SEXUAL POLITICS IN MODERN IRAN:
- Sex outside marriage: punishable by 99 lashes or stoning
- Showing hair or wearing makeup, even though very common: punishable by lashings
- Hymenoplasty: re-storing the hymen so that the woman is a virgin on wedding night
- Temporary Marriage: anything from 1 hour to 99 years; woman gets financial reward depending on the duration
- No sex education
- Age of marriage can be as young as 9 years old
- Boy Concubines
- Underground Sex Parties
- The state owns its citizens’ agency, reproductive system and body choices
- Policing the Body and its Functions
Paper for SOAS Conference 2011
Sexual politics in modern Iran and social and cultural taboos as well as laws regarding sexuality, marriage, homosexuality, and sexual practices is bound in contradictory codes of behaviour as many pre-modern practices were legalized during Khomeini’s rise to power. Also, Iran’s social and political history is fragmented and patchy, bound up different interpretations of Islam according to what serves what government best.
A lot of pre-modern practices were re-installed and encouraged after the Islamic revolution as a backlash to the Shah’s speedy Americanization of Iran and of Western imperialism. But draconian laws still practised today have produced Iran’s own brand of sexuality regarding gender, marriage, reproductive and sexuality laws. Most of these pre-modern practices are still dominant in modern day Iran which combined with young people’s sole ‘education’ about sex obtained from (illegal) pornography consumption, and not from school or family dialogue, creates a confusing and disturbing view of human sexuality.
Iran’s rich erotic past
Love, erotica and images of sexuality are abundant in Iranian literature, poetry and paintings – Rather like India’s legacy of Kama Sutra, Iran also revealed itself to have an intensely erotic past and a delicious platter of sexual practices that our ancestors participated in. Like the Greeks love of boys, the depiction of sexuality and erotica in Persian literature and paintings is due to ambiguous sexualities that were never labelled as lesbian or gay but just a beautiful bond amongst two females or two males and Classic Persian literature and poetry (12 to 15th century) has overflowed with same-sex themes.
Unlike the Greco- roman world where sexuality was not labelled and categorized, sexuality by its classification and categorization of normal/abnormal behaviours produced gendered identities. So for example the homosexual became a species, his or her sexuality defining his or her humanity with its specific codes of behaviour.
Ambiguous Sexualities and Boy Concubines
Islamic law prohibits homosexuality but young boy concubines and man-boy relationships which have a mentor quality to them, were and in some parts of Iran are recognized practices.
- Male courtship in Persian literature and art Throughout history the older man, young boy concubine relationship has been a tradition in Iran. In a painting of Shah Abbas from the 15th century you can see him engaged in sexual act with a very young boy. Pederasty is a sign of virility in the 19th century and among the upper classes the practice of keeping boy concubines was common and homoerotic passions were accommodated. Falling in love with a youth and celebrating that love were recognized practices. In royal court and among government officials, wealthy merchants and clerics the practice of keeping boy concubines was widespread. This practice was bound by rules of courtship such a giving gifts, reading poetry, body building, and mentorship. Sometimes men exchanged vows known as brotherhood sighehs (temporary marriage lasting from 1 hour to 99 years). However homosexual relations between two adult men was looked down upon and forbidden but now in modern day Iran under the Islamic Republic it is a capital offence, even though the state continues to ignore older man/young boy relations in religious seminaries and bazaars and amongst the clerical context.
With women same sex relations known as sister-hood vows were recognized practices. Such courtships involved an exchange of gifts and bound in elaborate rituals. Tradition dictated that one who sought another as ‘sister’ approached a go-between. The go-between would take a tray of sweets n the middle of which lay a dildo (which was made of wax or leather) if the beloved agreed to the proposal they would then take vows of sisterhood, drink fruit juices and on Friday evening spend the night together.
This is all linked to sex-segregated spaces- because in Iran so many places are sex-segregated-schools, the beaches, wedding (officially have to be), walking down the street… the fact that everything is sex-segregated in Iran which puts you in intense close proximity with other girls combined with the constant fear and stigma of pregnancy you can find lots of girls engaging in sexual acts together from a very young age. In junior high school it is relatively common for girls to have sexual intimacy with each other and it is seen as a very close bond with no label or category of ‘lesbian’ attached to it. It is common because it is free of risk and very easily accessible whereas intimacy with the opposite gender is bound in horrific consequences both social and legal. I myself as a child had lots of physical exchanges with girls at school which is common. And I know from listening to and speaking with lots of other Iranian women that sexual experimentation and intimacy with your girlhood friends was and is very common at school-age.
It is also very common to see two male friends holding hands in the streets of Iran and male relatives and friends kissing each other on the cheek affectionately whereas in the West that would construed as homosexual behaviour. Iranian men are very tactile and in a way gay men in Iran can get away with much more public displays of affection because no one could tell if they are just a friends or gay.
POLYGAMY and TEMPORARY MARRIAGE (1 HOUR-99 YEARS)
Polygamy has always been popular amongst middle classes and especially those affiliated with the bazaar; the clerical families- it has always remained a legal form of prostitution. Sigheh which means temporary marriage can last from a few hours to 99 years and has been a widespread practices for centuries in Iran. It has surged even more after the revolution when Khomeini encouraged both polygamy and temporary marriage.
The legal age of marriage for girls was the age of 9 in pre-modern Iran and again re-instated by Khomeini after the revolution. So obviously in most of Iranian history sex with a child has been legal as long as you marry her, whereas anyone caught in an act of paedophilia was throughout history punished severely. But paedophilia in this context-marriage- was ok as Islamic law condones it. Both my grandmothers, great aunts and others I have interviewed have married at around the age of 11 or 12 and have explained to me of the constant physical injuries that child brides would have on their wedding night when usually the husband who was much older than them would though sexual intercourse cause many a child bride haemorrhaging, ripping and tearing of the vagina and so on. Early marriage had many harsh consequences for these children. Multiple pregnancies and childbirths followed by a host of gynaecological complications often made sex difficult after a few years (in the medieval times opium was inserted into the vagina as a contraception)
During the Shah’s rule before the revolution, his speedy Americanization of Iran had a positive effect in the sense that it tried to eliminate these pre-modern practices but in doing so created social anxiety of people losing their culture and turning Iran into America. This modernization was deemed too vacuous by the majority of people because the westernization of Iran was mainly concerned with putting women in short skirts, make up and sexual merriment and it seemed like Iranian culture was being made inferior by having to blindly mimic western cultural practices, while the bulk of the population lacked proper housing, food and education.
The 1979 revolution was a backlash to the dramatic changes that had been taking place so speedily in Shah’s Westernization of Iran, of Western imperialism and consumerism and particularly gender reform which was embraced only by modern urbanites and a fraction of society and which made the rest of society nervous that their culture was being taken away and demoralized and fragmented. This had caused severe anxiety in the social fabric. The new state reinvented retrogressive gender and cultural practices-it established a new regime of truth by granting power over women’s sexuality and reproductive functions to the state and to men while also reversing trends in love and marriage.
The state encouraged polygamy and temporary marriage which meant that in the name of morality and women’s honour men of all social classes gained easier and cheaper access to sex. By 1986 the Pasdaran (revolutionary guards) had grown to 350,000 members, and the Basij, 3 million. The Basij were considered the eyes and ears of the Islamic republic. The spied on the population, stopped cars to check for music or use of make up, burst unto weddings and arrested guest for mixing genders. Many people were executed mostly without trial and mass graves were building up in Evin prison. Most public spaces were segregated- like beaches which were divided by a wall, buses where women had to sit at the back, parks, restaurants and cinemas and obviously schools and even weddings. In the course of the revolution the hejab had become the symbol of resistance against the Pahlavi regime; resistance to Western norms. The regime’s prescribed attire consisted of long looses cloak or overcoat, loose pants, large scarf in dour colours only. Women were randomly dragged off the street and beaten and tortured for even showing a strand of hair or wearing makeup. Lashing, stoning, amputations were daily occurrences as the Islamist government was committed to reversing modern trends. New laws and regulations encouraged child marriage and polygamy and prevented women from leaving abusive marriages.
Laws changed were also:
Major decisions in a woman’s life had to be approved by her father or her husband: her education, travel or change of address
Lowering the age of marriage to 9 for girls.
Limiting the use of contraceptives, and banning abortion.
A man’s right to take up to three more wives without the permission of his first wife and his right to temporary marriage.
Women prohibited from singing or dancing in public
Banning anything that enhanced a woman’s physical appearance.
A man and woman only being able to be together in public if they could prove with a certificate that they were married or father/daughter, brother/sister.
With so many limitations on interactions between single men and women, temporary marriage became a necessity. Sighe was also an ethically suitable alternative to masturbation and prostitution which it actually was. This is still practised widely in Iran since Ahmadinejad’s leadership.
So in effect brothels are legal. And there are endless possibilities with temporary marriage as premarital sex is illegal, girl and guys who are dating can get a temporary marriage, go on vacation together free form the stress of being prosecuted. It is also used for financial gain. Women can do a sighe to an older rich man, often gaining apartments, and villas and other material possessions.
There are even ‘menus’ for temporary marriage. The girl or woman get paid more the longer the temporary marriage contract and virgins will even more payment. This is from the Quds’eh Razai Website in 2010:
July 18, 2010
The following is a direct translation of the below Persian document:
Bismellah al rahman a rahim
Temporary Marriage (Marriage is among the traditions of the Prophet Mohammad)
In order to elevate the spiritual atmosphere, create proper psychological conditions and tranquility of mind, the Province of the Quds’eh-Razavi of Khorassan has created centers for temporary marriage (just next door to the shrine) for those brothers who are on pilgrimage to the shrine of our eighth Imam, Imam Reza, and who are far away from their spouses.
To that end, we call on all our sisters who are virgins, who are between the ages of 12 and 35 to cooperate with us. Each of our sisters who signs up will be bound by a two year contract with the province of the Quds’eh-Razavi of Khorassan and will be required to spend at least 25 days of each month temporarily married to those brothers who are on pilgrimage. The period of the contract will be considered as a part of the employment experience of the applicant. The period of each temporary marriage can be anywhere between 5 hours to 10 days. The prices are as follows:
- 5 hour temporary marriage – 50,000 Tomans ($50 US)
- One day temporary marriage – 75,000 Tomans ($75 US)
- Two day temporary marriage – 100,000 Tomans ($100 US)
- Three day temporary marriage – 150,000 Tomans ($150 US)
- Between 4 and 10 day temporary marriage – 300,000 Tomans ($300 US)
Our sisters who are virgins will receive a bonus of 100,000 Tomans ($100 US) for the removal of their hymen .
After the expiration of the two year contract, should our sisters still be under 35 years of age and should they be so inclined, they can be added to the waiting list of those who are seeking long-term temporary marriage. The employed sisters are obligated to donate 5% of their earnings to the Shrine of Imam Reza. We ask that all the sisters who are interested in applying, to furnish two full-length photographs (fully hijabed and properly veiled), their academic diplomas, proof of their virginity and a certificate of good physical and psychological health which they can obtain through the health and human services of the township of their residence. Please forward all compiled material and send to the below address by the 31st of the month of Ordibehesht, 1389 (May 21st, 2010).
Attention: For sisters who are below 14 years of age, a written consent from their fathers or male guardian is required.
Address: Mash’had, Shrine of Imam Reza, Shaheed Navab-Safavi, Kossar passage, Bureau of Temporary Marriages
or call Haji Mahmood Momtaz : 98/511/222-5790
Once a woman is married the state makes it impossible for her to avoid her husband’s sexual demands. Not only does polygamy and temporary marriage gave easy access to sexual partners for men, but by law their own wife could not refuse them sex:
Article 1108 f Iran’s Islamic civil code states: if a woman refuses to have sex with her husband without a valid religious justification she has no right to maintenance
This leads on to me talking about how cultural taboos in Iran combined with its laws and with the proliferation of technology into Iranian space-the injection of images from Western culture into the average Iranian home via satellite and internet has created a schizophrenic climate of binary oppositions.
Just like everywhere in the world where the concept of sexuality is a schizophrenic entity-overloading of sexualized bodies in every media form to the stigmatization of being sexually active- in Iran it is taken to an almost caricature-ish extreme. Sexuality in Western culture is represented as a dichotomy: the commodification of it-the imagery of which is injected into every day space as ‘product’- and simultaneously the demonization of the (mainly female) individual for their sexuality. In Iran this is taken to the surrealist realm: sexuality represented as either pornography or ‘normalized’ sexuality which is represented as pre-modern Islamic values.
Since Ahmadinejad’s election he has reversed many liberal practices that was allowed by the reformist Khatami. Like Khomeini, he encourages polygamy, temporary marriage and has lowered the age of marriage. Many women’s magazines have shut down, film directors and journalist and students who during Khatami’s rule had more freedom with their art forms have been imprisoned. The Qur’an has been used to be interpreted according to those who benefit from it.
Young people are raised on satellite television, pornography and music videos. They equate liberation and freedom with mass consumerism and clichéd version of genders- Performing their gender through the medium of porn.
Recently Mannequins in shops have to be ‘de-feminised’, meaning that their jaw-line needs to be cut off, their breasts and hips removed. In the name of ‘decency and virtue’, the female mannequins in shops must eliminate any sign of femininity. Women’s bodies and sexuality are problematic objects that must be approved and governed by the country’s moral institutions.
A form of resistance and backlash to the government owning the body and its agency, its reproductive system, its sexual activities, romantic desires, gender forms and appearance, has been Iran’s soaring practice of cosmetic surgery. Iran has been ranked as one of the top countries for cosmetic surgery procedures. Because of existing in the environment of prohibited behaviours, where the consequences of the simplest actions will result in lashings, imprisonment and torture, women spend the majority of their time altering their face. Elaborate make up, extreme rhinoplasty and lip injections to cartoonish proportions is the main form of activity for women. But she must also remain pure and a virgin until marriage. Therefore hymen reconstruction is also one of the most popular procedures in Iran.
Hymenoplasty has always been a very common surgical procedure in the Middle East. In Iran there was a running joke that girls should get zips on their vaginas because of the amount of times they had their hymen repaired and engaged in intercourse and repeated the procedure was just pointless. The operation includes the use of gelatin capsules containing red dye that will rupture during intercourse, simulating virginity. Some women actually just regulate their periods to coincide with their wedding night. This is how important being a virgin is. Even amongst the young trendy urbane men, it is pretty crucial to have a virgin wife. Because of this it is very common amongst Iranian girls to engage in anal intercourse instead of vagina intercourse to keep their hymen intact.
The extreme paradoxes of Islamic law and its life-threatening consequences for breaking those laws-sex outside marriage incurs 99 lashes, or stoning if adulterous- and exposure to a constant stream of pornography for sexual escape and gratification has created a highly disturbing and unhealthy view of sexuality. What’s happening now is extreme sexually promiscuous behaviour and activities. Sex parties, girls engaging in sex with multiple partners and so on-all with a massive lack of sexual health information, a lack of contraception which is illegal to those who are not married, has resulted in an epidemic of STIs, backstreet abortions and severe mental health issues amongst young people due to leading such a double life on a knife edge. Since everything is forbidden to them with the combination of high unemployment, the only way to channel their energy is to put it into a daredevil adrenaline fuelled life-risking activity. Young people cruise for anonymous sex partners by passing notes into the windows of neighboring cars when they are stuck in traffic, or by driving to poor neighborhoods where nobody will recognize them as they scour the sidewalks for partners they hope never to see again.
The birth control method of choice is usually withdrawal. Women who take the pill frequently lack the most basic information and take it only erratically, depriving themselves of almost all of its effect. Condoms are considered embarrassing. AIDS and STD are understood to only come from a certain unsavoury sort of woman. While wealthy women can obtain abortions–illegal in most cases but common, thanks to poor contraception–from sympathetic doctors at vast expense, poorer women acquire on the black market pills or injections meant for animals. You can get any pill on the black market without the least bit of knowledge of how to take it.
Since 2000 the Islamic Republic has required Iranians who seek marriage licenses to attend state-administered classes on family planning. The majority of them are basically a chador-clad woman lecturing a room of young women, offering the following counsel: “You must always be ready for your husband’s sexual needs. If perchance he is watching a football game on television, you should be resting to prepare yourself, or else preparing your bed for the evening. If you should feel overcome by fatigue yourself, make sure always to ask your husband, ‘Is there anything else you need from me?’ or ‘Would you like to have me later?’ before retiring.”
The good news is that contraception and sexual health information is free for married couples (the pill, IUDs and condoms). This is not really to do with the Islamic regime’s concern for the sexual health of the couple but rather to do with controlling the over population of Iran. In fact Iran has one of the best health care programmes in the Middle East with childhood vaccinations being free, with rural health care networks being established with 17,000 clinics. On one occasion more than 8 million children were vaccinated in a single day. But even so this only suited the purpose of the regime as polygamy, child marriages, violence against women and other women’s rights issues were stuck in pre-modern times. The regime followed a patriarchal and misogynistic reading of Islam. The state has continued to keep the age of marriage low in order to serve men’s interests. So basically it is a society were pedophilia is legal and justified according to the Sharia yet a free voluntary sexual relationship between two adults before marriage is illegal. And homosexuality punishable by execution.
That is why there are so many sex change operations in Iran as clerics reason that surgery will end gender ambiguity.
So identity has become a commodity and sexuality especially is even more of a simulation than the West. The concept of sex and sexuality is pornography. They have no other images of sexuality except from porn on the internet and American films and music videos which they watch on illegal satellite TV. Therefore sex is almost a re-enactment of being ‘Western’. Mimicking Hollywood romantic scenes is like having patterns ripped from their typical contexts of meaning and played out in conditions that ambiguate their traditional signification. Enactments of scenes and scripts from the mediatisation of information. It is a performance of being modern and of resisting the Islamic republic. The body become a site of political and cultural struggle; a site from which a revolution takes place. This has also loosened and destabilized the class structure.
They live in a theocracy with a premodern, religious legal code and the messages the youth receive are mixed, to say the least. Some women spend literally hours every day on their makeup and clothes and the rest of their time cruising the city for lovers. In a society that tells these women they should be chaste, domestic slaves to their husbands, who in turn have the freedom to acquire up to four wives and as many as 99 temporary wives, this could be seen as a kind of female empowerment. But there is something undeniably sterile about it as well.
Bereft of deep engagement, whether personal, political or professional, it is a dissolution one feels at the heart of contemporary Iranian middle-class culture, and it has to do with the structure of the post-revolutionary state, which has written off huge swaths of its population in its economy, culture and politics. Unemployment is highest among educated young people, who traditionally live with their parents until marriage. Many twenty-something Tehranis–bored, sexually frustrated, infantilized by the state and their families–live like teenagers in small-town America. They spend a lot of time in cars, getting high on ingeniously obtained or concocted substances, and looking for sex. Is this a sign of political ferment ? Are they experiencing ‘liberation’ or merely enacting Western gender stereotypes and objectification of women? If their only view of sex is porn or MTV music videos or Hollywood films, then they are merely mimicking what they see and enforcing another form of oppression-the objectification of women ( a very limited definition of woman), mass consumerism, identity as something to shop for. It is a sexual revolution on masculine terms. Even with the rise of STDs and AIDS, the state reaches out to drug users more than advocating the use of condoms. It is dis-engaged from a coherent emotional and physical journey with another person. It is patchy and fragmented and in popular psychology deemed unhealthy.