I had just arrived back in Tehran, Iran. My Islamic hijab (full head wrap and loose-fitted tent-like cover for the body compulsory for women to wear in public in Iran) was clammy with euphoria of the things I would see: Snow covered mountains, the sea, the breathtakingly beautiful ancient cities of Shiraz and Esfahan, the banquet of Persian foods and faces…faces fully fed and ready to greet me in warm hugs and sticky kisses…
Iran was a death trap. A seductress that bewitched you with its majestic mountains, misty alleys and luscious food and family love, when on the streets, one wrong move and you would face torture and execution.
I had arrived back into my homeland after 24 years. I had escaped from Iran in 1984 as a child during the bedlam of the Iran/Iraq war and amidst the terrifying climate of the newly appointed Islamic regime. As a child I had had a few run-ins with the Komiteh (Iran’s morality police) when they had caught me showing too much hair from under my hejab and once a bit too much ankle whilst sitting in my parents’ car. During that first decade of the Islamic revolution dancing was illegal, as was listening to music in your car, women who wore lipstick in public might have had their lips slashed with a razor by the Komiteh, wearing nail polish was punishable by lashings, even wearing a tie was seen as counter-revolutionary and punishable and so on. Now 24 years later things were slightly more lax but hadn’t changed that much.
I found the present day Iran still a climate of fear where everything seemed to be forbidden and punishable by imprisonment and torture. Even just being in the company of the opposite sex, if not married or related to them by blood, (even if you’re sitting in the car with them) will most likely get you up to 84 lashings and imprisonment. Pre-marital sex is illegal and being convicted of it, grounds for severe punishment by the authorities: up to 84 lashes and possible public execution by hanging. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, if you cheat on your husband or wife, you will get stoned to death if caught. Being stoned to death takes 20 minutes to die as you are buried up to you neck in sand and have a massive crowd of people throwing small stones at your head until you die.
Even with all these strict laws what I found astonishing was that the age of marriage for girls was still 9 years of age, which to me meant that paedophilia was a legal act. I found that temporary marriage (Sigheh) where a man could marry a girl anything from 1 hour to 99 years encouraged a form of prostitution as girls would get paid for this temporary marriage. The contradictory laws of the country produced a society where girls and women had little or no human rights or access to sexual healthcare and education.
Being back in Iran was a beautiful sweet comfort. I felt like I had gone back to the maternal womb of my childhood. I saw family and friends and re-walked the steps back to my childhood home where I had played all those years ago. But I walked with trepidation in the streets of Tehran, my hair and body fully covered up, make up free, my head down, careful not to look at men in the eye for fear of coming across as a whore.
In this climate of fear where wearing a full Islamic hejab for women is forced and not adhering to it will result in imprisonment and lashings, where wearing makeup or nail polish in public results in a similar fate along with the medieval punishments for sexual conduct, the risks of having sex are death-defying and the stakes higher than anywhere else in the world. People are constantly looking over their shoulder to see who is watching and are constantly on guard just in case they get pounced on by the morality police.
In a tyranny where there is mass oppression and no freedom of expression, where any resistance to the primitive Islamic laws forced onto society in everyday life results in immediate imprisonment, torture and possible death, the youth of Iran are using sex as a desperate frustrated form of defiance and rebellion- they are enacting their own little revolution- and resisting the laws of the Islamic Fundamentalist regime. It takes great courage-and madness- to literally risk your life for sex and parties when knowing that any minute you could be arrested and tortured or worse.
But when you find that going on any protest or demonstration-as shown in the recent anti-election protests in Iran- will get bricks thrown at you, get you beaten up and shot at, the only way as a young adult you can feel like you’re wining the battle is to create a small space within which you can enact everything that is against Islam. It’s like they’re staging their own little victory and enacting social change. And it is not restricted to the wealthy and affluent up-towners. In Iran you will find widespread sexual promiscuity and parties in the poorer lower classes in down town Tehran.
In her book Passionate Uprisings about the Iranian sexual revolution which is the result of Pardis Mahdavi’s seven year investigation (between 2000-2007) into Iran’s ferociously rampant sex scene and culture, she asks one party goer about the terrible risks they put themselves in by participating in sexual debauchery. “Iran gives a new meaning to party like there is no tomorrow”, one party goer responds. At any time these parties can get raided, everybody arrested, imprisoned and tortured so they are literally partying like there is no tomorrow.
On my second night in Iran, I was at a café with a couple of female friends when I met 19 year old Nima. He was a rich kid, full of breathless energy and a love for fast cars. When he whispered if I wanted to come and have some fun as his place, my immediate reaction was no thanks. “Don’t worry, there’ll be lots of other guys there too” he winked at me, “and a lot of sexy girls…really wild crazy ones” he laughed.
I was intrigued. “Do you mean like an orgy?”
Two nights later I watched my girlfriend pick out the most outrageous outfit to wear to this party. Over the low-cut ass-skimming red dress she put on layers and layers of Islamic garb, covered every inch of her hair with the hejab and wore barely-there make-up (which would be transformed into 5 layers of makeup later at the host’s bathroom). With trembling hearts we drove through the traffic laden streets of Tehran, snaking through angry motorists, making sure we avoided eye-contact with any morality police in their car and whizzed to the affluent uptown part of Tehran. Anyone going to a party always parks their car away from the street where it’s held at in order not to attract any attention to it. And as we walked to the apartment where the parry was held at, I prayed that it wouldn’t get raided. Torture and prison were not something on my list of things to do.
As the apartment door opened our host Setareh a twenty-something year old woman warmly greeted us and whispered for us to go inside. The rabid beat of techno music bounced out from the DJ’s beat box. Bottles of Vodka, Whiskey, wine and beer lined up the vast kitchen bar as near-naked girls and boys stumbled in and out of bedrooms. It was a gorgeous apartment with purring velvet curtains of powder-pink, deep rouge and thick layers of intricate woven Persian carpets lining the floors. My friend who had manically gone to the bathroom to cake on her 5 layers of makeup made a dash to join in the party.
There were all sorts of drugs- mainly ecstasy- and lots of brand name alcohol. The women were all very well-groomed. All with perfect noses (Iran is the nose-job capital of the world). And the guys very designer-label conscious with the rooms spread with the swoosh and stagger of black market designer clothes. It seemed these rich uptowners were desperate to create their own piece of ‘the West’ and were wealthy enough to have a fat wad of cash handy just in case they were raided by the Komiteh and had to try bribing them.
“It’s the only way we can live in this quagmire”, was how a part-goer glowing with sweat and stains put it to me. ‘Every day we have to put our head down, do as they tell us and constantly look over our shoulder in case we get beaten, arrested or imprisoned. “This here”, he pointed to the ground “is how we experience a bit of freedom, a bit of breathing space. Without this, we would die, and we’re pissed off enough to take the massive risks.”
Indeed the women at the party had their Islamic hejab very handy just in case there was a raid by the Komiteh. It seemed like even in mid partying people had eyes in the back of their head just for a sign of a knock on the door, a warning from someone so they could grab their Islamic garb, throw away their alcoholic drinks and jump out of the window. And it does happen. In a mere few seconds you have to be prepared to put your hejab on, throw away your alcoholic drink and jump out of the window.
Pardis Mahdavi 2 talks about the stark contrast between the medieval Islamic laws that Iranians must survive by on a daily basis alongside the anarchically debauched secret sex lives that they have created in order to survive the reality of life in Iran. During her seven year research into Iran’s sexual revolution she attended a few sex parties where she witnessed orgies taking place in drained swimming pools, in apartments and houses with groups of forty or so young people. The irony of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran is made evident when one of these parties attended by Mahdavi is held at the home of the daughter of a cleric who has gone to the holy city of Mecca to make his religious pilgrimage. There are even butlers and servants to assist with hosting the party. In such an Islamic fundamentalist country, alcohol, sexual promiscuity and partying can even be found at a cleric’s home.
I had grown up in a relatively poor area of Tehran so being back in touch with my childhood friends opened my eyes up to the sex lives of the underprivileged lower classes. Not having money and the facilities to host sex parties doesn’t stop the poor and lower classes of Iran from having sex parties. I knew it was an even bigger risk to participate in one of these as the lack of money would not only mean a lack of a cosseted luxury apartment with butlers and rich kids with fast getaway cars but also no chance of bribing the morality police with fat wads of cash should there be a raid but I decided to take the risk as the danger was an exotic adrenalin rush that intoxicated me. I was told the party was going to be near a field in the backwoods somewhere out of town, away from everything and everyone. I got into the rattling rickety car of the girl I was going with and we sped through the singed mungy downtown air towards the dusk. The sound of prayer mourned from the nearby mosque as it called everyone to the evening prayer as solemn men and black chador-clad women scuttled off home. I couldn’t believe the double worlds that these people existed in. Here I was seeing these wild parties in people’s homes and in public the atmosphere was thick with fear, Islamic prayer and obedient broken defeated men and women. As we sped towards the night to the woods I remember thinking the desperation in these people’s lives must be such that they find anywhere to have sex; even in a forest.
The scene was that of the poor. A fire was lit away from the parked cars as girls and boys greeted each other. Instead of plush cars and fancy clothes there was banged-out old cars parked by the side of the road and girls with their hejab still on over old jeans and t-shirts. Instead of brand name alcohol there was opium and heroin (cheaper and more accessible than alcohol in Iran). This was the poor and underprivileged’s version of sex parties. Girls and boys walked hand in hand into the woods, torches were used discreetly and music eeked out from a car cassette player.
Such sexually promiscuous activity in an Islamic Republic is not only dangerous because of the gruesome repercussions but because of the unavailability of information and lack of knowledge on sexual health and contraceptives. Because pre-marital sex is illegal in Iran, information on sexual health and family planning is only reserved for couples who are engaged to be married and you need to produce a marriage licence in order to acquire contraception. Many girls and guys from both wealthy and underprivileged backgrounds I spoke with did not use any contraception and indeed did not know where to obtain any such thing. So the rates of STIs and seedy backstreet abortions are at alarmingly high rate in Iran. As there is a huge stigma attached to having sex before marriage, most of the time none of these people go to doctors if they have caught an STD or are pregnant as they are too ashamed. As my cousin who is a young doctor in Tehran explained to me: “I get girls and guys coming to see me as it is easier for them to talk to someone young. They have all sorts of STDs and they don’t even know what it is. There is absolutely no kind of sex education in Iran and there is no way the government would allow public information on contraception so the highly sexually promiscuous youth of Iran are not only risking their lives with imprisonment and possible death, but are living with huge health risks such as HIV and the backstreet abortions that are performed so much use very primitive surgical methods and can be hazardous to a woman’s reproductive health.”
Pre-marital sex is not just illegal in Iran; there is also the matter of family honour. Families often disown their daughters if they are discovered to no longer be a virgin before marriage. But it can also have far direr consequences. In 2004 a seventeen year old girl was publicly executed after her family turned her in to the authorities when they found her engaging in pre-marital sex. The fear of being found out by one’s family is such that hymen reconstructions- a surgical procedure where the hymen is sewn closed –has been a widespread practice in Iran for many years. Girls are even known to have undergone the procedure multiple times!
The pressure of maintaining this double life must take a toll on the mental health of Iran’s youth. Indeed many young people suffer severe depression from the constant stress of imminent imprisonment and torture and execution for anything from dressing the “wrong way” or having too much of a Western haircut to listening to the wrong type of music and having Western DVDs. Unemployment is high, the sanctions against Iran have devastated the economy, everything seems to be illegal and forbidden and speaking out against the injustice of this dictatorship will result in them getting killed. There is nothing they can do except turn to creating their own underground piece of resistance. A forbidden high-risk adrenalin fuelled fuck you to the Islamic regime piece of space where like a small revolution they are rebuking and pissing all over the medieval Islamic laws forced onto them and the way they have to live is against their will. The sex parties are like an escape from prison, a utopian playground that undermines all that the Islamic regime has tried to build and create in Iran. It makes the Iranian government look like buffoons.
Mahdavi, P. 2009, ‘Passionate Uprisings’, Stanford University Press