The Other Revolution
11 Feb 2009 13:21
Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution | By PARDIS MAHDAVI
Reviewed by KAMIN MOHAMMADI
Since Iran's revolution nearly 30 years ago which ousted the last Shah and instituted an Islamic Republic governed by Sharia law, Iran's population has exploded. Rising in number in that time to nearly 70million, two-thirds of Iranians are under the age of 30 and constitute a highly educated and generally under-employed group; one that, by sheer power of numbers, will influence the shape the Islamic Republic will take in years to come. This demographic, a result of Ayatollah Khomeini's post-revolutionary edict urging Iranians to give birth to a 'revolutionary army' and the early Islamic Republic's banning of family planning services, constitutes a major change in Iran. As a result of post-revolutionary education policies, these 'children of the revolution' are generally well-educated (65% of university graduates are women), engaged with the outside world and plugged into global youth culture through the internet and illegal yet ubiquitous satellite television. The economic failures of the Islamic regime has given them education but scant employment opportunities, Sharia law gives them few sanctioned pastimes, and the post-revolutionary changes in the class system and urbanisation of the population have radically altered the social landscape. Nowhere is Iran's current struggles with and transition into modernity more acutely obvious than in the challenges facing this younger generation, and how they choose to express themselves socially and culturally will undoubtedly have far-reaching consequences for the country and possibly even the regime.
Pardis Mahdavi, an assistant professor of anthropology at Pomona College in California, is a US-born and raised Iranian, who charts the changes she has seen taking place in Iran over a period of seven years from her first visit in 2000. As a young Iranian woman she has access to the country and its youth, as an American she brings an outsider's perspective and as a Western academic she attempts to apply exacting methodology to her findings. However, Mahdavi's book, in identifying the social and sexual changes among Iran's younger generation suffers - a little like the youth she describes - from a confusion of identity. In essence this is an academic work - it has grown out of Mahdavi's doctoral thesis - but it seeks also to engage the general reader who will be attracted by the book's titillating subject matter (she does not shy away from describing sexual encounters and orgies for example). Mahdavi's main thesis is that the changes occurring in the sexual practices and even in the sartorial choices of Iran's youth indicate a 'revolution' that has political implications for the country, and she sets out to present these changes and analyse their implications through an anthropological framework that is not always convincing.
Mahdavi is aware of the limitations of her research, acknowledging that in drawing on interviews with only a small section of Tehran's middle classes, "it is impossible to make generalisations about the majority of the nations' population". She concentrates her conclusions on the opinions and lifestyles of seven main 'informants', insisting that they are the trend-setters whose behaviour and style will influence the rest of the population. Flimsy though this hypothesis is, it is nonetheless an intriguing lens through which to observe the changing habits of a generation that has done more to push the boundaries of social freedoms than any other since the revolution. Risking severe punishments - ranging from fines and imprisonment to flogging and enforced marriage - for parties, drinking and pre-marital sex, the urban youth Mahdavi depicts embody an appealing pop culture sensibility that will enlighten those whose knowledge of Iranian society is restricted to the fiery pronouncements of Iranian president Ahmadinejad.
In outlining life in the Islamic Republic, Mahdavi's insights are most satisfying when they involve her own experiences, and although she attempts to keep a scientist's objectivity, her own love of and emotional investment in Iran sit uncomfortably with the academic impartiality she seeks. The resulting prose suffers from repetition that borders on the pedantic, but behind the academic lurks a writer with an attractive style and the passages in which she writes of the contradictions and bitter-sweetness of life in Iran are the most engaging.
Mahdavi depicts young Iranian women as strong and in control of their destinies - in direct contrast to the regime's desire to control every aspect of their lives and the Western media's depiction of Iranian women as disempowered and passive. This is laudable and every Iranian will recognise her depiction as nearer the truth. However to suggest that women's pursuit of sexual pleasure - often outside marriage which offers the only culturally and legally sanctioned form of sexual contact - puts them in control of their destinies overstates the case. In fact, Mahdavi's examples present the reader with a rather gloomy picture in which unfulfilled women in unhappy marriages pour their energy into looking good, partying and finding sexual partners in the absence of any meaningful control over their own lives and bodies. Marriage is still the unequivocal goal of women and the importance of making a 'good' marriage and gaining status through their men is paramount. While Mahdavi presents examples of working mothers who have managed to carve out successful careers with the support of their husbands, there are no corresponding instances of women who have been able to assert control over their own destinies in the absence of marriage.
The book becomes altogether more interesting when Mahdavi delves into the contradictions embodied in the 'sexual revolution' such as the continuing importance of the virginity of the woman on marriage when sex before marriage is now more acceptable - albeit secretly so - and the paucity of sex education on offer which leaves people with a shocking lack of real knowledge about their bodies, STDs and HIV and AIDS. The implications of the risky sexual behaviour that Tehran's youth are engaged in from both a physical and mental health perspective are touched upon but not examined as much as the reader might like. In fact, Mahdavi concentrates her efforts more on expounding and illustrating her oft-repeated theory - that the changes in social and sexual behaviour constitute resistance to the regime - than in examining the long-term implications of such behaviour when the dominant culture remains traditional and those traditions are enshrined in the law.
Promiscuity rarely constitutes a social movement by itself. In order to truly represent a revolution, the said behaviour would have to have overt political implications and some form of politico-social organisation. In the absence of such organisation, the behaviour that Mahdavi depicts could be seen as mere hedonism or even nihilism. It is true that, as Mahdavi asserts, while the regime chooses to concentrate so doggedly on the way its people dress and behave then by extension any deviation from the norm can be said to constitute a political rebellion, it is doubtful that many of Iran's multitudinous youth consciously wear heavy make up, inappropriately tight and provocative Islamic dress and attend illegal
mixed parties where alcohol is served as a form of political dissent.
Mahdavi has charted an interesting phenomenon in this much-misunderstood country and she is to be applauded for bringing to light one of the most taboo subjects in Iranian culture - sex. Her book, however, overstates the case that there is a social and sexual revolution taking place. Rather Mahdavi's thesis shines the light on subtle trends and shifts that are slowly changing Iran's social landscape and shows how 30 years of clerical Islamist rule have shaped a rebellious counter-culture that rejects Islamic ideology in favour of what looks suspiciously like Western-style consumerism and hedonism born of boredom and the failure of the State to provide recreational and employment outlets for its highly educated populace. Mahdavi's overly optimistic theory assumes that the State will continue to engage with the rebellion by giving in to Iranian youth's demands for greater social freedoms. What she shies away from is the most interesting question of all, one that closes the book - what will happen to Iran's youth if the regime, in fact, does not change?
Kamin Mohammadi's first book, a family memoir and modern history of Iran, will be published by Bloomsbury next spring.