Tehran, City of Love

This article was published in Guardian, March 5, 2009.


Could the Islamic republic be heading towards a sexual revolution?

Last month there were two celebrations in Tehran, an official commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution and an unofficial and more light-hearted celebration of Valentine’s Day. Young people held hands in the streets and cafes despite warnings by the morality police. Shops did brisk business selling heart-shaped cards, chocolate, flowers, balloons, and jewellery. Husbands and wives took ads in popular Islamist journals expressing their passionate love, while Persian blogs were inundated with V-Day messages. Judging from these messages Valentine’s Day is not only a celebration of personal love but also a way of expressing sentiments like “make love not war”.

The state views V-Day a form of “western cultural incursion” and has suggested alternatives: the wedding anniversary of Ali (the first Shia Imam) and his wife Fatima, and more recently and a bit more successfully, a pre-Islamic celebration of “love and friendship” on 19 February called Sepandar Mazgan Day. But even these less popular alternatives are increasingly celebrated with cards and symbols that have an uncanny resemblance to Valentine’s Day mementoes.

The immense popularity of Valentine’s Day is rooted in fundamental changes in gender relations in Iranian society. Iran is experiencing a sort of sexual revolution. Ironically, it is rooted in some of the policies of the Islamic Republic in the last three decades. Westerners often portray the Islamic republic as “puritanical” about sex. Indeed, child marriage, polygamy and unilateral divorce by men were reinstated after the revolution. Greater limits were placed on women’s right to divorce and on women’s employment, while many childcare centres were closed.

At the same time, however, the Islamic republic encouraged rural and urban women from more religious sectors to join Islamist organisations and many did so. By taking jobs in the revolutionary institutions (the Revolutionary Guard, the auxiliary Basij, or the morality police) women from highly religious families gained financial and personal autonomy. Instead of marrying in their early teens to a man selected by their father, many married in their late teens or twenties to men they had selected in these Islamist institutions. Often these were veterans of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, whom they married with the blessing of the state, which provided them with a small dowry.

In the 1990s, many Islamist women gradually became more aware of women’s rights in marriage. Increased female literacy, a drop in fertility rates, and greater awareness of venereal disease, helped this trend. Initially, the state had encouraged large families. But near the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the government reversed course and reinstituted the family planning programme of the shah’s time. This programme was more successful since the newly-educated rural women embraced it, especially when family planning and sex education were packaged with Islamic blessings.

By the turn of the 21st century the birth rate had dropped dramatically to 2.0 – below replacement levels. In this same period life expectancy increased, the average age of marriage for women shot up to 24, and women’s expectation in marriage changed. Strictly-arranged marriages became less common and women, including many from traditional middle classes and rural communities, demanded companionship in marriage, including greater emotional and sexual intimacy. As in the west, love in marriage became important. Access to Iranian films and western media that celebrated heterosexual love increased these expectations. One result was that Valentine’s Day has become a big festive occasion.
In the west, birth control changed marriage from an institution for procreation to one that celebrated companionship. Greater appreciation of love and sexual satisfaction in marriage also led to greater tolerance for premarital sex and later, steps toward the recognition of same-sex relations. That chapter has yet to be written in Iran. Judging by the passion with which Valentine’s Day is celebrated among urban middle classes in Tehran and other big cities, though, such an evolution should not be too far off, historically speaking.

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