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Dispatch | A Cheating State of Mind


31 Aug 2012 16:56Comments

The idea of infidelity in a changing society.

DSCF1605.jpg [ society ] I'm sitting by a swimming pool chatting with a group of women: A., a teenager; M., her mum; and four others in their late 30s and early 40s -- two of them single, two married mothers. They are middle-class, well-educated, well-traveled Tehranis who all speak some English. We are lolling in bikinis and sarongs in M.'s private, high-walled garden near Karaj, an hour from the bustle and noise of Tehran. The air is clear, peach and walnut trees shade us, and roses pop with color in the sun. There's cherry-steeped vodka on the table, a bucket of ice and cola, and cigarettes being lit. There is one man with us, M.'s husband, but he's on domestic duty, picking fruit, peeling fresh walnuts, serving drinks, and preparing our barbecue lunch. I'm only half listening to the flowing talk as I paint my toenails. It's exactly the kind of intimate female atmosphere that Iranian women are so good at creating and as usual they're discussing the state of relationships.

In Tehran, my cousin H. and I talk a lot about men. Like me, she's in her late 30s and single, kind of keen on getting married and kind of not. Unlike me, she's still a virgin and very curious about sex in the West. So we compare etiquette and options, typical and outrageous behaviors. We try to shock each other. She's certainly had adventures of her own, even if she hasn't gone "all the way." Last year, she surprised me by assuming all my friends had "open relationships," some idea she'd gotten from the television. This year, she and her friends are all talking about cheating. "What about cheating? Do women cheat? Is it common?" they ask me.

Cheating. It's not a word or concept I think about much. When I think of my friends -- of drunken kisses while relationships were on the rocks, of illicit crushes and people hopping from one partner to another a little too quickly -- the women are as guilty as the men. But this sort of thing happened in our 20s when relationships were, though not exactly open, more fluid as everyone searched for the most suitable life-partner. And somehow we never called it cheating. There were betrayals and broken hearts of course, but the stakes weren't really very high. Then I realize why. None of us were married.

Here it's different. Marriage, as well as being a cherished institution, is also the only legal context for sexual relationships between men and women. Which means, of course, that cheating is a big deal, a terrible betrayal. But despite the high stakes, cheating is apparently on the rise. And for the first time, women are at it as well as men. According to the pool party, some married women are finding younger boyfriends and don't even want to divorce their husbands.

So what does it mean? Is the Iranian marital bedrock about to split open? Are these the signs of a sexual revolution? Or have relationships become so cynical that old-fashioned love is dead? I'd say no to the latter. Tehran is definitely a city with love in the air. And the system itself, with its moral police patrolling the streets, creates a palpable atmosphere of erotic intrigue. The park near me is full of couples sitting on benches gazing into each other's eyes or walking hand in hand, whispering. After dusk, they are shadows lying on the dark grass, sharing cigarettes and kisses, alert to each other and to the potential for arrest. The malls are hotbeds of relationships -- numbers are sought and text messages exchanged between roving groups of girls and boys who barely pretend to shop. Although Islamic law is too strictly enforced for anything momentous to happen, things are definitely changing and everybody's talking about it.

Around the pool, we discuss the current divorce rate; the consensus is that it's one in three, although no one knows the source of this data. They say that women are marrying later, like R., my dentist cousin. She says her studies simply don't give her enough time for a boyfriend. And more women than ever before are choosing not to marry at all, like my cousin H. and her friend L., who at 37 aren't sure they want to give up their freedom and submit to the humiliating Islamic marriage laws -- a wife, for instance, needs her husband's permission even to leave the country. The government is so worried about these changes and their effect on the population that it just launched a campaign endorsing marriage, promoting families, and decrying the single life as the corrupting influence of the West.

The women I'm with today are from what might well be the last generation of women in Iran who wanted and were expected to be virgins when they married. A woman has also been expected to have just one sexual partner in her entire life -- her husband. It's the younger generation who are pushing boundaries. And cheating is less of an issue for them than just plain old having sex. It's difficult: Where do you do it? Most young people live with their families until they marry because of the exorbitant property prices and high unemployment. Only the very rich can afford to live on their own. It's illegal, of course, to live with a boyfriend and extremely rare, although L. tells me she's heard of it happening. You're not even supposed to hold hands in public.

Last year, I met N., a 24-year-old woman, at the ski resort of Dizin. She was in love with a Bulgarian skier and it was no secret they were sleeping together in the group-shared apartments her parents had paid for in the mountains. Rihanna videos played constantly, vodka flowed, the boys were on the PlayStation, and there was a general party atmosphere. When we got back to Tehran, N.'s big complaint was that she was still expected to be a virgin when she married, but the guys weren't. "I don't want to marry an Iranian man," she said. She did add that they made generous and romantic lovers but she still wanted to marry a foreigner a bit more accepting of a woman's sexual freedom, hence the Bulgarian. But when she wrote love messages on his Facebook wall, he got angry with her and told her it was over, just a holiday romance. It hit her hard. The last time I spoke to her she was applying for a visa to Canada.

Back at the pool, they discuss this clash between traditional and modern expectations. But not everyone is disapproving of the changes. L., who is single and lives with her elderly mother, tells me that a married man is pursuing her online. She's not planning to meet him in real life. No point, she says. The chances of him leaving his wife are so low. He's unhappy in his marriage, but he's sweet and sensitive, she says, and has become her friend. She thinks that looking for happiness outside an unhappy marriage is not necessarily the same as cheating.

I've only spoken to one man about cheating. A middle-aged guy, Mr. S. He brought up the subject himself when we were driving to dinner last week. He told a story of a property developer friend of his who was sleeping with one of his tenants. He brought her lunch everyday, then spent a few hours in her apartment. She was a doctor, unmarried. He was married with kids. Mr. S. was highly disapproving, but also fascinated. When I asked why cheating was on the rise, he said he didn't know about women, but men were cheating because their wives weren't satisfying them in bed. From the way he said it, I think he meant that if the marriage contract was not being honored in this way, the man had the right to seek his sex elsewhere. At this point, I changed the topic of conversation.

In Iran, it seems more common to acknowledge the practical aspects of marriage, unlike the overriding romanticism of the Anglo-Saxon culture I'm familiar with. For starters, you aren't just marrying a person when you marry in Iran; you're marrying a whole doting family who'll want to see you every week and play a major part in your life. I've met women here who've broken up with men they love, at great emotional cost, to find a partner whose family will get on well with their own -- a personal sacrifice that I think is much rarer in Britain.

Last year, I met a colleague of my cousin H. in a cafe. K. is slant-eyed and long-fingered with sharp cheekbones and a wide mouth -- a real beauty. Over frothy cappuccinos, she told me that she wasn't in love with her husband when she married him and she isn't now. She said she's desperate to experience an intense love affair with a man, with or without sex, and she's always on the lookout for that kind of chemistry. When I told her that no woman I know would ever admit so openly to not loving her husband, she just shrugged and smiled. "I'm an unusual woman," she said. "I'm complicated."

I meet her again this year at her home. While my cousin sleeps after a delicious home-made meal of ghormeh sabzi, K. shows me her wedding album. In the photos, she's heavily made-up and has a serious expression. She tells me that she was 22 when she married and when she looks at the albums now she feels sad because she was too young. The groom was her uncle's neighbor. They met at a wedding. She wanted to marry and his family was a good match with hers, so they did. As she tells me this sorry-sounding tale, her gorgeous, chubby son dashes in and out of the room vying for her attention and smiling a cherubic smile. Her husband is away until the evening on business, and she tells me how jealous she feels when he's gone, imagining that he might be talking to other women. "He's a great father," she says, "and a great husband." She's clearly both happy and not happy with her married life and I appreciate her frankness. Hers is exactly the kind of complicated story I like.

Back at the pool, we break for lunch, M.'s husband has grilled us chicken in a pomegranate marinade. He's been slaving away at it all afternoon. The talk turns to visas and exit strategies. One of the women, Z., has just won the U.S. green card lottery after 12 years of trying.

On our way home, I tell H. again that I've never really thought about cheating before. She has a good insight as to why.

"All your films are about cheating, but you call it love," she says. And she's right. The agony of falling in love with someone you aren't married to is one of our favorite dramatic subjects. But we rarely focus on the betrayed, the cuckold. Casablanca, Brief Encounter, Doctor Zhivago -- these are epic romances for us. In Western culture, love has been used to justify all kinds of bad behavior for decades, if not centuries. I'm not sure it's the same in contemporary Iranian literature, which for more than 30 years has had to bend itself to please government censors. But a quote springs to mind from Iran's past.

From Jalal ad-Din Rumi, 13th-century Persian poet and mystic:

"Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there."

I'm not sure I've come across any more adultery-justifying line, in English literature at least.

Except somehow from Nabokov:

"Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form."

by the same author | The Open Secrets of Ramadan

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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