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Iran Takes Step Toward Abolishing Discriminatory Citizenship Law

Afghan returnees arrive at an International Organization for Migration (IOM) transit center in Herat after returning from Iran in January 2018.
Afghan returnees arrive at an International Organization for Migration (IOM) transit center in Herat after returning from Iran in January 2018.

For decades, a controversial law has denied citizenship and equal rights to Iranian children born to foreign fathers.

The discriminatory legislation has affected thousands of children both inside and outside Iran -- but none more than those fathered by Afghan refugees and migrants living in Iran.

But after a lengthy effort the country has taken a major step toward overturning the policy, under which only Iranian men can pass their nationality to spouses or children. On May 12 the country's parliament overwhelmingly approved a bill that would abolish the existing law, leaving it to the Guardians Council, the powerful clerical body that must approve all proposed legislation, to make it official.

Human rights groups have welcomed the move as a step toward gender equality in Iran, where enforced Islamic laws deny women equal rights in divorce, child custody, and inheritance. They have called on the Guardians Council to adopt the reform, while also noting that even if it is approved Iran has much work to do in the sphere of human rights.

Unexpected Boost

Iranian rights activists have been campaigning for years to abolish the law, noting that it has essentially made children born from marriages between Iranian women and Afghan refugees stateless.

There are no accurate statistics on how many children in Iran have Iranian mothers and foreign fathers. A 2013 government report, however, suggested that the country had around 30,000 registered marriages between Iranian women and Afghan men.

The campaign to abolish the law was given an unexpected boost following the death of Maryam Mirzakhani, an award-winning Tehran-born mathematician who died of cancer in the United States in July 2017. Mirzakhani's only daughter, 6-year-old Anahita, has a Czech father and was ineligible for Iranian citizenship.

Iran-born mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani died at age 40 in July 2017.
Iran-born mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani died at age 40 in July 2017.

Earlier that month, the parliamentary Culture Committee had approved the wording of draft legislation that would extend the granting of Iranian citizenship to the offspring of foreign fathers. But days after Mirzakhani's death, a group of Iranian lawmakers made an official request to expedite voting on the bill.

'No Path To Nationality'

"Iran's parliament finally addressed a discriminatory law that prevented women from rightfully passing their nationality to their children," Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement on May 14. "This law could improve the lives of thousands of children, including those with Iranian mothers married to undocumented migrants."

Page added that "more reforms are needed to ensure that Iranian law is in step with the region and international human rights norms."

HRW said the current law had left tens of thousands of children born and raised in Iran with no path to nationality, a status that has affected their access to education, health care, and jobs.

Before the vote, Iran was among only seven countries in the world that did not allow mothers to confer their nationality to their children, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The other six countries are Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Brunei, Somalia, and Swaziland.

The United Nations estimates the number of Afghan citizens in Iran at just under 1 million, many of whom claim to face violence and injustice. Tehran puts the figure of documented and undocumented Afghan refugees and migrants at closer to 3 million.

Tehran has expelled many Afghans and periodically threatens those who remain with mass expulsions. In the latest threat, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi on May 8 warned that Tehran could expel Afghan refugees due to crippling U.S. economic sanctions against Tehran.

Many of the Afghans moved to Iran following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. Others sought refuge in Iran after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. Many have taken on menial work that is of little appeal to Iranians, yet they are often blamed for insecurity and unemployment.

In 2015, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a decree allowing all Afghan children to be allowed into schools. Afghans are still denied basic services, however, including access to health care, jobs, and even housing.

'A Big Step'

The parliament's vote to reform the citizenship law was hailed by social-media users under the hashtag #MyMotherIsIranian in Persian.

Sayed Farid Musavi, a lawmaker and supporter of the bill, said on Twitter that the move was an "important step in supporting women and children and would solve one of their most important issues."

Khanem Hoghooghdan, from the eastern city of Mashhad, near the Afghan border, said it was "a big step toward ending racial discrimination."

"Eliminating this legal discrimination has been the demand of the women's rights activists for years," Iranian women's rights advocate and journalist Jila Baniyaghoob said in a tweet on May 13. "Now we can say: my mother is Iranian and I am, too."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.