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Body Politics

Iran’s birthrate has fallen. Is it because Iranian women have greater opportunity? Or is it a reaction to the Islamist regime?

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Iranian schoolgirls listening to a speech by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran on February 20, 2011. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

“Preposterous,” my colleague Michelle Goldberg writes in response. She argues that Iran’s fertility rate, similar to that of Iceland and Chile, is evidence of “fitful modernization.” Goldberg explains: “As education and opportunities increase for women, fertility rates go down. That’s as true of Iran, where women now outnumber men by two to one in universities, as it is anywhere.”

Goldberg’s argument ignores the thrust of my column, which was that the debate over whether or not Iran was rational or suicidal was beside the point. Instead, she fastened on to a marginal sentence to defend her version of first-world feminist orthodoxy. The perhaps unintended result is that she winds up arguing that the Iranian regime is actually pro-feminist.

“Of course women are educated in Iran,” Roya Hakakian, an Iranian-American author, told me. “But it’s a silly argument. To create causality between a lower birth rate and women’s opportunities is not scientific. Specifically, it doesn’t take into account that marriage rates have dropped due to a depressed economy and high unemployment. It’s gotten so bad that two or three years ago the government set aside a budget to subsidize marriages.”

Goldberg is so committed to the idea that declining fertility rates are the result of increasing opportunities for women that she ignores the actual situation for women in the Islamic Republic. “Prostitution has skyrocketed,” says Hakakian. “The economy has forced Iranian women to do things they never would’ve contemplated before.”

The fact is that the Iranian government’s “modernization” came to an end with the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979. A core component of this modernization drive was improving the status of women, which included the establishment of family-planning clinics.

From the outset, Khomeini’s Islamic Republic set itself squarely against modernity. On the external front, this meant challenging the West, in particular the Great Satan: the United States. The internal enemy of the regime was the emancipated Iranian woman. As Goldberg notes, Khomeini was against family planning. The clerical regime closed and defunded clinics. The Supreme Leader, eager to export the Islamic revolution, called for a 20-million-man army, rising from the wombs of Iranian mothers.

“Khomeini said, ‘have kids, we’ll pay for it,’ ” says Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi, an exiled Iranian working on a documentary about Iran’s feminist movement. “They said, ‘we’ll pay for water, housing, education, everything.’ ”

Yet after the decade-long war with Iraq, the regime understood that it could not afford the blank check that the recently deceased Khomeini had written. The economy, reliant almost exclusively on the energy sector, could barely support its existing population, let alone adequate services for the nearly half a million disabled veterans returning from the Iraqi front.

The purpose of the regime’s subsequent family-planning program was obviously not to empower women. Under the Islamic Republic, women have never been anywhere near equal to men. In Iran, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man, and she is entitled to only half the inheritance due a male heir. Women are stoned for having sexual relationships contrary to the laws imposed on them by bearded clerics, and they are arrested for crimes such as wearing blue jeans and lipstick in public. Margaret Atwood would have a tough time imagining anything as patriarchal and oppressive.

It was fear that the youth bulge might come to threaten its economic and political privilege that motivated the regime to put an Islamic face on family-planning measures that the Khomeinist revolution had rejected. “They used slogans like ‘the small family is a divine family,’ ” recalls Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-American writer, and a Tablet contributor, who left Tehran in 1998. The regime dispensed condoms and birth-control pills with the approbation of the clerics under the umbrella of a religiously ordained campaign that would give Goldberg the creeps if right-wing evangelicals were behind it.

Ahmadinejad, as Goldberg notes, is not happy with the declining birth rate. Like Khomeini, he wants more bodies to throw at the regime’s enemies. “Iranian women didn’t listen to him,” writes Goldberg, perhaps imagining that they instead availed themselves of the “opportunities” the regime had on offer.

The truth is that there are few opportunities for Iranian women, or men for that matter. The same depressed social climate that has kept young Iranians from marrying and driven some women into prostitution is what sent young Iranians to the streets in June 2009. In retaliation, the regime waged a campaign of terror, targeting those most vulnerable in Iranian society: women. Some, like 25-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, were shot to death in the streets, while others were jailed, tortured, and raped. In short, “fitful modernization” is a rather vicious euphemism to describe the Islamic Republic’s position on the role of women in Iranian society.

Despite similar birth rates, Iran is nothing at all like Iceland and Chile. Surely Goldberg, as the author of a book about politics and birth rates, knows this. So, then why does this feminist align herself, even tacitly, with a ruling order that is founded on the medieval treatment of women? Perhaps it’s just knee-jerk political warfare: That is, in order to score a point against those on the other side of this country’s blessedly narrow political spectrum, she is willing to ignore the brutal reality inhabited by other people on the far side of the world.

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David B. says:

if I were living in fascist state I’d not be randy either.

Hershel (Heshy) Ginsburg says:

Michelle Goldberg provides a masterful demonstration of how political correctness is inversely proportional to factual correctness; in other words if you possess the “correct” ideological view, historical, sociological and political facts become irrelevant.

Iran did not merely sacrifice “young men” in the Iran-Iraq War, it used ~100K boys and teenagers as human minesweepers. Before they went off on their inherently suicidal missions, the boys were given plastic keys which were to be their “keys to heaven” (and the 72 virgins).

The regime had a hard time dealing with the fragmented bodies of the expended minesweepers (parents objected to getting their kids back in pieces) and so they came up with the idea of tying a carpet (Persian of course) remnant around each kid before he went off to set off a land mine. This kept the body relatively intact.

Before heading off, the kids were given pep talks by some of the more extreme activists supporting the Khomeini regime. One of these motivational speakers was a young engineer named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Jerusalem / Efrata, Israel

Hershel (Heshy) Ginsburg says:

About 6 years ago, the New Republic published a feature article by Matthias Küntzel on entitled “Ahmadinejad’s Demons” which documented and explained the ideology & theology that underlies Mad Mahmoud & Iran’s ruling elite. The article provides an excellent basis for understanding how Iran could use its teenage boys as human minesweepers and also why thinking that one could negotiate with Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions (even using a “transformational personality” to conduct the negotiations) or that an Iran with nukes could be “contained” is dangerously and lethally naive. For some reason, the TNR web site no longer has the article, but it can be found on Küntzel’s own web site (here: as well as a gazillion other places on the web.

I strongly recommend reading the article – its a sure cure for naivete, especially of the lethal variety.



One problem in Smith’s position is that it posits that the alternative to rationality is suicidality. The result is that if any holes can be poked in the thesis that Iran is suicidal, those holes would punch through to the notion that Iran is irrational.

An alternative is that the Iranian regime is irrational in some manner other than suicality. One possible form of such irrationality is messianism in the manner of Bar Kochba.

Hershel (Heshy) Ginsburg says:

The Iranian elite is very rational, given their 12-er theology just as Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot etc. were quite rational given their utopian communist ideology (and arguably theology).

Again, I strongly suggest reading Matthias Küntzel’s article if you want to gain some insight and understanding of those who are ruling Iran. You just might learn something.


Poyani says:

Goldberg and Smith are looking for an explanations in the most preposterous places.

Iran has a low birth-rate because its government launched a very successful family planning program (according to the UN one of the best in the world), with the specific aim of lowering birth rates.

All this nonsense about national suicide, people rebelling by not having children or worse yet, digging up the (now 24 years) dead Khomeini is ridiculous.

Poyani says:

Most of the stuff written about irrationality, suicidal tendencies, or messianic nature of Iran’s government is laughable and idiotic. Anyone with half-a-brain and a shallow understanding of recent Iranian history could prove these idiotic claims false.

Here is a quick, 1 paragraph refutation which no one in the “Iran is messianic/irrational” crowd could or would respond to.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, 2 of the newly created nations in the Caucasus began to feud over territory. These were Christian Armenia and Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan. Armenia was a democratic state. Azerbaijan, like Iran, was a theocratic Shiite state. Which would you think Iran backed?

If the messianic/irrational crowd were correct then Iran would have undoubtedly backed Azerbaijan. It didn’t. It backed Armenia. Do you want to know why? Because Azerbaijan was involved in the construction of an oil pipeline which carried oil from the Caspian sea through Turkey to the European markets. Iran backed Armenia because it stood to gain more money and influence by doing so. In the end, Iran’s rulers didn’t give a damn about Shiite Islam or theocracy. All that mattered to them was money and power, like every other country.

You will NEVER see any of the “irrational” crowd address that one huge gaping hole in their logic, for obvious reasons.


And for the record, Iran did not send HUNDREDS of THOUSANDS of children to their deaths in the Iran-Iraq war as some half-wit here is claiming. There was one American report of a few dozen children being used in this way. The report was denied by Iran. That is all the information that is available on this subject. The rest is delusional ramblings of people who cannot distinguish their heads from their asses.

Nasdaq7 says:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the Mad.

Why doesn’t Iranians just get rid of him? He is a lunatic. He crushes political opponents. Wants confrontation the whole time. Loves to engage not in debates, but fights. He really can’t think for himself. His people will die isolated and poor and for what? A few nuclear weapons? You can’t eat nuclear weapons. It is no money in your pockets. It is only poverty, international isolation and condemnation.

Peaceforall1998 says:

How About the cost of living is soo high , one Child is our new Iranian policy.

I think that the education of women & the youth turning away from the radical mosques are two strong reasons for the declining fertility rate in Iran. But Mr. Smith’s arguments are more cohesive then Ms.Goldberg’s. This situations make the nuts who running the Country that much more scary. Iran with nuclear weapons is like N.Korea but on steroids.


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Iran’s birthrate has fallen. Is it because Iranian women have greater opportunity? Or is it a reaction to the Islamist regime?

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