There Are No Real Virgins in Tehran – Part I of the Dialogue with Nawal El Saadawi

Published in July 6, 2009, Double X (a new Web magazine founded Slate spring 2009)

Dear Nawal,

I am thrilled to be having this dialogue with you. I read your “Hidden Face of Eve” and other works in English in the 1980s when I came to the United States from Iran to study. I have also used your writings in my courses on women and gender in the Middle East.

Egypt and Iran do indeed have a great deal in common. Both nations have experienced a century-old struggle for democracy (the latest stage of which was the massive protests against voting fraud we’ve just witnessed). Both have had strong secular and leftist political parties, and both have a long history of feminist activity. You were wondering if what we are observing in Iran in recent years is really a sexual revolution. I think it is certainly headed that way when we look at the distance women have traversed.

A century ago Iranian women of all social classes, religions, and ethnicities entered strictly arranged marriages around the age of puberty. Both of my grandmothers were married at 13, and neither had seen her husband before marriage. Also, while monogamy was the norm among the poorer sectors, most Muslim men took additional wives once their income increased. By 1979, a lot had changed. Courting and a long engagement were more common, at least among urban, educated middle class women.

Today dating is even more common despite continued parental objections and state prohibitions. In an Iranian feminist publication, I saw an interview with an assistant principal in one of the lower middle class schools of south Tehran. The principal said that while young girls of her own generation skipped school to go to parks and cinemas with boys, her students go to their boyfriends’ houses or their own houses. And yes, they sometimes have sex. In some cases, fathers assist sons, and mothers quietly help daughters. When a veiled mother was brought into the principal’s office and told about her daughter’s secret dating, she confessed that to protect her daughter from her father’s wrath and the morality police on the streets, “on occasion I tell her to bring her friend home with her and I go into the kitchen giving them some privacy.”

Among the more cosmopolitan middle classes, virginity is no longer crucial. Greater access to cars has meant greater privacy, allowing more women to become sexually active before marriage. Many women from the more pious middle classes have premarital sex and then a hymen repair operation before getting married. The popularity of the operation has resulted in numerous jokes that in Tehran, there are “no real virgins.”

Change is happening even in rural areas (now 20 percent of the country). Occasionally, engaged couples spend the night away from the village on one pretext or another, and the parents go along with it. Sometimes the couple exchange vows for a temporary marriage (an old Shi’i tradition that had become defunct by the 1970s) to avoid the appearance of impropriety. In Tehran and the big cities, young people might obtain a simple certificate of temporary marriage to avoid the morality police when they go to the Caspian Sea resort for summer vacation. They then annul the vow when they get home.

Ironically, it was some of the policies of the Islamic Republic that accelerated this change. As you know, the regime implemented a series of harsh misogynistic policies aimed at urban middle- and upper-class women in the 1980s. The state encouraged polygamy (multiple formal wives) and temporary marriage, as well as the return of easy divorce. It banned abortion and placed many limits on contraceptive use. These measures served to compensate men who had acquiesced to the rules of the new theocratic state. So, in the name of morality and the preservation of women’s honor, men of all social classes gained easier, cheaper access to sex, both inside and outside of marriage.

However, in the decade the followed, the same state instituted policies that unwittingly educated poor women about their sexuality and emotional needs. The state offered sex segregated literacy classes for women, including married women. Because the state was now “Islamist,” fathers and husbands relented and allowed daughters and wives to go to school or even the university. When birth rates skyrocketed in the 1980s, the state implemented a very successful family planning program, insisting that birth control was not a Western phenomenon but common in early and medieval Islam. Soon contraceptives became widely available, and vendors sold condoms on urban street corners. (Check out this Iranian ad for condoms .) Couples attended required state-sponsored sex education classes before marriage; many young urban and rural women first learned about female orgasm in these classes. These two major changes—greater literacy and sex education—altered the institution of marriage and attitudes about sexuality.

Today in urban and even rural communities, arranged marriages and cousin marriages have become much less common. The laws have not changed—daughters still need their fathers’ legal permission to marry. But marriage is seen less and less as just an institution for procreation, and women have come to expect intimacy and spontaneity along with a greater degree of emotional and sexual closeness.

In watching the protests on the streets of Iran these days, I have been surprised by the fact that popular support for state policies is much weaker. Thirty years ago, the state easily recruited over a hundred thousand women from the more pious sectors of society to confront women’s rights activists. Today, the state has mostly relied on the brutal force of the police and Basij volunteer forces to put down the advocates of democracy. Many women from the more pious sectors and their children were among those who voted for presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and his accomplished wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard. This shows that the old cultural divides of the 1970s, what Nikki Keddie called a “society of two cultures”—one urbane, secular, and modern, the other conservative and pious—have substantially narrowed.

However, let me add that more modern gender and sexual norms have had many negative consequences as well: exceedingly high rates of unprotected sex, marital unhappiness, unemployment, prostitution, drug addiction, and suicide. Although premarital sex is becoming more common among urban youth, the young men feel little responsibility or obligation toward the young women they sleep with. Few use contraceptives, and the burden of avoiding pregnancy falls mostly on the women. Young women also have no legal protection from sexual molestation and rape, unless they admit to the authorities that they engaged in premarital sex, in which case the woman’s punishment is harsher than that of the male perpetrator. The young women we see fighting on the streets of Iran for freedom and democracy are fighting not just for an abstract concept of liberation (azadi) but for greater individual, social, and economic rights and laws that would reflect the realities of their lives.

Thanks for initiating this dialogue. I see similar trends in the Arab Middle East, particularly with regard to women’s education and employment, though not birth control and sex education, and like to know how the institution of marriage in evolving in Egypt.


[Part I of a dialogue between Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi, and Janet Afary. El Saadawi is famous in the Arab world for her outspokenness, particularly on the issue of women’s rights.]

(Read Nawal’s initial question here)

Comments are closed.