EghtesadOnline: On October 1, the 12-member Guardians Council, which vets legislation’s consistency with the constitution and Islamic laws, approved a landmark reform bill granting citizenship to children born in marriages between Iranian mothers and foreign fathers.
Amid the overwhelming flow of disappointing reports over the past year, this bit of welcome news went largely unnoticed. But it enhanced my understanding of how “incremental cautious reform is likely to get more things right than any other kind”, as Adam Gopnik, staff writer for the New Yorker says in his new book “A Thousand Small Sanities”.
As he sees it, truly progressive politics is not about radical revolution but enlightened evolution. Whenever we look at how big problems get solved, he writes in a passage that gives the book its title, it was rarely a big idea that solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities.
For me, his argument is evident in this legislative success in Iran: Amending the Citizenship Act of the Civil Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran that will affect many lives in a positive way once enforced. It was a specific goal, not a utopian one, achieved by constitutional means and legal procedures.
The reform bill on citizenship law was the result of three years of the keen pursuit of consensus among political groups, a large-scale collaborative work involving parliamentarians and government officials, as well as a powerful lobbying campaign by civic organizations and the media.
The Right to Have Rights
Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the political theorist, Hannah Arendt, argued that the plight of stateless people comes from the existence of “the right to have rights”. This right was the right to citizenship—to membership of a political community.
In international law, a stateless person is someone who is "not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law". Statelessness or the loss of nationality status, Arendt said, was tantamount to the loss of all rights. The stateless were deprived not only of their citizenship rights; they were deprived of all human rights.
On Nov. 12, 2018, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned there were about 12 million stateless people in the world. Children born from Iranian mothers and foreign fathers account for nearly 50,000. These children have no official identification documents and consequently are deprived of basic human rights.
Furthermore, one of the most damaging effects of their status is chronic economic instability. Without the legal right to work, the stateless find few ways for upward mobility. Generation after generation of stateless people gets trapped in poverty and obscurity.
The stateless are usually excluded from the formal labor market and destined toward unemployment or underground economy. As a result, the job they must perform often pays less, offers little security and can be dangerous or exploitative.
A bit of storytelling may help, as people with the taken-for-granted benefit of nationality can get a glimpse of the depth of penury and plight of people with no recognized identity.
These documented real-life incidents were shared with Financial Tribune by Payman Haqiqat-Talab, the research director of Diaran Association, a non-governmental organization that played a key role leading up to the approval of the law authorizing citizenship through mother in early October.
First incident: Khadijeh is an Iranian woman married to an Afghan man living in one of the villages of the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan. Her six-year-old child was denied vaccine when she went to the rural health center, as they were only administered to school-age children who had the national ID card. Her child’s status as a stateless person robbed him/her of the right to healthcare.
Second incident: Reza is a 31-year-old man from an Iranian mother and an Iraqi father. He was unable to get hold of the heritage his mother left behind when she died for lacking the identity document. He couldn’t own anything, open a bank account, get a driver’s license, or even a SIM card because he didn’t have an ID card. His status as a stateless person robbed him of the right to ownership.
Third incident: Mehdi, a 16-year-old teenager, went through a traumatic experience as a child from an Iranian mother and an Afghan father. His mother had gone with him to Tehran’s Grand Bazaar where he got lost. The police found him but refused to return him to his mother, because she had no document to prove their parent-child relationship. The child was transferred into the care of State Welfare Organization. After a month of undergoing emotional turmoil and a DNA test, the mother was able to reunite with her child. His status as a stateless person robbed him of the right to living with family.
Timeline of the Legislation
According to Clause 4 of Article 976 of the Civil Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran “persons born in Iran of foreign parents, one of whom was also born in Iran are considered Iranian subjects”. That was the law of the land in the 1990s.
Following the get-tough policies on immigration and changes introduced in regulations and policy updates in the following decade, the child of an Iranian mother and foreign father were no longer regarded as a natural born Iranian citizen; they could only apply for Iranian citizenship between the ages of 18 and 19, provided they were born in Iran and had revoked their fathers’ inherited citizenship. They had in effect no right to citizenship before the age of 18.
UNHCR says only 25 countries retain nationality laws that deny women the right to pass their nationality to their children on an equal basis with men. Seven of these countries, including Iran, have the most stringent nationality laws that do not allow mothers to confer their nationality on their children with no, or very limited, exceptions.
These discriminatory laws can render children stateless when they are unable to acquire the nationality of the other parent, which can occur for a variety of reasons. While most gender-discriminatory provisions in nationality laws and policies disadvantage women, such discrimination also harms girls, boys, men and society as a whole.
Chipping Away at the Problem
“Good change happens step by step, stone by stone, and bird by bird, that we advance in life by invisible thoroughfares and, feeling our way along in their darkness, awaken to find ourselves changed and, sometimes, improved,” Gopnik says.
Diaran Association is one of the NGOs that actively participated in the process of amending citizenship law by acting as the consultative arm of the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor and Social Welfare.
Founded in 2017, it chose to advance three missions, namely changing attitude toward migrants in Iran, carrying out studies centering on migration and forwarding solutions to improve laws on migration.
Through content production for web to social media to TV and radio, the NGO managed to bring the matter to the attention of parliament through Majlis Research Center and the government via Ahmad Meydari, deputy minister of Cooperatives, Labor and Social Welfare, in February 2018.
Additional incremental measures such as reaching out to parliamentarians of all political parties and women’s rights activists, as well as engaging universities as the place for open debate between proponents and opponents of allowing mothers to confer their nationality on their children, were employed over the past three years by Diaran and other NGOs sharing the same concerns for stateless people.
By a resounding 188-20 margin, the parliament approved reform legislation of Citizenship Act on May 13, 2019, and sent it to the Guardians Council. On June 1, the council handed it back to the parliament with suggestions for amendments. The bill shuttled between the two on three more occasions until a compromise bill was approved by the council in early October.
As per the new amendments made to the citizenship act, minors (those under the age of 18) with Iranian mothers can apply for ID documents and those above 19 are also eligible to apply for citizenship.
The new legislation has also eliminated three stringent requirements: being born on the Iranian soil, renunciation of father’s inherited citizenship and submission of mother’s marriage certificate to the government.
Iran’s nationality law has a long road ahead for granting women equality with men in conferring nationality to their children. Yet, close enough is good enough—for now.