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Published on June 26th, 2013 | by Usman Butt
Image © Hamed Saber


Iran: Between Politics and Sex

Valiasr Street, Tehran: This north Tehrani street, is the longest street in the Middle East and one of the longest in the world. Formerly Pahlavi Street, it is 11 miles long and lined with trees, American-style fast food places, restaurants, luxury European brands, shops, cafes and some of the worst traffics jams known to humanity. The residential population of Tehran is between 12-14 million, with an extra- 6 million coming into the city daily for work. Valiasr Street is famed for being a notorious “pick-up’ spot. Young, predominantly middle-class, Tehranis, cruise the streets in their expensive (family) foreign cars in the ‘hope’ of ‘picking up’.  Women in their ‘Iranian Hijab’ (loosely worn headscarf with the front fringe exposed), tight jeans and tops with expensive designer high-heel shoes and handbags. Men in their jeans and t-shirt and cars drive up, near the sidewalk, slowly, trying to ‘attract’ her attention.

I visited Iran in 2012 and wrote a travel blog series called ‘Strange Times in Persia’ (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), in which I explored modern Iran and it’s social attitudes. Young Iranians would tell me their ‘Valiasr’ stories, the men would say that ‘if you go to Valiasr with a nice car, girls, even if they don’t know you, will get into your car. Everyone wants a free ride.’ ‘If there is a car full of girls and another car full of guys. The two will pull-up against one another, even while driving, pull down their windows and start flirting’.  There were lots of stories of pre-marital sex, which is illegal in Iran. In fact the youth were very sexually active. In Pardis Mahdavi’s study, entitled ‘Who Will Catch Me if I Fall?: health and the infrastructure of risk for Urban Young Iranians”, interviews were conducted with Iranians about their sexual habits and knowledge about sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs).

The study found that while sexual activity was high, knowledge about sex and disease was poor. The study reveals the changing attitudes of women in Iran. A number of young women interviewed, expressed preferences for sex, daily. Some would breakup with boyfriends if they failed to live up to expectation. However, lack of official information and education meant that while social changes had occurred, rumour and fear of female sexuality had been instilled into many women. Some interviewees would look for assurances from Pardis about the validity of the rumours. Some would claim, that their friends would tell them, that for a women to want ‘too much sex’ was ‘unhealthy’, ‘dirty’ and would led to diseases and other ‘abnormalities’.  Others would display ‘ignorance’ about contraception even though the Iranian government does produce condoms and abortion is legal.

Afshin Shahi’s article, ‘The Erotic Republic’, published in Foreign Policy Magazine, took on a similar theme: changing sexual attitudes of the young, especially women. She shows that sexual attitudes have also changed amongst the older generations of Iranians. Divorce in Iran is high and many of Tehran’s mothers, many of whom have some wealth, would opt-for one-night stands with younger gigolos, a trade which is booming in Tehran, according to the article. She attributes changes in Iran to a number of factors, including economic changes, which have led to Iranians getting married later in life. The birthrate in Iran has seen the fastest drop in history from 3.9 in 1886 to 1.2 in 2013, which means that contraception is widely accepted in Iranian society.

However, the major flaw with this article, and indeed with many articles and books on Iran, is the way the issue is politically contextualised. The Iranian regime is projected in the article as ‘puritanical’, ‘traditional’ and ‘fundamentalist’ and social changes in Iran is often set-off against this image and used as ‘proof’ that the Islamic Republic has failed. It uses the western-19th century Protestant discourse on sexuality as the 21st century Islamic Iranian discourse on sexuality. Iranian Islamic tradition is presented as puritanically asexual and these changes are ‘in-defiance’ of this. The trouble is sexuality and sexual enjoyment, albeit within marriage, is considered of the utmost importance in Islamic tradition. There are Islamic teachings on the necessity for foreplay and sexual fulfilment for both the individual and for wider social cohesion. Both men and women are allowed to divorce, on the grounds of sexual dissatisfaction, in Islam.

Iran is a Shia country, which means sexuality has a special role with society and is not rejected, as the article suggests. Many Sunnis accuse Shias of being ‘too sexually overactive’. Within Shia Islam exists Mutah, which is a religiously sanctioned form of temporary marriage. It allows a couple to be married for as little as a few hours, and they may behave as married couples do. Men and women who are not yet ready for ‘permanent’ marriage- but wish to have sexual relations are encouraged to take it up, by the religious establishment. Sunnis frown upon this. They regard Mutah as a form of ‘religious prostitution’ and heretical to Islamic moral teachings.  Mutah is legal in Iran. The point here isn’t that social changes have not occurred, many of which the leaders in the Islamic Republic-would not like. But the framing of sexuality as a verdict on the Iranian regime is misguided.

When many western journalists, academics and authors write on Iran and social structures, they are not usually interested in social structures for social structure’s sake. They are not solely interested in Iranian concepts of sexuality. They are interested in framing such social transformations to confirm pre-existing prejudices about the Muslim world in general and Iran in particular. What is surprising is how in 30 years the image of Iran has changed little, with one exception. The image of urban middle class Tehranis as being oppressed and westernised is the main change that has occurred in the western analysis of Iran.  No-one seems to criticize the clear geographic and class basis for this analysis on Iran. The Iranian people have become urbanite wealthy Tehranis, which most Iranian are not. Sex has been turned into a weapon of the urbanites against the regime.

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Usman Butt

Usman graduated in 2012 with an MA in Palestine Studies from the University Of Exeter. Before that he read Arabic Language and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Amongst his proudest achievements include winning a muffin for public speaking, winning a Lego set at age 5 and helping Palestinian refugees learn English. Usually writes about genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, Israel/Palestinian politics, Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese politics, the Arab Spring, philosophy, religion, British politics, Foreign Policy, history and social issues. He enjoys writing as he sees it as an outlet to express his opinions about the public discourse on these issues. He believes writing is a good way of keeping productive and teaching yourself new things.

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