Family Change and Continuity in Iran: Birth Control Use before First Pregnancy

By Abbasi-Shavazi, Mohammad Jalal; Morgan, S. Philip et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Family Change and Continuity in Iran: Birth Control Use before First Pregnancy


Abbasi-Shavazi, Mohammad Jalal, Morgan, S. Philip, Hossein-Chavoshi, Meimanat, McDonald, Peter, Journal of Marriage and Family


Using data from the 2002 Iran Fertility Transition Survey, we examined birth control use between marriage and first pregnancy. We focused on the post-1990 increase in birth control use and develop two explanations. The first posits that birth control use reflects a new marriage form, the conjugal marriage, which places a heightened value on the spousal relationship while deemphasizing the centrality of parenthood. A second explanation stresses the use of a new resource, effective birth control, within an Iranian-Islamist view of marriage. Key to this explanation is the role of the state - Iranian political/religious actors encourage early marriage and the use of birth control. Although the explanations could be complementary, evidence provides more support for the latter.

Key Words: birth control, family change, Iran, Islamic, population policy, pregnancy interval.

Aspects of Iranian family and gender have changed dramatically; examples include the most rapid fertility decline ever observed, from over six births to slightly above two in the 1985-2000 period (Abbasi-Shavazi, 2002; Abbasi-Shavazi & McDonald 2006; Aghajanian & Mehryar, 1999), and then to 1 .9 in 2006 (Abbasi-Shavazi, McDonald, & HosseiniChavoshi, 2009). Also, women's literacy level has increased dramatically (from 36% in 1976 to 80% in 2006), and women who successfully pass university entrance exams now outnumber men (Abdollahyan, 2004). But equally striking is the stability of other traditional patterns. Labor force participation is low for all women and especially if one focuses on those married and with children (Mehryar & Tajdini, 1998). Although age at marriage is rising (AbbasiShavazi, Hosseini-Chavoshi, & McDonald, 2007; Bahramitash & Kazemipour, 2006), women still marry relatively young as compared with many other low fertility countries in Southeast Asia (Jones, 2005, 2007); most women marry eventually, and there is no evidence of voluntary childlessness (Hosseini-Chavoshi, 2007). Finally, consanguinity (marriage with relatives) has remained high (around 40%) over the last four decades (Abbasi-Shavazi, Hosseini-Chavoshi, & McDonald, 2008; Givens & Hirschman, 1994; Saadat, Ansari-Lari, & Farhud, 2004; Torabi, 2006). How can we understand this mixture of family change and stability in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world's most visible theocracy?

Our empirical focus is on a small component of family and fertility change, the length of the interval between marriage and first pregnancy (or first birth). This focus is not driven by the importance of this change in accounting for the dramatic fertility decline noted above - in this respect the lengthening of the period to first pregnancy is trivial (see Hosseini-Chavoshi, McDonald, & Abbasi-Shavazi, 2006). Rather we concentrated on the first pregnancy interval because of its substantive importance as a possible marker of the changing nature of marriage and gender relations. Alternatively, the changes we documented may reflect an attempt to maintain the status quo in the face of exigencies encouraging marriage and fertility delay.

More generally, we constrasted two broad theoretical interpretations. First, a widely used theoretical model posits a shift in family structure from arranged to companionate marriage driven by industrialization and Western ideology (e.g., Goode, 1963; also see Thornton, 2001, 2005). This fundamental shift in the basis for marriage would, in turn, predict the observed changes in the first pregnancy interval. Alternatively, the changes we documented could reflect a pathdependent attempt to maintain the status quo in the face of exigencies encouraging marriage and fertility delay.

Below we explain our interest in the first birth interval and then develop these two explanations that can account for recent large increases in birth control use between marriage and the first birth. This exercise provides a window into family and gender in contemporary Iran. …

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