News | Gender Relations - West Asia - Reproduktive Gerechtigkeit - Middle East Are New Reproduction Laws a Way Out of Economic Crisis?

On the nexus of neoliberalism and conservative religious politics in Iran and beyond


Roll back of women‘s rights in Iran: religious conservatism and neoliberal politics complement each other. Feminist resistance must network regionally. CC BY-SA 2.0, Amir Farshad Ebrahimi

Looking at Iran and Turkey today demonstrates that religious conservatism and neoliberalism, what initially might appear to us as two opposing adversarial ideas, should be understood as two sides of the same kind of power manifestation. Current developments in the region reveal how numerous regimes use the entanglement of neoliberal and patriarchal religious politics to maintain power. Reproduction and biopolitics play a key role here as mechanisms of population control. They are also decisive factors in determining the position of women, from the labour market to the social sphere and the family.

Firoozeh Farvardin conducts research on sexual and reproductive politics, as well as social movements in Iran. Her dissertation, recently completed at Humboldt University, is titled The Birth of Neoliberal Family Politics: A History of Governmentalization of the State in Iran.

Bahar Oghalai is a social scientist with a focus on intersections of racism critique and feminism.

Maria Hartmann researches, works and is politically engaged on questions of transnational solidarity and diaspora activism in the context of the new emancipatory movements in West Asia and North Africa.

New legal developments in Iran concerning women’s reproductive rights provide a particularly explosive example of how culturally conservative and religious fundamentalist regimes intertwine neoliberalism and the family form to manifest state power. Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention can be viewed as a continuation of similar tendencies. Therefore, if we want to counter conservative and fundamentalist regimes with transnational feminist solidarity, these parallel phenomena need to be analysed .

Bahar Oghalai and Maria Hartmann recently spoke with Iranian feminist, activist, and sociologist Firoozeh Farvardin for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation about the intertwining and mutual reinforcement of neoliberal, patriarchal-conservative, and religious-fundamentalist politics.

BO & MH: Can you briefly explain the latest changes in the Iranian law regarding women’s reproductive rights and the effects they have on the ground? What are the reasons for these restrictions?

FF: The new law is essentially about introducing sole religious authority and decision-making power in the case of abortions. Of course, this can be seen as a drastic change when it comes to women’s reproductive rights in Iran and the Islamic Republic’s (IRI) reproductive policies. Nevertheless, I would say that these developments are not entirely new. While the 1990s in Iran were characterized by population-reducing policies, the discursive establishment of this neo-pronatalism, a policy of deliberately promoting child abundance, and population growth, dates back to the early years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency in 2004 and 2005. The IRI placed propaganda in the media, mostly on television and in films, from around that time intended to convey that Iran was in the midst of a crisis of underpopulation.

The key turning point here, however, was a 2012 speech by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He assessed the IRI’s 1990s reproductive policies as a failure and called for drastic pro-natalist measures. Immediately following this speech, there were significant changes in the IRI’s policies on this issue. For example, new laws on population management, reproductive health, and family planning were introduced and enforced. A whole series of previous anti-natalist regulations were also dissolved.

The changes in various areas from family law to population law, as well as family planning, added up and were finally codified under a new law in March 2021. For Iran, this means there’s no more support, distribution, or supply of any kind of contraceptive products and measures for men or for women today. Sterilization, for example, has become illegal except for in certain medical emergencies. The same is true for abortions. It must be said however, that abortions have always been illegal in Iran under IRI rule, following Sharia laws. However, in the anti-natalist 1990s, there was some openness to abortions related to specific medical conditions at very early stages of pregnancy. With the legalization of prenatal diagnostics, medical personnel had the authority to recommend and perform an abortion in cases that were risky to the health of the mother or the foetus.

However, under the new law changes, promoting and recommending prenatal diagnostics have become illegal. Recently, abortions can only be legally performed if a religious authority endorses them. Thus, the regulation of abortion is no longer a matter of medical decision but of religious dictate.

Now that we have heard some of the latest developments, ultimately, what are the similarities and differences between these new laws and the sexual and reproductive policies of IRI over the past 4 decades? What are the continuities and the ruptures here?

In the post-revolutionary era and the time of the Iran-Iraq War, from 1980 to 1988, the IRI’s reproductive policies were classically pro-natalist. After the war, the government introduced structural adjustment policies and economic development reforms to Iran for the first time. At that time, Iran established a successful family planning program that became very popular—not only because it was part of the new state policy, but also because of the changes occurring in people’s lifestyles, particularly women’s lifestyles. This led to a significant decrease in population.

The motto of the time was “Two children are enough.” As part of this trend, various contraceptive options became accessible. Sterilization options for men and women were free of charge and even reached more marginalized regions of the country. It was precisely during this period, parallel to the reforms, that women became more present in the public, economic, and social spheres. I think this is related to women deciding to have fewer children. In this context, women’s subjectivity is really important and I would not reduce the changes of that time simply to state policies.

In the 1990s, it just so happened that a particular reproductive policy agenda of the state coincided with what women potentially wanted for themselves. This is not to say that IRI actually advocated for women’s rights during this period. Rather, I would say that the consequences and implications of its development-centric and anti-natalist policies were not, in part, explicitly directed against the presence of women in public spaces and the workplace, despite the dominance of sharia law.

From the moment of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, however, policies shifted toward what I call “neo-pronatalism”. This was accompanied by the continued development of IRI’s neoliberal policies. In this context, these drastic shifts come from a particular cocktail of key events. Thus, I would say that one of the main causes of the current situation is a change in the IRI’s regional policies. After all, as we know, Iran is facing the toughest international sanctions regarding its nuclear program, which has led to one of the most severe economic crises in the country’s history.

In addition, the IRI wanted to become more involved in the politics of the region in light of the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the uprisings of the so-called “Arab Spring”. These changes led to an entirely new way of looking at population policy. In addition, the neoliberalization process that began in the 1990s intensified and expanded in the context of sanctions.

The combination of all these events led to the assessment that this all-encompassing crisis could only be survived by the further neoliberalization of the country’s economy. As a first step, for example, there were massive pseudo-privatizations of state assets and enterprises. As a second step, the neoliberalization policy penetrated the Iranian social sphere. As a result, privatization spread to the social sector, for example privatization effected, education, social security, and other social services. Thus, the IRI had to find a way to adapt the population to the changes and challenges that came with neoliberalization through resilience policies.

In such a situation, the family space offers a very advantageous sphere for this political agenda. Thus, I believe that in the context of the resilience policies mentioned above, the state is trying to outsource responsibility at various levels and to rely on the power of the nuclear family. To legitimize this, some societal problems are overemphasized. For example, I think the problem of an aging society, a favourite theme of IRI, exists but is overdramatized.

What are the societal implications of this new state agenda which is pro-natalist and, moreover, economically re-focused on the nuclear family?

By fostering growing family structures, women are further excluded from public life and forced into informal domestic kinds of labour. This informal labour ranges from domestic labour to high-skilled work such as accounting and architecture. By domesticating and informalizing their labour, women are pressured to take on reproductive and caregiving tasks such as elder care and/or childcare which are no longer provided by the state due to neoliberal scarcity. At the same time, they are expected to earn money for the nuclear family as highly skilled but poorly paid workers. This informalization of labour makes it harder for women to gain public visibility, pursue careers, and organize themselves in order to fight for more rights on the labour market.

As mentioned before, I prefer to call this recent shift of the IRI’s reproductive politics “neo-pronatalism” as I want to emphasize the differences between this pronatalism and the post-revolutionary pronatalism.

As it is related to the changing political rationality of the IRI, this is a very visible example of how neoliberalization can be combined with familism, showing how neoliberal policies can strengthen the principles of the nuclear family. It’s not ostensibly about controlling the population but instead, about integrating it in IRI’s political economy into the family in order to survive the economic crisis.

Returning to the new laws, what do they mean in concrete terms for the reality of women’s lives in Iran? What consequences do these changes have for feminist struggles in the country?

First of all, these policies have not achieved the intended goal of increasing the birth rate. They have not changed women’s subjectivity and the tendency towards having fewer children. However, by pushing women back into the private sphere, IRI has dealt with the country’s economic crisis with women’s cheap labour and has enhanced male authority over women.

Moreover, these regressive policies have drastically worsened women’s reproductive health in Iran where both illegal abortions and sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise. Furthermore, by establishing policies to promote having more children, such as priority for fathers when it comes to job positions at official authorities or bonuses for marriages, the IRI has caused the decrease of the average age of marriage for women. In some cases, women are married even under the official minimum age of 13 years.

As issues of reproductive rights, especially the right to access abortions, are highly moralized and tied to Islamic values, it has been very hard for Iranian feminists to initiate an open debate on these issues. However, due to recent backlash, Iranian feminists are increasingly concerned with the relationship between the labour market’s gender gap, reproductive rights, care work, and neoliberalization. While we do not currently have an active movement or public campaign on this issue, more and more voices are being raised warning of the negative impact these developments have on the situation of women in Iran.

Let’s brave a transnational look at the topic. Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention in early July and the announcement about the withdrawal was accompanied by the view that the convention would “destroy” the family and propagate “Western values”. Do you see any parallels between Turkey and Iran? Are the developments in the two countries comparable? What do they mean for the future of feminist struggles in the region?

I think it is interesting that while many still consider neoliberalism in its ideal form as something opposed to religious, moralistic, and conservative regressive kind of lifestyles and values, we see in both cases how religious values function well within frameworks of familism and neoliberalism. There are, of course, differences in reproductive rights and related regulations in the respective countries. However, there are some global trends towards an increasingly strong entanglement of neoliberalism and religious conservatism—often at the expense of gender equality, reproductive rights, and feminist struggles.

Nevertheless, the situation of women in Iran in terms of reproductive rights cannot be equated with the Turkish experience. Turkey has had and continues to have a very strong feminist movement that has always fought for reproductive rights. Despite all the recent setbacks in Turkey, reproductive policies there are far more progressive than those in Iran. So, we are by no means starting from the same point of departure.

Yet, unfortunately, there is a tendency on the part of Turkey to move closer to the Iranian approach to women’s reproductive rights rather than the other way around. The withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention should be understood in this context. That is why it is so important for feminists from Iran and Turkey, as well as other countries in the region, to come together. We need to discuss these issues more systematically and across regions. We need to share information and experiences. This is the only way we can try to resist together.

I think that we will continue to be confronted with these kinds of setbacks in the near future in Iran, Turkey, and some other countries in the region. So, I believe that we can counter these unfortunate developments only in union.