Last week, Iran’s parliament approved a ban on permanent birth control and birth control advertising. The ban includes vasectomies and similar women’s surgeries, and doctors who carry out these procedures will face arrest. The passage of the bill was covered in the West with the usual tongue-in-cheek style reserved for times when a Middle Eastern country behaves in exactly the way the dominant Western narrative dictates it should. But in the case of Iran’s permanent birth control ban, the simplification is a staggering example of modern Orientalism.
Orientalism traditionally refers to the fetishization of Eastern cultures by Western academics. Works by anthropologists and scholars celebrated a mythically lavish place, populated by barbarically violent yet tantalizingly exotic peoples. As was often true of non-white cultures well into the early 20th century, Middle Eastern countries were seen as backwards, in need of being saved from themselves by the educated White Man.
Today, one could argue that Orientalism is less about elites drooling over the Other and more about the public refusing to acknowledge the complexity of countries like Iran. Particularly since 9/11, the United States especially has accepted and propagated a dominant narrative that casts Muslims as either villains or victims, with just enough space for one-off anecdotal instances of humanity in between.
In the case of Iran, the roles have long been cast. The Islamic government is the villain, while the Iranian people are the victims. Much like other people living under non-U.S. allied governments, the people of Iran are portrayed as downtrodden and without agency. They need, even crave, leadership from Western states in order to reform their country. Meanwhile, the government wrings their hands and plots new ways of crushing the public held so strongly under their thumbs.
So what does New Orientalism have to do with family planning in Iran? Through the civilized lens of the Western media, Iran’s ban on permanent birth control appears to be nothing more than the latest example of a Muslim country trampling the rights of the people. But that does no justice to the complex situation facing Iran today, or the country’s recent history of unparalleled success in widespread sex education and contraception use. When faced with an unsustainable growth in population, Iran responded with policy that the United States could never adopt. Iran’s reversal of family planning policy is not a tragedy because it is what we expect from an Islamic government, but because Iran had been so pragmatically progressive that it created a population crisis.
During the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, the Iranian government called on citizens to have many children. The war was devastating, and threatened to create a Lost Generation of Iranian youth. The public responded to the call by taking to the bedroom, and the population grew by about 3% annually until the late 1980s. But as the war came to an end the government saw they had a new crisis on their hands. The severely damaged economy —which had been put through a revolution and almost a decade of war—could not support a continued population boom.
The approach adopted by the Islamic Republic was swift and successful. Along with a public campaign advocating fewer children for a better life, the government mandated family planning classes and free contraception on demand. An innovative public healthcare system was put in place to serve rural areas, giving those far from major cities easy and free access to birth control and education. Following the war Iran also encouraged girls and women to pursue education, which not only brought about gender parity in schools but lead to a higher number of women than men in higher education. The result was among the fastest ever recorded declines in birth rate, dropping from six children per woman in the mid 1980s to 2.1 in 2000.
But today the fertility rate stands at 1.6 children per women, a number so low that a crisis yet again looms on the horizon. Much like Japan, Iran is set to have a population median age of 40 in the next 16 years, with the total number of citizens expected to fall by over half in the next 80 years. The issue is compounded by low immigration and high brain-drain. It has been on Iran’s radar for a while, and the state has already passed legislation designed to incentivize having children. The state will subsidize fertility treatments, while maternity and paternity leave have both been increased.
This new ban, which passed by a small but significant margin and now goes to the Guardian Council for approval, is just the latest attempt to stymie what is a very real crisis for the country. An aging population is a burden on taxpayers and the government, drawing resources that are difficult to replenish by those paying into the system. In addition, and more controversially, women leaving the workforce to have children is seen as a means to reduce the country’s high unemployment by opening up jobs for others—i.e. men.
Interestingly, the most convenient explanation for Iran’s ban on permanent birth control is not in any way correct. It may be tempting to chalk it up to a religiously motivated attack on sexuality, but Iran long used Islam to justify their aggressively pragmatic and progressive family planning program. Religious rhetoric may be employed to align state policy with the theocratic constitution, but it’s not the central or even a peripheral issue here. Iran must put policy in place today to head off a population crisis tomorrow.
That’s not to say reversing course and banning any form of birth control is a wise decision. Although this ban applies to both men and women, it is women who will bear the brunt of any population increase and lose important ground in their ongoing struggle for gender equality. But given Iran’s normalization of comprehensive contraceptive access and the country’s highly educated population, it’s unclear how far the government can take this reversal before the people challenge these decisions.
But that story—the story of a country mired in a complex issue where gender, economics and public health intersect—is less engaging than the story of a dictatorial Ayatollah crushing his people. Orientalism and other forms of oppressive cultural narrative have no room for nuance or complexity. And so rather than see Iran’s ban on permanent birth control as a flawed answer to a serious question that many Western nations could face as well, we throw up our hands and roll our eyes at the latest example of Islamic barbarism.
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