Stolen Kisses: Iran's Sexual Revolutions
A few years ago, in the course of researching her dissertation on changing sexual mores in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a young Iranian-American anthropologist named Pardis Mahdavi stopped by the Ministry of Education in Tehran to inquire about the country's sex education curriculum. Another visitor happened to be there. An older woman named Mrs. Erami, she was covered head to toe in the most conservative form of Iranian hijab: the tentlike black chador, held in place by the wearer's teeth such that it obscures half the face. Under her chador, Mrs. Erami wore another voluminous layer of hijab, including a hoodlike head scarf and a long, loose coat. Hers was the uniform of the government faithful, the traditional-minded and the sexually puritanical--the very image of the older generation that Mahdavi's main research subjects, Tehrani youth, rebuffed with their outsized vanity and sexual libertinism.
But Mrs. Erami had come to the ministry on a mission related to Mahdavi's. She taught courses on health, puberty and relationships at a Tehran high school, and she had come to talk to the minister about her frustration with her students' unwillingness to discuss sexual matters frankly with her. In a country where premarital sex with multiple partners is increasingly common but remains culturally taboo and punishable under the law, this severe-looking, chador-clad woman was, at a glance, hardly the person in whom one might feel comfortable confiding one's illicit activities or seeking intimate advice. Mahdavi didn't even feel comfortable letting the older woman see her nail polish, which is illegal but commonplace in Iran. Nonetheless, Mrs. Erami could not understand her students' reticence. "They are so difficult," she told Mahdavi. "I can't get them to talk to me, but I know what they are doing and what they are not doing. I had a teenage daughter myself, and I know that they are having a lot of sex, but not doing it right. I just can't get them to talk to me about it."
Mrs. Erami, it turns out, is one of the more dramatic products of the generational upheaval in Iranian attitudes toward sex. A conservative Muslim, she was not sympathetic, some years before her encounter with Mahdavi, when her gay son came out of the closet. Her husband threw him out of the house. When their unmarried daughter announced that she had a boyfriend, Mrs. Erami slapped her and called her a prostitute. The daughter left home that day, never to return. And so the Eramis lost both of their children over their unwillingness to accept sexual behavior that had become the norm not only globally but even within many circles inside Iran. A year later Mrs. Erami's husband died, leaving his wife entirely alone and flooded with regret. That was when she devoted herself to sex education reform, both as a teacher and as a campaigner within Iran's education ministry.
This story is one of the gems buried in Mahdavi's new book, Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution. Mrs. Erami's tale encapsulates the wrenching transformation of a society that, thirty years ago, attempted to resolve its divisions and ambivalences by legally and ideologically committing itself to tradition over modernity, even at the price of denial, repression and loss. Today's Iranian youth, especially those from the urban middle and upper classes, are no longer willing to accept that bargain, and the older generation is beginning to allow itself to be moved by the young. Mahdavi's best and most groundbreaking material has to do with the public health implications of this rift between generations and between acknowledged and unacknowledged behaviors, as well as the society's slow and patchy but often ingenious educational response.
In a country where run-of-the-mill dating and fashion are illegal, extreme practices have emerged in the private spaces occupied particularly by well-off, heterosexual Tehrani youth. Mahdavi shows up at a party, thrown by a mullah's daughter whose parents are out of town, that turns out to be a giant orgy. Smaller parties, too, frequently become occasions for group sex. Out on the heavily policed city streets, young people cruise for anonymous sex partners by passing notes into the windows of neighboring cars when they are stuck in traffic, or by driving to poor neighborhoods where nobody will recognize them as they scour the sidewalks for partners they hope never to see again. Adultery, for women, is punishable by stoning in Iran, but fully half of Mahdavi's married, female research subjects are unfaithful to their husbands; for many of them, picking up lovers is a regular form of recreation. And despite the legal requirement that women in Iran cover their hair and hide the curves of their bodies, fashion obsesses the women in Mahdavi's study. They apply layer after layer of makeup, and they find ways to make the hijab as sexy as the skimpy summer attire of Western women.
While this portrait of Iranian sexual experimentation may be shocking on its surface, it has grown familiar to most people who have visited Iran or followed cultural developments there in the past decade. Less well known is that, for all their promiscuity and seeming sophistication, many of these young Iranians suffer from a lack of sexual education and resources that fits the official culture of pious abstinence rather than the actual one of looseness and risk. The birth control method of choice among Mahdavi's informants is withdrawal. Women who take the pill frequently lack the most basic information and take it only erratically, depriving themselves of almost all of its effect. Condoms are considered so filthy and embarrassing that even people who share florid details about their sex lives with Mahdavi blush at their mention, and no one wants to be seen requesting them at a pharmacy. AIDS, educated young Iranians tell Mahdavi, is transmitted through visits to the dentist or hairdresser, and other STDs come only from a certain unsavory sort of woman. While wealthy women can obtain abortions--illegal in most cases but common, thanks to poor contraception--from sympathetic doctors at vast expense, poorer women acquire on the black market pills or injections meant for animals. Mahdavi went to a back street where dealers sell these medications, just to see how easily they could be acquired. A dealer sold her a vial of pills without the least instruction on what to do with them. Physicians she interviewed told her that they see a great many women seriously injured or rendered infertile by self-administered abortions meant for animals.
On its face, Iranian state ideology conflicts with the requirements of public health, given the sea change in public attitudes toward sex. Yet there is good news in Mahdavi's study. Close to the ground, where it counts, Iranian doctors, parents, educators and even institutions are bending to the forces of change. For example, since 2000 the Islamic Republic has required Iranians who seek marriage licenses to attend state-administered classes on family planning. One that Mahdavi attended in Tehran's central business district sounds perfectly appalling. A chador-clad woman shrilly lectures a room of gum-snapping, nail-filing, indifferent young women, offering the following counsel: "You must always be ready for your husband's sexual needs. If perchance he is watching a football game on television, you should be resting to prepare yourself, or else preparing your bed for the evening. If you should feel overcome by fatigue yourself, make sure always to ask your husband, 'Is there anything else you need from me?' or 'Would you like to have me later?' before retiring."
But then Mahdavi attends another such class, this time in the city's north, in the upscale shopping district near the Tajrish bazaar. This class covers disease transmission, contraception, fertility, mental health, marital relations and even female sexual pleasure. The teachers wear the less forbidding hijab--head scarf and fitted thigh-length coat--common among their students, and the women attending these classes, Mahdavi reports, confide freely to the teachers about their relationships and their sex lives. Here, and in her chapter about the older generation's response to the sexual revolution, Mahdavi shows us a society beginning to shake off its denial and rigidity out of the sheer necessity of serving the burgeoning needs of its young--a generation of adults who have either grown sympathetic to young people's yearnings or, like Mrs. Erami, recognize that they risk greater losses than they can bear.
Something major is happening--a generational shift, a process of social change on which Islamic law has only limited effect. But how deeply does it penetrate Iranian society, divided as Iranians are by geography and class? And how political is this movement in a country where politics is a live wire?