer.”