Last Updated 12 November 2019

Iran, the second largest nation in the Middle East, has a population of more than 80 million, of which (on paper at least) 99% are identified as Muslim. The Muslim majority includes a Shia majority (90%) and 9% Sunni Muslims (Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis and Kurds). The remaining 1% of non-Muslim population are identified as Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and Yarsanis. A considerable part of the Muslim population practice Sufism. Iran experienced a far-reaching Islamization of law and society after the Islamic revolution in 1979. Hassan Rouhani has been the president since 2013.

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran contains provisions which should protect freedom thought, religion or belief (Article 23 in particular forbids “the investigation of individuals’ beliefs”, stating that “no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.” However, this guarantee is frequently ignored in practice. Similar Article 20 guarantees equality before the law, but qualifies that this equality is subject to “conformity with Islamic criteria”, which in practice means that many groups face discrimination in law and the application of law.

In reality, freedom of religion or belief, and the freedoms of expression, association and assembly in the Islamic Republic of Iran are all severely restricted. Iranian law bars any criticism of Islam or deviation from the ruling Islamic standards. The authorities sometimes use these laws to persecute religious minorities and government critics.

Religious minorities

The constitution declares that Islam (Ja’afari Shiism) is the state religion. Articles 12 and 13 divide citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran into four religious categories: Muslims, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians. Nonbelievers are effectively left out and precluded from certain legal rights or protections: Iranians must declare their faith in one of the four officially recognized religions in order to be able to claim a number of legal rights, such as the capacity to apply for the general examination to enter any university in Iran. The authorities classify Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, although Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith. Similarly, Sabean-Mandaeans do not consider themselves as Christians, but the government classifies them among the Christian groups.

According to the constitution, the main Sunni schools of Islam have to be “accorded full respect”. However, all religious minority groups, including Sunni Muslims, face harassment, restrictions and discrimination in employment, education and housing.

The Baha’i faith is not recognized and is routinely described by authorities as a heretical variant on Islam, against the self-identification of the Baha’i community as a distinct religion which encompasses multiple traditions. Its members face immense discrimination. The members of the Baha’i community are generally prevented from burying their dead according to their traditions and many cemeteries have been destroyed. Their community is prohibited from officially assembling. Authorities often prevent Baha’is from leaving the country and has disregarded their property rights. Some religious leaders state publicly that Baha’is are “unclean” and that conducting business with them is forbidden. Several Baha’i leaders remain in detention. The members of the Baha’i minority face substantial societal discrimination.

As in some other Islamic states, the law authorizes collection of “blood money” or diyeh as a form of restitution to families when Muslims or members of recognized religious minorities are wrongfully killed or murdered. Baha’i families, however, are excluded from this provision, which has led to concerns that Baha’is effectively have reduced protections in cases of violent crime. This law also reduces the
diyeh for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man.

Sufism is similarly denounced by Shia clerics in public statements. Security services harass and intimidate prominent Sufi leaders and the government  restricts Sufi activities.

Non-Muslims are not eligible to become members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (the Iranian parliament) through general elections. However, Article 64 of the Constitution grants 5 Parliamentary seats to the recognized religious minorities. According to this provision, two seats are reserved for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians together, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians. By law, non-Muslims may not serve in the judiciary, the security services, or as public school principals.

Religious powers

Article 110 of the Constitution lists all the powers granted to the Spiritual Leader (a Muslim religious and political leader), appointed by his peers for an unlimited duration. Among others, the Spiritual Leader exercises his control over the judiciary, the army, the police, the radio, the television, but also over the President and the Parliament, institutions elected by the people. Article 91 of the Constitution establishes a body known as the “Guardian Council” whose function is to examine the compatibility of all legislation enacted by the Islamic Consultative Assembly with “the criteria of Islam and the Constitution” and who can therefore veto any and all legislation. Half of the members of the Guardian Council are appointed by the Spiritual Leader and the other half are elected by the Islamic Consultative Assembly from among the Muslim jurists nominated by the Head of the Judicial Power (who is, himself, appointed by the Spiritual Leader).

The Guardian Council exercise a double control of any draft legislation, with two different procedures: conformity with the Constitution (all 12 elected members vote, a simple majority recognizes the constitutionality) and conformity with Islam (only the six religious leaders elected personally by the Spiritual leader vote, and a simple majority is required to declare the compatibility of a draft legislation with Islam). Consequently, four religious leaders may block all draft legislation enacted by the Parliament. The Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader thus centralize all powers in Iran.

Only Muslims are able to take part in the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and to conduct public affairs at a high level. According to the Constitution, non-Muslims cannot hold the following key decision-making positions: President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who must be a Shi’a Muslim (Article 1156); Commanders in the Islamic Army (Article 1447); Judges, at any level (Article 163 and law of 1983 on the selection of judges 8).

Iran operates a harsh form of Sharia—Islamic law—under which a wide range of political, social and moral offenses may be punishable with flogging, amputation, or execution. Amendments to Iran’s penal code in 2013 eliminated execution by stoning. However, Iran still carries out hundreds of executions by hanging every year. Many executions are for the crime of “enmity against God” (moharebeh). It is sometimes argued that Moharebeh applies only in cases of armed aggression against the state, however there are reports that this law is sometimes used against political opposition, religious minorities and protesters where terrorism or armed conflict are not necessarily present; or where there are instances of alleged torture in connection of those imprisoned under this law.

Discrimination in application of the law

A study of the Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran reveals that, for a number of offences, the punishment differs in function of the religion of the victim and/or the religion of the offender. The fate of Muslim victims and offenders is systematically more favourable than that of non-Muslims, showing that the life and physical integrity of Muslims is given a much higher value than that of non-Muslims. This institutionalized discrimination is particularly blatant for the following crimes:

  • Adultery: The sanctions for adultery vary widely according to the religion of both members of the couple. A Muslim man who commits adultery with a Muslim woman is punished by 100 lashes (Article 88). However, a non-Muslim man who commits adultery with a Muslim woman is subject to the death penalty (Article 82-c). If a Muslim man commits adultery with a non-Muslim woman, the Penal Code does not specify any penalty.
  • Homosexuality: Likewise, homosexuality “without consummation” between two Muslim men is punished by 100 lashes (Article 121) but if the “active party” is non-Muslim and the other Muslim, the non-Muslim is subject to the death penalty.
  • Crimes against the Deceased: Article 494 stipulates penalties for crimes against a deceased Muslim but the Penal Code does not edict any penalties for the violation of the corpse of a non-Muslim.

Education and children’s rights

Religious instruction is mandatory in public schools. All recognized religious minority groups are allowed to open private schools. However, the directors of the schools must be, with a few exceptions, Muslims, and the content of school books and curricula must be approved by the government. Christians and Jews are allowed to teach in Hebrew, but the distribution of Hebrew books is limited, what makes it difficult to teach the language. All languages have to be translated into Persian, in order to be approved by the authorities and impose significant translation fees on the religious minority groups. The government eliminated in the recent years almost all Persian-language church services, restricting them to Assyrian and Armenian languages. The teaching of languages has thereby become important for religious minority groups.

Sunni Muslims are not allowed to build new schools and report bans on teachings in public schools and on religious literature, even in predominantly Sunni Muslim areas. Jewish students are not required to attend school on Saturdays. However, Jewish schools have to remain open on Saturdays, violating the Jewish religious law.

Baha’is are actively prevented from attending universities. They have to identify with a recognized religious minority group in order to inscribe at a university. A government order requires that Baha’is must be expelled from universities if their religious affiliation becomes known and Baha’is are sometimes required to sign a statement at university, which states that they will not attend any Baha’i religious activity. Further, the order states that “Baha’i children should be enrolled in Shia Islamic schools with a strong and imposing religious ideology”. The Baha’i community reports that their children in public schools face attempts by their teachers and administrators to convert them to Islam. Teachers generally ask Baha’i and other non-Shia children about their families’ religious practices, as for instance if their parents fulfill their duties of the religious prayers at home, etc.

Child Marriage

In August 2019, a video emerged of an 11-years-old girl marrying his 22 years-old cousin in a ceremony led by a mullah in rural Iran. The video sparked widespread outrage and led the public prosecutor, two days after the ceremony, to declare the wedding null and indict the mullah and the girl’s parents for an illegal underage marriage.

Activists and progressive politicians have long been trying to change the marriage laws in Iran, however according to the existing provisions child marriage remains legal: in fact, article 1041 of Iran’s Civil Code states that Iranian girls can get married at age 13 and boys at age 15, if they have their parents consent, but if families want to marry off a daughter that is 12 or younger – or a boy who is 14 or younger – they can ask a judge to declare them “”intellectually mature” enough for marriage”. According to official statistics, 5.5% of weddings in Iran involve brides under 15.

Humanists International have denounced the issue to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2019, with IHEU Director of Advocacy, Elizabeth O’Casey, underlining that “between 2010 and 2020 it is estimated that 142 million girls will marry as children” worldwide, and that “for some 70,000 young brides who die every year as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications, early marriage is a death sentence.”

Family, community and society

No civil or secular family law

The legal interpretation of Islam forces all citizens, with no regard to their faith, to follow strict rules based on religion.

Family law derives exclusively from religious law, for Shia Muslims it is the Sharia based on Shia interpretation and for other recognized religious groups, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, they can relate to their own norms. Sunni Muslims can apply their laws in marriage, divorce and inheritance matters. Baha’i marriages and divorces are officially not recognised, but the government allows a civil attestation of marriage to serve as a marriage certificate. The legal age of marriage is 13 years for girls and 15 for boys and is the same for all sectarian groups. Generally both spouses have to agree to a marriage. However women are discriminated in law and practice.

Same-sex relationships are illegal in Iran for women and men. Men have been executed for alleged crimes of lavāt (“sodomy”).

On 23 January 2008, Hamzeh Chavi and Loghman Hamzehpour were arrested in Sardasht. It has been reported that the couple confessed to the authorities that they were in a relationship and in love, prompting the court to charge them with mohārebe (“waging war against God”) and lavāt (“sodomy”).

The law requires all male citizens over age 18 to serve in the military but exempts gay and transgender women, who are classified as having mental disorders. There are concerns that accused gay people are routinely harassed and face summary trials with poor standards of justice.

All materials related to LGBTI+ issues is generally censored by the government. Authorities particularly block websites or content within sites that discuss LGBTI issues, including the censorship of Wikipedia pages defining LGBTI+ and other related topics.

Discrimination against women

Women are considered to be under male guardianship. Article 1105 of the civil code states that men are the exclusive head of the family and women do not have the same rights as men regarding child custody. Further, women are discriminated in inheritance law and inherit less than their male relatives. Women can hardly obtain a divorce, even with the Islamic principle of “khula”, where a woman obtains a divorce and forfeits all future financial support from her husband, she still needs the consent of her husband. There is no specific law criminalizing domestic violence. Rape is not recognised as a distinct offence, but rather as adultery and a rape victim must present four male eyewitnesses in order to prove the crime. Female witnesses count only the half of male witnesses. Spousal rape is not recognised. Men have the right to sign a temporary marriage contract (sigheh) according to Shia interpretation of religious law. Adultery is considered a crime and be punished with the death sentence. Polygyny is allowed, meaning that Muslim men can marry up to four wives. Women need the permission of their male guardian in order to obtain a passport and to travel abroad. Married women need their husband’s permission to work outside the home.

Gender segregation is enforced throughout the country. Women are required to cover their hair and fully covering their body in loose clothing. “Un-Islamic” dress is periodically punished by the authorities. In 2014 women in Isfahan protested against at least acid attacks against women. The women were targeted because their clothing was considered not to conform to Islamic norms.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values


Conversion from Islam is generally considered “apostasy” under Sharia law, which is punishable by death, and Sharia judgments are permitted and encouraged under the law.

While the Iranian constitution does not itself include any provision criminalizing apostasy, there are several legal provisions that give judges the discretion to find defendants guilty of apostasy. According to Article 167 of the constitution: “The judge is bound to endeavor to judge each case on the basis of the codified law. In case of the absence of any such law, he has to deliver his judgment on the basis of authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwa. He, on the pretext of the silence of or deficiency of law in the matter, or its brevity or contradictory nature, cannot refrain from admitting and examining cases and delivering his judgment.”

Likewise, a child born to a Muslim father is automatically considered to be Muslim. Proselytizing to Muslims may also be a capital crime in some circumstances.

Citizens who do not belong to a recognized religious minority are legally forbidden from engaging in public religious expression, or wearing religious symbols.

“Enmity against God” and blasphemy

The government jails and executes periodically dozens of individuals on charges of “enmity against God” (moharebeh). Although this crime is framed as a religious offense, and may be used against atheists and other religious dissenters, it is most often used as a punishment for political acts that challenge the regime (on the basis that to oppose the theocratic regime is to oppose Allah).

According to Iran’s Islamic penal code, insulting the prophet is punishable by death, although a clause states if the accused states the insults were the result of a mistake or were made in anger, the sentence can be reduced to 74 lashes. The usual method of execution in Iran is hanging.

In September 2015, Marjan Davari, a translator, researcher, and writer, was arrested and held in solitary confinement for three months before being transferred to a women’s ward. On 12 march 2017, Davari was sentenced to death by the revolutionary court in Iran. Davari was accused of blasphemy, “conspiring against the regime”, being a member of Eckenkar (a spiritual movement founded in the 1960s), “spreading corruption on earth”, adultery, and insulting the supreme leader. Authorities reportedly prevented Davari’s lawyer from reading her case file, and denied the lawyer’s requests for bail. While imprisoned, Davari reportedly suffered from health issues for which she was denied appropriate medical treatment.

In February 2017, Professor Ahmadreza Djalali, who worked for the Free University in Brussels, was arrested and threatened with the death sentence by Iranian security forces, who accused him of “collaborating with scientists from hostile nations” and “enmity against God”. The latest report on the case suggest that “Dr. Djalali’s state of health has deteriorated significantly in recent months and he is in urgent need of specialist medical attention.” Humanists International as well as the Scholars at Risk Network have asked for his immediate pardon and release.

Media and “morals”

The Press Court has extensive power to prosecute journalists and control print media. It uses this power to prevent publication of anything that could be seen as critical of the regime or contrary to its strict interpretation of Shi’a Islam. Numerous periodicals are closed for morality or security offenses every year. In 2012, even the head of the state news agency, Ali Akbar Javanfek, was jailed for six months for publishing content “contrary to Islamic standards.”

Freedom of expression is severely restricted by the regime. The government directly controls all television and radio broadcasting, and outlaws the reception of independent media, for example by making it illegal to own a satellite dish. Cooperation with Persian-language satellite news channels based abroad is banned; for example, a leading economist, Fariborz Raisdana, was arrested in December 2010 for criticizing Iranian economic policies on the Persian service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Professor Raisdana began serving a one-year prison term in May 2012. In addition, Iranian journalists living abroad have been intimidated by the Iranian government, for example by the harassment of family members who still live in Iran. Iran ranks second in the world for the number of jailed journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In July 2013, following the election of the new president of Iran, widely seen as more moderate than his predecessor, Iranian authorities jailed seven more journalists (see individual case below) and arrested several others in a renewed media crackdown.

Iranian filmmakers are subject to tight restrictions. In January 2012, the government ordered the closure of the House of Cinema, an independent association that supported around 5,000 Iranian filmmakers and artists.

On July 13, 2013, seven members of the Dervish religious minority were sentenced to a total of 56 years for running a news website.

In 2015, journalists Issa Saharkhiz, Ehsan Mazandarani, Afarin Chitsaz, and Saman Safarzai were arrested on charges of membership of “an infiltration group connected to the United States and United Kingdom.” Saharkhiz was conditionally released from prison in April 2017 after being sentenced to three years in August 2016 for “insulting the supreme leader” and agitating “against the state.” In April 2016, Mazandarani was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the state”. After the sentence was reduced on appeal to two years in July 2016, Mazandarani was released from prison on 31 October 2017.

In May 2016, human rights defender and journalist Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison by a court in Tehran. The court charged Mohammadi with “propaganda against the state” and allegedly harming national security by establishing the illegal “Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” organization. In court, interviews she gave to international media outlets and her meeting with the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in March 2014 were cited as “evidence” for her conviction. According to media reports, prison authorities repeatedly denied Mohammadi medical attention for significant health problems and denied her family visits and calls.

Internet and protest

Access to the Internet has soared over the last five years in Iran. As with the “Arab Spring” uprisings, in 2009 many Iranians used mobile phones and social media to organize and publicize widespread protests—the “Green Movement” against the regime. In fact the use of social networking technology was so central to the popular protests that the democratic uprising became known as “The Twitter Revolution.” The government responded by creating draconian new laws to restrict access to communication tools, persecute dissidents for their online activity, and strengthen the government’s already powerful censorship system. The major social-media sites—such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—were blocked after the 2009 election. In 2012, the authorities unveiled new regulations that require cybercafés to record the personal information and browsing histories of every customer. The first phase of a national intranet, aimed at disconnecting the population from the WorldWideWeb, was launched in September 2012.

Sattar Beheshti, an Iranian blogger and activist, died during torture and interrogation in Evin Prison in early November 2012, several days after being arrested by the Iranian Cyber Police unit for criticizing the government of the Islamic Republic. In 2016, a 16-year prison sentence was upheld against human rights defender Narges Mohammadi by Iran’s Appeals Court for her peaceful human rights work. Among other things, she had been calling for the prosecution and fair trial of Sattar Beheshti’s interrogator.

Freedom of association and assembly

Freedom of association and assembly are severely limited in Iran. The constitutional prohibition against public demonstrations that “are detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam” is used to ban any demonstration the authorities may not like. The government condones violent groups of vigilante, and extra-legal paramilitary groups—such as the Basij and Ansar-i Hezbollah—that are used to break up demonstrations by assaulting the protestors, often resulting in serious, permanent injuries and even death. Even peaceful, non-political protests are put down with brutal force.

Independent trade unions remain banned with several trade unionist still in prison. Security forces continue to violently suppress peaceful protests by workers, including on International Workers’ Day.

On 5 May 2018, Hamed Sepehri and Jafar Ebrahimi, two Iranian environmental activists, were sentenced to 18 months behind bars on charges of “spreading propaganda against the state”. The two men had already been arrested by intelligence agents on 11 March 2018 and had been temporarily released on bail on 17 April. Sepehri and Ebrahimi represent two of the 75 environmental activists in prison in Iran in May 2018.

Protests against forced hijab and clerical rule

On 28 December 2017, anti-government protests erupted in the northern city of Mashhad and spread across the country, causing the biggest domestic challenge against the Iranian government since the mass protests that took place in 2009. Demonstrators initially marched against rising prices of basic goods, unemployment, and economic inequality. The scope of the protests quickly expanded to include political opposition to the regime and its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. According to the French newspaper “Le Monde”, 25 people died as a result of the demonstrations and around 400 people were arrested.

Internet access was shut down in any parts of the country. Iranian authorities blocked access to social media and messaging apps in order to prevent demonstrators from organizing themselves. UN human rights experts urged Iran to respect rights of protesters, and end the internet crackdown. Hundreds of people extended their protests outside of Iran’s Evin Prison, demanding information about those who had been detained and who were reportedly being tortured inside the prison facility.

In 2014, the US-based Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad founded ‘My Stealthy Freedom’, an online movement opposed to the mandatory dress code, and in May 2017 started the White Wednesdays campaign, encouraging women to wear white headscarves or take them off to protest against the rules.

In February 2018, Iranian police arrested 29 women in Tehran accused of being “deceived” into joining protests against a law enforced after the 1979 revolution that makes wearing the hijab compulsory. Women across the country were protesting against the law by climbing onto utility boxes, taking off their headscarves and waving them from a stick. In response, Iranian officials reportedly restricted access to social-media and messaging services in an attempt to silence the unrest. The Iranian prosecutor general defined the protests as “childish”, “emotionally charged”, and instigated “from outside the country”.

Among those arrested was Shaparak Shajarizadeh, an active member of the White Wednesday movement, arrested in late February 2018 after she removed her headscarf in a public protest against the arrest of Movahedi, a fellow protester against the mandatory wearing of hijab. Shajarizadeh faced trial for “inciting corruption and prostitution” and was sentenced to two years behind bars and 18 years of suspended imprisonment for opposing compulsory veil.

In 2019, amid an ongoing campaign aimed at silencing foreign-based activists, agents of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry arrested the brother of the U.S.-based activist Masih Alinejad. The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) “has documented dozens of cases of activists’ and journalists’ family members being harassed and detained” as part of the Iranian intelligence strategy to “to muzzle criticism of state policies”, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) have denounced Iran’s recent crackdown on protesters against the regime to the UN Human Rights Council.

Highlighted cases

In November 2014, the Supreme court upheld the death sentence of blogger Soheil Arabi for the charge of “insulting the Prophet Muhammad” on Facebook.

In February 2014, the Supreme court upheld the death sentence of Ruhollah Tavana for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

In January 2012, the country’s Supreme Court confirmed the previously handed down death sentence for 35-year-old web designer and Canadian resident Saeed Malekpour. He had returned to Iran in 2008 to visit his dying father and was arrested for “insulting and desecrating Islam” for allegedly creating a computer program used by others to download pornography.

In January, 2017 21 year old, Sina Dehghan was sentenced to death for insulting Islam. Dehghan had been sentenced to death by Iranian authorities for ‘insulting Islam’ through messages he had sent on an instant messaging app. Reports claim that he was ‘tricked into signing his own death warrant’ after he was forced to confess to breach of Islamic law, with the promise of release if he did so. However, authorities dropped the agreement after his confession and sentenced him to death in January 2017. Human Rights groups in Iran have since been fighting to save Dehghan from his hanging. The Centre for Human Rights in Iran reports that prosecutors asked Dehghan be sentenced to death for “insulting the prophet” as well as to 16 months in prison for “insulting the supreme leader”. It was also reported that co-defendants Sahar Eliasi and Mohammad Nouri were also convicted of posting anti-Islamic material on social media. Nouri was issued a death sentence, and Eliasi had his seven-year prison sentence reduced to three on appeal. However it is unknown if the supreme court has given its final ruling.


“I only came out as an atheist with my closest friends. Being an atheist and saying this in public is considered as big crime and is being sentenced to death [“apostasy” may be a capital crime under Sharia law]. Nobody says that he or she is an atheist so easily in Iran, although the majority of the population is in fact. That’s the reason I never had to fear bad consequences in my family and with my friends. They all think like me. It would even be more disturbing to them if I say I am a believer.”
— Sepideh

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