Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Couples who have children out of wedlock in Iran cannot have joint custody

"I had to get rid of our unborn baby. It was the toughest decision of my entire life," says Mitra, a 27-year-old interior designer living in Tehran with her partner.

Mitra and Mohsen, a 32-year-old doctor, moved in together under an arrangement known as a "white marriage" – a form of cohabitation between a man and a woman which, like sex before marriage, is illegal under Iran's strict Islamic laws.

"Mohsen and I understood the challenges in advance but had no plans [to conceive] back then," Mitra adds.

They eventually had a change of heart and hoped that they would be able to navigate the legal labyrinth to obtain a birth certificate for their unborn child. Despite their best efforts, they were pushed towards an abortion.

Article 1167 of Iran's civil code, which declares that "a child born of adultery shall not belong to the adulterer", means that unmarried parents have no custody rights as a couple and only the mother can request for her name alone to be listed on the child's birth certificate.

As for the child, the authorities keep a confidential record of those born in such circumstances – information which can prevent them from obtaining certain jobs in the future.

While there is no official figure for white marriage relationships, they are increasingly common and have become a thorn in the side of the hardline establishment.

And, having failed to curtail them, alarmed officials are now having to wrestle with the dilemma of what to do with the children of cohabiting couples.

"At the end of the day, those children will need to receive their birth certificates before being enrolled at schools," Deputy Minister of Youth Affairs Mohammad Mehdi Tondgouyan recently told Ilna news agency, warning that the consequences of failing to address the issue could be disastrous.

'We are not giving in'

Although they are aware of the issue of children conceived in white marriages, few among Iran's elites have spoken about it publicly.

Outspoken reformist former lawmaker Parvaneh Salahshouri sounded the alarm last September, when she warned that abortion was the only choice for cohabiting women who got pregnant.

But Ms Salahshouri was subjected to ferocious criticism from the ultraconservative Fars news agency over her "unfounded claims".

Iran's establishment argues that economic challenges and complicated pre-marriage rituals are pushing single Iranians away from conventional, religiously-approved marriages.

It has gone the extra mile to encourage the younger generation into such unions, offering interest-free loans to help with the initial costs.

Image source, Borna NewsImage caption, Former MP Parvaneh Salahshouri warned abortion was the only option for pregnant, unmarried women

"That is just a painkiller," says 31-year-old Shina from the western city of Hamedan.

"How about the neck-breaking rents?" she notes, referring to a housing market that has seen prices skyrocket in the past few years.

Shina has been with her partner Sadegh for a decade and sees cohabitation as a trending form of rebellion against authorities in the Islamic Republic.

"We are not giving in to such a forced arrangement [of marriage]," she says. "How is it that refusal to exchange a few vows suddenly renders our relationship illegitimate?"

Evidence of the popularity of cohabitation is clearly visible on Iran's vibrant social media platforms – also a sign that the social stigma is fading away.

A plethora of channels on the Telegram messaging app are serving as places for single Iranians to search for a partner. One channel has more than 45,000 subscribers, who share their personal data in the hope of finding a match.

Still, the fate of such virtual communities is hanging in the balance because of opposition among Iran's hardliners.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi was elected as Iran's new president earlier this year

Their grip on power was tightened earlier this year following the election as president of the ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi.

Only two weeks ago, he ordered Iran's top internet supervisory body to prioritise the "health and security" of cyberspace – an indication that stricter controls could be in store.

'Our dreams were crushed'

For Shina and Sadegh, the current restrictions had a high cost.

The couple applied for a German visa when Shina became pregnant in 2016, knowing the legal problems they and their child would face. However, they were turned down.

"Our dreams were crushed and abortion was the [only] choice," Shina recalls.

Abortion is illegal in Iran unless the pregnancy poses a risk to the woman's life or the foetus has severe physical deformities. Because of those restrictions, the abortion pill is not available on the market and many women are forced to seek illegal terminations that can be unsafe.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Iran is incentivising young people to choose religiously-approved marriages

One 36-year-old obstetrician, who wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons, says she has conducted three illegal abortions for cohabiting couples at her private clinic west of Tehran.

For those couples with the means, leaving Iran is an option.

Pari and her partner Yassin, who are both 35, spent all their savings on buying a flat in the Turkish city of Istanbul, which has become a popular destination for many Iranians disillusioned by their country's economic meltdown and the stifling social and political environments.

"When I had my very first morning sickness I decided that I would keep the baby this time, regardless of the price," says Pari, who had an abortion after a previous pregnancy.

"Leaving behind our homeland was never easy. But we will be raising the child born out of our love, and that's what matters," she declares proudly.

"Still, I cannot stop thinking of the cohabiting friends of mine, who are longing to have a baby and are being deprived of the chance."