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The Internet: a veil for dating in Iran

by KELLY GOLNOUSH NIKNEJAD

12 Feb 2009 17:32Comments
shadi-ghadirian

First published in May 2005

At the turn of the 21st century, I noticed a flood of messages from Iranian strangers each time I logged on to my instant messenger service. My first thought was that most were from Los Angeles, where the largest concentration of Iranian immigrants reside outside of Iran.

But an adjective in one message struck me. "Take a look at my photo," one guy implored, after several unsuccessful attempts at beginning a dialogue. "I'm really quite ghashangh."

'Ghashangh?' The word, meaning "pretty," was something my grandmother in Tehran might use to describe a young boy. What macho Iranian-American in California would refer to himself that way?

I wrote him back. "Are you in Tehran?" I asked on a hunch.

"Yes," he said, "Aren't you?"

As it turned out, all the messages were streaming in from Iran. And that was a surprise. In the Islamic republic, the most innocuous forms of courtships are prohibited. Authorities patrol the streets, detaining couples in public, ordering them to show proof of an Islamically sanctioned relationship. From schools to ski slopes to stretches of beach on the Caspian Sea, the sexes are segregated.

But since the 1979 revolution, there has been a population explosion in Iran. Some 70 percent of Iranians are under 30. As they come of age, with satellite television and the Internet, it has become an increasingly difficult task for the government to control what they see, hear and seek, especially when it comes to dating and sex.

Even in the most religious parts of the country, young Iranians log on to the world from the sanctity of their own homes, and flirt away to their hearts' content, even arranging secret rendezvous with someone who may turn out to be a neighbor.

At HotIranians.com, a Web site where members post pictures of themselves and have site visitors rate them, postings originate from the holy city of Mashhad, from near the Iraqi border in Ahwaz, or from the southeastern province of Kerman, among other locations. Some of the women are tightly veiled, yet fishing for a compliment.

One profile in particular illustrates the contrast of the public face and the private life. A young man brimming with pride at his good looks poses for a Web cam. Behind him, on a mantel, stands a framed portrait of an older, chador-clad woman. One eye peers out from the Islamic garb, looking as if she's taking in her son's break from tradition with scorn and skepticism, but not completely devoid of curiosity.

For a long time, Mehran, a 40-year-old lawyer who travels frequently between New York and Tehran, never thought he would have much in common with Iranian women. In 1979, he left Iran, where he had attended an American school, and in the United States, he dated non-Iranians "almost exclusively."

But because of satellite television and the Internet, he said in a telephone interview from Tehran, "le chick or le dude knows the latest fashion, the coolest way to think and the most fantastic music. The Internet has opened up everyone's mind."

The litigator logs on to a more sophisticated Iranian dating portal, Iranianpersonals.com, to set up dates for when he returns to Iran on a long visit each year. "I've met great women," he said.

Since launching Iranianpersonals.com in 2001, Said Amin, CEO and founder of WorldSingles.com, has seen his Iranian site grow dramatically.

"Oh my goodness, it's out of control how many in Iran sign up," he said. Approximately 35 percent of the 110,000 Iranianpersonals.com profiles are posted by Iranians based in Iran, he said.

Sex is taboo not only in Iran, but widely remains so among the Iranian diaspora, which is loath to part with the old ways.

A 16-year-old Iranian woman in New York who surfs cyberspace with the name "AngelLove" was unavailable for an interview because "My dad is here," she said.

"Iranians don't date," said Amin, "or at least not in the open. They get engaged, then say they are dating."

When Amin wanted to start his Iranian dating site several years ago, family and friends in the United States did not believe such a public forum would be in sync with the private Iranian mentality. "They did not see the vision," he said.

It's not necessarily welcomed by the government, either. Islamic officials are increasingly finding ways to block access to such sites. Starting a few months ago, Amin started receiving e-mail messages about people being unable to access his Web site.

But he does not seem perturbed. "Supposedly the young in Iran are so computer savvy that they are finding ways around that too," he said.

Amin got the inspiration for Iranianpersonals.com from "the mecca of Iranian Web sites," Iranian.com, he said. Iranian.com published its first issue in September 1995, and long before the first blog it began serving as a communal bulletin of ideas for a young generation of Iranians everywhere.

Amin was surprised to see that such a diverse group of Iranians existed. Their backgrounds ran the gamut, from Republicans to Democrats, from hard-core nationalists loyal to the shah to sympathizers of President Mohammad Khatami. Subjects range, too, from politics to poetry; from Silicon Valley boardrooms to--well, yes--brothels in Tijuana, Mexico.

It also appears that a new generation of Iranians first started talking about their dating and sex lives in the open on Iranian.com. "But it really quickly picked up," said Iranian.com publisher Jahanshah Javid. In fact, the number of blogs and Iranian Web sites carrying intimate tidbits appears to be "growing by the hour," he said.

On Iranian.com, a presumed woman who goes by the name of "Nooneh" writes about serial boyfriends and "Sarvenaz" details a romp on a plane from Paris to New York and other sexual exploits--or fantasies, perhaps. A photographer sends in a series of stills depicting a driver picking up a tall, elegantly dressed prostitute in Tehran.

Though the first of such articles drew outrage, Javid said, his readers have come to expect anything. Much more outrageous antics hardly get a response now, he said.

The entrepreneur Amin said one optional question on Iranianpersonals.com asks members to rate their sex drive. "Honestly, that's kind of private," he said. But "it's surprising how many people answered it."

Photo: From the "Nil Nil" collection by Shadi Ghadirian.

Copyright © Tehran Bureau

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