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Stolen Kisses: Iran's Sexual Revolutions

Many young Iranians risk run-ins with the morality police in the name of partying and sex. Is their revolt against sexual restrictions political?

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Those who would choose to fight such battles, and to make the sacrifices that such a fight would entail, are few in any society, and Mahdavi's subjects are not to be faulted for choosing the already uphill battle to enjoy their youth. But the distinction is worth noting, mainly because it is not lost on the Iranian regime, which has shown a willingness to cut deals with its populace -- loosening social restrictions, or turning a blind eye toward parties or translucent head scarves in upscale neighborhoods, precisely while tightening the screws on political activism and the independent press. Hence, Mahdavi is optimistic for the future of reform and brushes off the crackdown under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which has had only limited effect on fashion and sexual practices. But she does not mention the wholesale exclusion of reformers from government, or the imprisonment and torture of dozens of feminist activists, starting in 2006, for the crime of circulating a petition calling for the amendment of laws that classify women as second-class citizens. (Among other things, the petition calls for equal rights for women in marriage, inheritance and divorce; an increase in the age of criminal responsibility from 9 to 18 for girls and from 15 to 18 for boys; the prosecution of honor killings; equal consideration of a woman's testimony in court to that of a man; and an end to the capital punishment of female adulterers.) The political claims Mahdavi makes for Tehran's sexual revolution are, or should be, complicated by these developments.

Somehow, one suspects that the grassroots push to change sexual mores cannot be totally divorced from the effort, on the part of feminist activists but also some reformist parliamentarians and even liberal-minded clerics, to improve the status of Iranian women under the law. But the women in Mahdavi's study seem to occupy a wholly perplexing historical moment, or a palimpsest of historical moments. They live in a theocracy with a premodern, religious legal code, and they are undergoing, all at once, what we in the West would recognize as a 1960s-style sexual revolution, 1970s-style second-wave feminism and the contemporary postfeminist embrace of female sexuality, with all its complexities. The messages these women receive are mixed, to say the least. Mahdavi describes some of her married subjects as spending 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.

The lives Mahdavi describes are rich in fleeting pleasures and 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 postrevolutionary 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 twentysomething 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 or of a disused demographic -- unmoored and decadent, dissipating its energies -- for which its country has no use?

 
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