Stolen Kisses: Iran's Sexual Revolutions
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Mahdavi does not press such inquiries. Nor, notably, does she ask her subjects about religion. By engaging in sexual behavior the state deems "un-Islamic," do Iranian young people feel they are questioning the state's monopoly on Islam, or are they questioning Islamic sexual morality itself? Are her subjects evidence of a secularizing culture, or have they found a way to absorb Islamic spirituality while flouting Sharia law? The absence of searching analysis along any of these lines is striking, and it prevents Mahdavi's extensive collection of anecdotes and informants from rising above the level of observation.
In fact, what she calls ethnography often feels more like a thinly academicized memoir of the Iranian party scene. Mahdavi, who grew up in California and spent extensive time doing research in Iran, gets in the way of her subject by compulsively inserting herself, often in self-flattering terms, into the frame. We never hear her subjects speak without also seeing Mahdavi nod and smile. She includes her diary entries verbatim and emphasizes her feelings about the parties she attends. "My smart, beautiful friend from America. Knowing you makes me so cool," she quotes one of her informants as telling her. She quotes others saying that only she can help them with their problems, or that maybe the women in the beauty parlor are asking her why she isn't married because they feel threatened that Mahdavi appears to "have it all."
Although Mahdavi writes that she did research among poor youth as well as the middle and upper classes, in the one extended account of an outdoor party on the wrong side of the tracks, we hear next to nothing from the poor urban youth in attendance. Instead we get a scene in which a young woman admires Mahdavi's shoes and Mahdavi generously offers to trade her fashionable footwear for the girl's tattered sandals, to the girl's gratitude and delight. "I've never met a rich girl like you," Mahdavi quotes her as saying. "Who are you, anyways?" These authorial intrusions make the first five chapters of Passionate Uprisings feel aimless and amateurish. Fortunately, when we get into the material about public health and sex education, about which Mahdavi has done truly original and far-reaching research, the author steps aside and allows her material to order itself before the reader in all its richness.
After all, at the level of observation, there is still something about these cultural currents at which to marvel. It is not hard to see why Mahdavi felt that her young subjects were the leading edge of something significant, even if we don't come away quite knowing of what. Nearly thirty years into its Islamic Republic, Iran has become a country its revolutionaries never imagined, let alone desired. Its population has doubled; its countryside has modernized; its cities have burgeoned. Heavy-handed religious rule has produced a profound ambivalence about organized religion even among Iranians who cleave strongly to their private faith. Young Iranians, born after the revolution, burrow tunnels under the walls the regime has erected to isolate them from the West. And no amount of repression has succeeded in smothering the seemingly trivial but inextinguishable human impulse toward beauty, the playfulness of fashion or the electricity of sex. Maybe this is a story about Iran, with its restive political culture and loss of faith in institutionalized religion; maybe it's a story about Islam and the return of its repressed; or maybe it's just a story about the human spirit and the things it is not prepared to live without.
Laura Secor is a 2008-09 fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, at the New York Public Library.