Stolen Kisses: Iran's Sexual Revolutions
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But then Mahdavi attends another such class, this time in the city's north, in the upscale shopping district near the Tajrish bazaar. This class covers disease transmission, contraception, fertility, mental health, marital relations and even female sexual pleasure. The teachers wear the less forbidding hijab -- head scarf and fitted thigh-length coat -- common among their students, and the women attending these classes, Mahdavi reports, confide freely to the teachers about their relationships and their sex lives. Here, and in her chapter about the older generation's response to the sexual revolution, Mahdavi shows us a society beginning to shake off its denial and rigidity out of the sheer necessity of serving the burgeoning needs of its young -- a generation of adults who have either grown sympathetic to young people's yearnings or, like Mrs. Erami, recognize that they risk greater losses than they can bear.
Something major is happening -- a generational shift, a process of social change on which Islamic law has only limited effect. But how deeply does it penetrate Iranian society, divided as Iranians are by geography and class? And how political is this movement in a country where politics is a live wire?
Mahdavi cannot be everywhere at once, and her study does not purport to explain the sexual behavior of everyone in Iran. Rather, it focuses on upper-middle-class, heterosexual Tehrani youth. This is a subculture worth studying -- Tehran is a city of 14 million and a trendsetter for smaller Iranian cities -- but Mahdavi is also aware of the study's limitations. Most significant, it excludes the social base of the ruling regime, which is rural Iran, where village life is the norm and values may be changing but where they remain, by all accounts, more traditional than in the bigger cities. Although she includes a few lower-class urban young people in Passionate Uprisings , we don't get to know them as well as we do the better-off informants. These omissions become significant mainly because Mahdavi makes big claims for her Tehrani revelers: their actions are not only political, in her view, but revolutionary; they are intended, finally, to bring about regime change.
In a narrow sense, this claim is obviously true. Insofar as the Iranian regime mandates Islamic dress and abstinence until marriage, young people who force the government to loosen these restrictions by defying them are engaged in a political act -- one that is effectively changing an aspect of the regime. But there is something tautological about this observation, and Mahdavi does not draw out any deeper links between the political movements, like the one for secular democracy, roiling Iran and the changing sexual mores she observed.
What she does document is a groundswell of young people who reject Islamic sexual morality, feel they should have the right to associate with whomever they wish and to do what they please with their bodies, and who are willing to risk brief, but plenty unpleasant, run-ins with the morality police in the name of fashion, partying, dating and sex. Some of Mahdavi's subjects describe a night or two spent in a jail cell; others are whipped, and one couple is forced to marry. (Mahdavi doesn't say whether class differences among offenders figure in the ways the morality police mete out punishment.) Does Mahdavi imagine that these young people, if granted a modicum of personal, sartorial and social freedom, would fight on -- for freedom of expression, freedom of religion, prison reform, representative government, an independent judiciary that respects the rights of the individual? For the rights and freedoms, in the end, of others?