Tales of Love and Sex in Iran
by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran
30 Jul 2011 19:00
But to the Islamic establishment, there was no innocence in the matter. One day in mathematics class, a Basiji barged into Reza's classroom. After a brief conversation with the startled teacher, he arrested Reza and his confidant and dragged them out into the school garden for interrogation. He ordered the two boys to stand against the wall, 20 meters apart. "He started beating and slapping me, then going over to my friend and kicking him. He kept asking, 'What did you do with your girlfriend, and when?'" From that day on, Reza associated his natural curiosity with feelings of guilt and shame. "I still had questions, but I didn't ask them because I felt that it was wrong and dirty to think about these things," he says.
Now 26, Reza's leads a love life outside the norms of the society in which he was raised. Although it is technically illegal for unmarried couples to live under the same roof, he allowed his girlfriend to move in several months ago. The relationship is risky, as the two have no intention of getting married. However, both say this living situation allows them to "feel normal." But not all of the pair's peers have the chance to lead such lifestyles. Sitting with friends in his living room in west Tehran, Reza raises a general question: "What do young children in Iran do when they begin to have questions about sex?"
"Don't ask me," a man with long, bushy hair and a Dire Straits T-Shirt proclaims proudly. "I have never had sex, and I'm 35."
Although many of these modern, middle-class Tehranis are surprisingly open to candid discussions on this topic, sex and dating by and large represent one of the biggest taboos of their society. Caught between their own increasingly liberal outlook and the traditional constraints of their culture, young people here find it almost impossible to feel positive about their sexuality. The wide gap between the prescriptions of Islamic morals and the reality of their everyday lives is the culprit behind countless negative trends and flawed perceptions, from shockingly sultry girls' fashion to the prevalence of AIDS and hymen reconstruction surgery. "When we are kids, we are taught that sexuality is a dirty, sinful thing," says "Behzad," the 35-year-old virgin. "In Iran, you never learn [about sex] in a natural way."
Aside from the strict behavioral guidelines preached in schools, young people have few places to direct their sex-related inquiries. Although sex education is taught at universities and some private NGOs do exist, children are generally on their own during the crucial years of adolescence. Often, their mothers and fathers only perpetuate the dilemma, since even the most open-minded parents are prone to the influences of the closed, post-revolutionary atmosphere in which they came of age. "Our parents never had sex until they married, and their parents never even saw each other before their wedding," says Marjan, 29. "But we are using the Internet, watching Western movies and satellite TV, so we know that elsewhere things are different. When our parents are confronted with our needs, it's no surprise that there are many paradoxes, many differences in opinion."
For two years, Marjan led a double life in front of her family because she secretly lived with her boyfriend. When her mother, the manager of a female dormitory at a small university in Tehran, found out about the relationship, she helped Marjan hide the reality from her father. She advised Marjan to introduce the boy as a mere college classmate, and covered for her when she skipped family engagements to spend time with him. "I think I told my father a thousand lies in that time," Marjan recalls. "He is fairly open-minded, but he would never accept that his unmarried daughter was living under one roof with a boy."
The clash between modern sexuality and traditional values is especially vexing for young women, conditioned from childhood to protect their virginity until marriage. While promiscuity among of-age boys is often shrugged off or even celebrated, unmarried girls who are sexually active are severely ostracized and in some cases exposed to violence at the hands of their male family members. "When you want to marry, it's very difficult to find a man who will accept that you are not a virgin," says Marjan. "Maybe one man in a thousand is intellectual enough to cope with this."
But the pressure to remain a virgin does little to prevent girls from becoming sexually active. Swayed by the brazen behavior and revealing clothes they see on satellite television, many young women have a pragmatic definition of virginity. "Except for classic sex, in a dark room they will do just about anything else," Reza observes.
Caught between the guilt of breaking from traditional values and the pressures of trying to look like an extra in a Los Angeles-produced pop video, young Iranian girls have little chance to develop a healthy self-image. "Because girls have to lie so much, they lose respect for themselves," says Reza. "A girl only learns that her body should be used, and that boys are willing to expend a lot to have it."In Tehran, this broken female sexuality is routinely on display on Velenjak Street, in a luxe neighborhood in the north of the city. On weekend nights, heavily made-up girls in risqué hejab vie for the attention of boys driving expensive cars. "It's a kind of mental reaction to the limitations," says Reza. "By not respecting sex, those girls standing on the street in Velenjak are revenging against their fathers, against society."
The perverse affects of this dual culture also take their toll on young men. When Behzad's father failed to answer the young man's questions about sex, Behzad satisfied his curiosity through Internet pornography. Now, more than 15 years and an estimated 300-strong porno film collection later, he remains unmarried and girlfriend-less, his sexuality damaged by the unrealistic pictures in his mind.
When Behzad confides these feelings to Reza, the latter puts his arm around his live-in girlfriend's shoulders. "The problem here is that people normally don't have the atmosphere to experience sex as a kind of natural act," he says. "Sex is a kind of complex for you, something you need to solve. You never learned about it in a natural way, so it's hard to find a floor to put your feet on."
Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau