Will not repeat itself
Brief history of relationships between men and women in Iran
February 28, 2002
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
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
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
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
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
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.