Stolen Kisses: Iran's Sexual Revolutions
Mahdavi cannot be everywhere at once, and her study does not purport to explain the sexual behavior of everyone in Iran. Rather, it focuses on upper-middle-class, heterosexual Tehrani youth. This is a subculture worth studying--Tehran is a city of 14 million and a trendsetter for smaller Iranian cities--but Mahdavi is also aware of the study's limitations. Most significant, it excludes the social base of the ruling regime, which is rural Iran, where village life is the norm and values may be changing but where they remain, by all accounts, more traditional than in the bigger cities. Although she includes a few lower-class urban young people in Passionate Uprisings, we don't get to know them as well as we do the better-off informants. These omissions become significant mainly because Mahdavi makes big claims for her Tehrani revelers: their actions are not only political, in her view, but revolutionary; they are intended, finally, to bring about regime change.
In a narrow sense, this claim is obviously true. Insofar as the Iranian regime mandates Islamic dress and abstinence until marriage, young people who force the government to loosen these restrictions by defying them are engaged in a political act--one that is effectively changing an aspect of the regime. But there is something tautological about this observation, and Mahdavi does not draw out any deeper links between the political movements, like the one for secular democracy, roiling Iran and the changing sexual mores she observed.
What she does document is a groundswell of young people who reject Islamic sexual morality, feel they should have the right to associate with whomever they wish and to do what they please with their bodies, and who are willing to risk brief, but plenty unpleasant, run-ins with the morality police in the name of fashion, partying, dating and sex. Some of Mahdavi's subjects describe a night or two spent in a jail cell; others are whipped, and one couple is forced to marry. (Mahdavi doesn't say whether class differences among offenders figure in the ways the morality police mete out punishment.) Does Mahdavi imagine that these young people, if granted a modicum of personal, sartorial and social freedom, would fight on--for freedom of expression, freedom of religion, prison reform, representative government, an independent judiciary that respects the rights of the individual? For the rights and freedoms, in the end, of others?
Those who would choose to fight such battles, and to make the sacrifices that such a fight would entail, are few in any society, and Mahdavi's subjects are not to be faulted for choosing the already uphill battle to enjoy their youth. But the distinction is worth noting, mainly because it is not lost on the Iranian regime, which has shown a willingness to cut deals with its populace--loosening social restrictions, or turning a blind eye toward parties or translucent head scarves in upscale neighborhoods, precisely while tightening the screws on political activism and the independent press. Hence, Mahdavi is optimistic for the future of reform and brushes off the crackdown under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which has had only limited effect on fashion and sexual practices. But she does not mention the wholesale exclusion of reformers from government, or the imprisonment and torture of dozens of feminist activists, starting in 2006, for the crime of circulating a petition calling for the amendment of laws that classify women as second-class citizens. (Among other things, the petition calls for equal rights for women in marriage, inheritance and divorce; an increase in the age of criminal responsibility from 9 to 18 for girls and from 15 to 18 for boys; the prosecution of honor killings; equal consideration of a woman's testimony in court to that of a man; and an end to the capital punishment of female adulterers.) The political claims Mahdavi makes for Tehran's sexual revolution are, or should be, complicated by these developments.
Somehow, one suspects that the grassroots push to change sexual mores cannot be totally divorced from the effort, on the part of feminist activists but also some reformist parliamentarians and even liberal-minded clerics, to improve the status of Iranian women under the law. But the women in Mahdavi's study seem to occupy a wholly perplexing historical moment, or a palimpsest of historical moments. They live in a theocracy with a premodern, religious legal code, and they are undergoing, all at once, what we in the West would recognize as a 1960s-style sexual revolution, 1970s-style second-wave feminism and the contemporary postfeminist embrace of female sexuality, with all its complexities. The messages these women receive are mixed, to say the least. Mahdavi describes some of her married subjects as spending literally hours every day on their makeup and clothes and the rest of their time cruising the city for lovers. In a society that tells these women they should be chaste, domestic slaves to their husbands, who in turn have the freedom to acquire up to four wives and as many as 99 "temporary" wives, this could be seen as a kind of female empowerment. But there is something undeniably sterile about it as well.
The lives Mahdavi describes are rich in fleeting pleasures and bereft of deep engagement, whether personal, political or professional. It is a dissolution one feels at the heart of contemporary Iranian middle-class culture, and it has to do with the structure of the postrevolutionary state, which has written off huge swaths of its population in its economy, culture and politics. Unemployment is highest among educated young people, who traditionally live with their parents until marriage. Many twentysomething Tehranis--bored, sexually frustrated, infantilized by the state and their families--live like teenagers in small-town America. They spend a lot of time in cars, getting high on ingeniously obtained or concocted substances, and looking for sex. Is this a sign of political ferment or of a disused demographic--unmoored and decadent, dissipating its energies--for which its country has no use?
Mahdavi does not press such inquiries. Nor, notably, does she ask her subjects about religion. By engaging in sexual behavior the state deems "un-Islamic," do Iranian young people feel they are questioning the state's monopoly on Islam, or are they questioning Islamic sexual morality itself? Are her subjects evidence of a secularizing culture, or have they found a way to absorb Islamic spirituality while flouting Sharia law? The absence of searching analysis along any of these lines is striking, and it prevents Mahdavi's extensive collection of anecdotes and informants from rising above the level of observation.
In fact, what she calls ethnography often feels more like a thinly academicized memoir of the Iranian party scene. Mahdavi, who grew up in California and spent extensive time doing research in Iran, gets in the way of her subject by compulsively inserting herself, often in self-flattering terms, into the frame. We never hear her subjects speak without also seeing Mahdavi nod and smile. She includes her diary entries verbatim and emphasizes her feelings about the parties she attends. "My smart, beautiful friend from America. Knowing you makes me so cool," she quotes one of her informants as telling her. She quotes others saying that only she can help them with their problems, or that maybe the women in the beauty parlor are asking her why she isn't married because they feel threatened that Mahdavi appears to "have it all."
Although Mahdavi writes that she did research among poor youth as well as the middle and upper classes, in the one extended account of an outdoor party on the wrong side of the tracks, we hear next to nothing from the poor urban youth in attendance. Instead we get a scene in which a young woman admires Mahdavi's shoes and Mahdavi generously offers to trade her fashionable footwear for the girl's tattered sandals, to the girl's gratitude and delight. "I've never met a rich girl like you," Mahdavi quotes her as saying. "Who are you, anyways?" These authorial intrusions make the first five chapters of Passionate Uprisings feel aimless and amateurish. Fortunately, when we get into the material about public health and sex education, about which Mahdavi has done truly original and far-reaching research, the author steps aside and allows her material to order itself before the reader in all its richness.
After all, at the level of observation, there is still something about these cultural currents at which to marvel. It is not hard to see why Mahdavi felt that her young subjects were the leading edge of something significant, even if we don't come away quite knowing of what. Nearly thirty years into its Islamic Republic, Iran has become a country its revolutionaries never imagined, let alone desired. Its population has doubled; its countryside has modernized; its cities have burgeoned. Heavy-handed religious rule has produced a profound ambivalence about organized religion even among Iranians who cleave strongly to their private faith. Young Iranians, born after the revolution, burrow tunnels under the walls the regime has erected to isolate them from the West. And no amount of repression has succeeded in smothering the seemingly trivial but inextinguishable human impulse toward beauty, the playfulness of fashion or the electricity of sex. Maybe this is a story about Iran, with its restive political culture and loss of faith in institutionalized religion; maybe it's a story about Islam and the return of its repressed; or maybe it's just a story about the human spirit and the things it is not prepared to live without.