TEHRAN - Hard up Iranian husbands will no longer face jail for failing to pay dowries that can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, following passage of a new law, it was reported Wednesday.
But spouses who claim to be impecunious yet are then proven to have the means to pay can still look forward to prison.
In the Islamic republic, the families of brides-to-be negotiate fiercely to get the top amount of what is known as Mehrieh, payment in gold coin-like tokens known as bahar azadi (spring of freedom in Farsi).
There are even trendy ways of doing it. A family can ask for one coin for the total number of years in the date she was born, according to the Iranian calendar.
So the dowry of a 24-year-old woman born in 1370 (1991) would be 1,370 coins worth $367,000 (334,000 euros) at the current gold price.
A much lower figure could be just 14 coins, equivalent to the 12 imams in Shiite Islam, plus the Prophet Mohammed and his daughter Fatima.
The coins, which carry the image of the Islamic republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, are about 22 mm in diameter (roughly the same as a 20 euro cent piece or five US cents).
But the catch has been that they have been payable on demand any time after the marriage. Hundreds of men have been imprisoned every year for not being able to stump up the necessary sums.
The new law has removed jail terms for those men, Abolfazl Abutorabi, a member of parliament's legal and judiciary panel, told Hamshahry, a newspaper.
"No one will be imprisoned for failing to pay the marriage sum," Abutorabi said.
Instead, if a man is sued for Mehrieh, and he cannot afford it, the court will order him to pay in instalments.
One could only be jailed over Mehrieh "if the court finds out he could afford but refused to disclose his assets," Abutorabi added.
Iran has always tried to discourage a trend of unreasonably high dowries among newly-weds because of the strain it can put on a young couple's finances and marital happiness, but the trend prevails.
Instead of high dowries, some women have recently tended to seek better terms in their marriage contracts, including the right to work and, if necessary, no-fault divorce.
Sharia law, in force in Iran, still favours the man when it comes to divorce.