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Will not repeat itself

Brief history of relationships between men and women in Iran

February 28, 2002
The Iranian

Relationships are one aspect of male/female socializing processes that are hardly dealt with by Iranians and their media. The origin of direct relationships between males and females in Iranian culture is relatively new and started with other modernization processes that took place at the end of the 19th century.

Before then, religion and tradition governed all such relationships and there was no question of males and females openly dating or socializing with such intentions. Veiling kept women at home and totally inaccessible to other males. Sexuality was controlled and carefully confined to the home and was male oriented. For women it was only a matter of reproduction and with the wealthy polygamy and the young concubines often in the same household satisfied the male appetite for sexual pleasure.

The practice at the same time created conflict amongst the many women and their offspring all living under the same roof. Many tales and stories entered the popular culture magnifying the abusive conditions of the wives and their children some by using satire focusing on 'havoo' and 'bacheh havoo' (other wives and their children). On the other hand segregation of sexes unprecedented in history, and against human nature, created lasting abnormal patterns of behavior and psychological disorders for both males and females.

Religious prohibition of most visual and performing arts including dance and music particularly in urban areas and the Shiite culture of celebrating death, martyrdom and mourning left very few avenues for external expressions of joy and few options for seeking pleasure except sexual pleasure for males. The erotic illustrated books or the so called 'pillow books' such as The Perfumed Garden (16th century Tunis) provided guidance for the males and instructed them on various ways of lovemaking and how to get optimum satisfaction.

Despite availability of concubines and polygamy (slaves & war captives in remoter times), prostitution always existed. Segregation of sexes limited employment opportunities for women and the poor and the widowed with no children to support them had little choice except begging, domestic work or prostitution. In Safavid period when thousands of acres of vineyards were destroyed, to make sure no wine was produced, unemployment increased drastically in the rural and urban areas. The number of prostitutes at the time was so high that government officials attempted to regulate the trade by registering and taxing the prostitutes.

Verbal decency restricted any open expressions of desire for women and public discussions of sexuality remained within confined religious prescriptions. Such restrictions back-lashed in form of a culture of indecent language and verbal abuse using male and female genitals that still persists today as evident by Iranian on-line chat rooms that are full of such language.

Islamic codes of behavior recommended by the clergy as best illustrated in Majlesi's colossal work Bihar al Anwar ("Ocean's of Light") treated sex and desire in its' most primitive form; reproduction and instinct. In such literature women are totally devoid from any instinct at all and are reduced to sex organs and are treated as mechanically reproducing agents. Their bodies are assumed to have satanic properties that would send all men to hell if exposed to the naked eye. Women being the property and honor (namous) of their husbands, veiling and their exclusion from public domain were sought to be the solution.

Such literature at the same time reduces men to sexual animals and male sexual instinct is regarded as natural, God given and is praised, encouraged and accommodated through polygamy and or concubinage. Such practices created a masculine culture and men developed modes of false strength based on acceptance of the superiority of their gender. Females on the other hand became isolated, insecure, and forced to accept their inferior position as part of the natural order.

Segregation was imposed by using extreme force and by creating codes of behavior and ethical values that stressed the virtuosity of obedience, loyalty, veiling and segregation. Women were required to be passive, shy, virtuous and agreeable to their husband's every vim and vigor. Hadith and other religious literature are full of recommendations about such matters and condemn any deviations.

Women's sexuality was identified to be the same as 'public moral' and severe punishments were applied to women violating the expected behavior with honor killings, and stoning to death, the prescribed Islamic punishment for adultery. Naser Khosro (11th century) and Ibn Batuteh (14th century) in their travelling accounts describe restrictions imposed on women and violent punishments expecting them. Naser Khosro mentions that in the city of Tabas, the local governor would execute any unrelated male and female caught talking to each other. Taliban in recent years had similar policies in Afghanistan.

The first changes occurred toward the end of the 19th century and started with the educated, merchants and aristocrats acquainted with Europeans ways. The first intellectuals of this period were patriotic, reform oriented and amongst major national issues demanded emancipation, monogamy, education, equal rights and opportunities for women. As progressive as they were they remained traditionalist with respect to family and male/female relationships. Western countries like England fueling their ideas and motivating them to change were also traditionalist with such matters.

Victorian morality and conservative codes of ethic and behavior ruled firmly and was observed by most Europeans at the time. Male intellectuals of this period encouraged and backed their wives and daughters to fight for their rights. They supported female schools and opened up job opportunities for women. However no one questioned the traditional values of the family or the conventional courting system between men and women and there was no question of free sexual relationships between the two sexes. A few courageous women who were brave or powerful enough to adopt such a life style like Taj Saltaneh, Naser al din Shah's daughter, were immediately labeled as loose or whore by all, including their admirers and lovers.

The brilliant artist and nationalist Aref Ghazvini in his memoirs mentions quite a few of such women with whom he had illegitimate affairs and sexual intercourse. One account about his love making in a public bath provides an insight on how men and women carried out such relationships while living under very strict Islamic codes. Aref and others like Iraj Mirza despite their patriotism, modernism and demands for change and emancipation of women followed the expected behavior of 'double standards' in their writings and made a clear distinction between such women and the good and virtuous ones. The wives were not expected to be sexual and pleasure was sought from outside the household with women labeled as loose and immoral.

Such imagery of women was and still is the popular and traditional way of representing women in Iran. The image presents a polarity between the good, the ethical and the mother figure as opposed to the temptress and the loose woman using her sexuality to seduce and misguide men. Such women are a threat to public moral. Parvin Etesami in her life and works by imposing self censorship made sure that no one would mistake her for the second category. She is just about the only major Iranian poet who has not mentioned the term 'love' (male/female) in her works.

The males of the next generation faced different dilemmas. The intellectuals mostly socialists or communists witnessed the emancipation and lived through it. Idealistic with grand ideas of equality for all including women and at the same time growing up with the notion of the virtuous and the virgin wives, they were confused, hesitant and unsettled.

Bozorg Alavi's major novel, Chshemhaayash ("Her Eyes") is the best example of such conflicts. The main character is a beautiful upper-class temptress who is retelling the story of her life. She is constantly apologizing and regretting her past actions, i.e. relationships with men. Even though she joins the anti-government activists and helps them out, she is always haunted by her loose behavior in the past and will never gain the respect of the main male character, the artist/activist who has drawn her picture with the puzzling eyes. Sadegh Hedayat in his Boofe Koor ("Blind Owl") can only make love to the female characters in the world of death, the ethereal woman and his murdered wife (see link at the end for more info). Dead women can not be a threat and he is safe with them!

The average people had their own reservations. For 1,400 years men and women had lived in separate spaces with no females openly present in public places (except for the family members). Now thrown together they had to start from the beginning and learn how to share the same space, work together and socialize like normal human beings did throughout the human history. This was the beginning of sexual revolution in Iran. For the first time in centuries males and females were in direct contact with no supervision and no retribution, the veil was lifted. This might not sound as radical as the 1960's sexual revolution in the Western countries but for the Iranian culture this was indeed a revolution. Romance entered life and popular romantic literature dealing with earthly and physical love became bestsellers.

For the first time public spaces were created aiming at leisure activities, such as cafes, clubs, theaters, cinemas, discotheques etc., where the two sexes could freely socialize. Affairs took place, men and women fell in love some excessively, physical contacts were made, mainly kissing and other bodily touches. Some went further, unwed women got pregnant, abortions for the first time, safely and legally available, were carried out and sexually transmitted diseases soared. One look at the papers and magazines of the 1930's through 1950's shows an amazing number of advertising with respect to cures for such diseases particularly syphilis.

Characteristically the women who took the risks and had sex, lost at the end. Virgin brides were still in demand by most men including the intellectuals and the 'double standard' ideology remained. Jalal al-Ahmad while married to Simin Daneshvar had many affairs openly and indiscreetly. His writings on infidelity were published after his death. If Danshevar ever talks about the relationship it will be interesting to know what al-Ahmad would have done if his wife had all the affairs?

Masses still remained traditionalist and number of honor killings and physical abuse of women by their lovers and boyfriends increased and became front-page news items. Any attempt by traditional and lower class women to try the new courting styles resulted in their banishment and many ended up as prostitutes. A few women from lower classes made it into the limelight by becoming famous singers or dancers like Mahvash, the very popular singer/dancer of the 1950's, but most were destroyed in the process.

Though no statistics is available, rape would have been a serious problem. Most rapes were committed by men known to the victims (e.g. boyfriends) alien to the notion of equality of sexes and assuming any girl who went out with unrelated men was 'asking for it'. Rape still is a taboo and in majority of cases it will not be reported. In most cases it is the woman who will be punished (by family members) rather than the rapist.

1960's and 70's witnessed the beginning of normalization of relationships between the sexes for the modern classes. Polygamy, concubinage and arranged marriages were ridiculed by these classes. Sensational characters such as Forough Farokhzad removed all remaining taboos on female sexuality and actresses portrayed sexuality like never seen before. Sleazy and semi-pornographic sex scenes were introduced and many such stars became rich and famous.

Most attained respectability by marrying prominent men at the end and others like Forouzan remained single, independent and master of their own destiny. Googoosh, the legendary singer/actor became an icon and for the first time in the patriarchal adult oriented culture, 'young and the trendy', was made popular. Googoosh was a pioneer in creating a 'culture of having fun' as opposed to the culture of mourning and black dresses and made singing and dancing acceptable amongst all classes. Her posters and pictures were displayed on taxis and trucks along religious calligraphy such as 'Ya-Ali' and 'God is Great'. Popular magazines for young were published and a distinguished youth culture emerged.

For majority of the population tradition was still the motto. Practicing Muslims and the so-called 'Muslim intellectuals' responded bitterly and at the end violently to de-segregation and free and open relationships between the two sexes. Ali Shariati in his best seller Fatima Fatima ast ("Fatima is Fatima"), declared the Western looking women of the Pahlavi era as corrupt, with no identity, doll like and degenerate copycats. He further announced the 'good Muslim women' as confused with no role model and incapable of knowing what they want or what they should become! The solution was Shariati's presentation of Fatima as the ultimate role model for all Muslim women. Fatima willingly and voluntarily had sacrificed herself for her fate and her family, all good Muslim women were instructed to do the same.

Ayatulah Motahari introduced 'Islamic dress code' by declaring that a long coat and 'maghnaeh' to cover hair and neck would suffice as appropriate Islamic attire. But all condemned Western style courting styles and control of female sexuality by the husbands and fathers was made to be a pillar of the Islamic way of life in books published by both the clergy and secular Muslims such as Sadr Haj Seyyed Javadi. The new trends were portrayed as degrading public order and moral and traditional Islamic ways were praised and encouraged.

Muslim women appeared in Islamic attire at Universities and workplaces in the 1970's and 'all female Islamic schools' became popular. Voluntary veiling by Muslim women has only recently become a subject of research and as yet no major work on the subject is produced. In the Iranian context many factors have contributed to the popularity of veil. For the women from very traditional and strict families it has legitimized their presence in public space. At the same time this has enabled them to meet non related males and relationships have started blossoming outside the traditional domains and the changes are challenging the notion of 'arranged marriages'.

With the poorer families it provides a 'uniform' and reduces the cost of looking 'fashionable' and 'well to do'. It is simply practical, cost effective and has increased mobility of majority of women particularly young and unmarried females who traditionally would not have been present in the public domain. The patriarchal culture and Islamic ideas of male sexuality being God-given and 'satanic properties of female body' does not require men to control themselves instead restricts women by covering up. Such opinions have become embedded in the psyche of Muslims, male and female. Psychologically the presence of unveiled women normally identified as immoral and loose is very unsettling and creates insecurity for the traditional Muslim female who is still threatened by inferior legal status, polygamy and concubinage. This could be one reason why so many Muslim women support compulsory veiling for all women.

Since the revolution, the Islamic authorities have attempted to reverse the changes by compulsory veiling, strict religious codes, segregation and intimidation by arresting, flogging and imprisoning males and females for the 'crime' of having relationships outside the prescribed Islamic codes. Abortion was made illegal, marriage age drastically reduced, concubinage was promoted and like polygamy has become widespread. So far none of the policies of reversal have worked. Inferior legal status of women, mass unemployment, worsening economic conditions, oppressive cultural practices, drug addiction and depression have had a negative impact on all behaviors including sexual behavior.

More than ever before, women are reduced to commodities to be purchased. Prostitution is rampant and the unpopularity of the government has created rebellion and self-destructive behaviors. Males once again are developing modes of false strength based on their superior legal and cultural status. Women unlike the previous generations are not accepting the differences as natural and the religious prescribed codes are questioned and criticized by all including women from traditional Muslim backgrounds.

The very high cost of living has made marriage difficult for many and has altered marriage practices including the traditional 'arranged marriages', 'dowry' and 'bride price'. Government sponsored mass weddings for thousands of young couples through simple and cheap ceremonies have been an attempt to eliminate some of these problems. There is no data available but it seems that most couples at these mass weddings have chosen their own mate, which means somehow they are socializing or dating. This is a first for the traditional classes. This independence is partly achieved by eliminating customary dowry/bride price expenses. Such practices ensured parent's authority and control over their children since most young couples were not able to financially afford the expenses and parents were responsible for the payments.

The last 50 years have introduced fundamental changes in patterns of relationships that were moving towards normalization. However since the revolution, restrictions on public spaces where normal socializing processes can take place and on female mobility, segregation, veiling and banning relationships outside marriage etc., are once again creating abnormal patterns of behavior for both the sexes. Combined with the inferior legal status of women and oppressive cultural practices the relationships between the two are far from healthy or normal and are not expected to improve in the near future.
Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Massoume Price

By Massome Price

Price's features index

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Gender ideology
To what extent are equal rights for women tied to issues of globalization?
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