What seems like centuries ago, I wrote an essay on love and loss in which – in a fit of generalizing – I stated that I had found no Iranian man who could or would meet the high standards my father has set [“Loving an Iranian man“]. At that time, a number of readers of that essay wrote me to tell me – some vehemently, some in vulgar language – that I suffered from a chronic case of the Electra Complex.
A few weeks ago, in another fit of high sentiment and anger, I asked a rhetorical question -once again a sweeping generalization – about the current state of Iranian women, and I, arrogantly asked whether these women could become iconoclasts [“To live or to be alive?“]. I have received only two among many reactions (fortunately, or unfortunately, I have scant access to the Internet here in Iran), and from these two emails, I sense that many were offended by my observations.
While I stand by the very personal sentiments underneath my statements, I have to say that the observed shortcomings of which I have complained – far from being inherent flaws of superficial souls – are the direct consequence of horrendous socioeconomic circumstances, and brutally repressive social norms.
In this country, the unofficial rate of unemployment is 25 percent. Due to whatever flaws in economic planning – or as some say due to the very existence of economic planning – most foreign and local investments are drawn to the oil and petrochemical industry, and whatever industrial development is attempted, it is generally thwarted by arbitrary and sometimes conflicting regulations, proliferation of various centers of control and legislation, miles of red tape, and a culture of official corruption. In an environment such as this, entry into the job market is a Herculean feat and the young men and women are left with few options and only a bleak view into a future. When the prices rise disproportionate to the increase in incomes, when – in a return to medieval conditions – private debt and civil claims can land a person in jail until the debt is repaid, when detailed detection into the private lives of a person can obstruct their job search and entry into universities, when affordable housing is almost impossible to find, and because of a million other economic circumstances, young men and women tend to stay with their families well into their twenties and sometimes thirties.
Unless a young man or woman is guaranteed an inheritance, a job in his or her family's business, or the possibility of leaving the country in search of a job, his or her future is uncertain. Since the laws tend to disfavor women, and there is no such thing as free daycare, equal access to all jobs, access to family aid, or most importantly, equal pay for equal work, women are – despite the desperate need for their earnings as part of the family income – factually discouraged from entering the job market at all. How can a woman then ensure an income for herself once her main financial supporter, her father, has passed on?
These socioeconomic facts, often exacerbated by the undertakings of legislative and executive branches underlie the social norms whose raison-d'être can often be detected in the economic needs of Iranian families. Repressive laws preventing association and relationships between men and women have the opposite effect, as prohibition actually fans the flames of desire. The actions of vice police have actually resulted in a twisted and unnatural interaction between young men and women where secrecy changes the nature of what is in essence an innocent contact to something that is considered clandestine, sinful and polluted. Economic necessities have tended to strengthen family bonds to the extent that the parents of a full-grown adult often feel compelled to interfere in the choices and decisions of their children. Like parents everywhere, they would like to protect their children and see them prosper. Guaranteeing a future for their daughters often means finding them a good husband quickly.
All these very real exigencies occur in a society which has always been – before and after Islam – essentially a patriarchal and class-oriented society with complex societal norms and ancient social mythology mapping sexual roles within very rigid boundaries. A family's honor still depends on the women in the family and her private and public behavior. The words “naamoos” and “gheirat” among many others are untranslatable words which speak of this culture of honor. In fact, the horrendous tradition of honor killings – where a raped woman is killed by a male member of her family to free her of the shame of this unwanted intercourse – is still quite prevalent outside Tehran.
A woman – no matter how worldly, sophisticated, accomplished and educated – is considered incomplete if she is unmarried and has no children. Divorce is so shameful that many women tolerate physically abusive or unfaithful husbands in order not to bring shame upon their families (this pressure is even felt by Iranian women abroad whose families are still in Iran). Though some friends joke that you cannot find a virgin girl in Tehran anymore, and though anecdotal statistics of abortions by unwed women shows the prevalence of premarital sex in at least Tehran, the lucrative business of hymen reconstruction surgery attests to the actual value still placed on virginity.
Being torn between traditional social prohibitions and a modern culture of permissiveness, transmitted by satellite and video and peer pressure, most young men and women develop rebellious behavior which finds its outlet in a sort of perverse conformity: “let's all of us kids be like one another and as different from our context as possible.” If the law says a girl cannot wear makeup and has to cover her hair, the young girls who can afford the stuff actually wear beautiful and full makeup and wear scanty scarves showing their bangs in the front and their braids in the back. If only traditional music is condoned by the regime and its telecommunication apparatus, then pop music becomes all the rage. If satellite becomes illegal and connections to the West are berated, then the newest CD from Celine Dion is handed from teenager to teenager, and a full 80 percent of Iranian youth between ages 14 and 25 (the government's own statistics) eagerly seek out the uncensored version of the film Titanic. Anything banned increases in value. All things controversial sell astronomically regardless of their quality. This speaks to the human nature in general, and not the particularities of Iranian society.
It is these social, political, and economic limitations that create the kids of today's Tehran. Nevertheless, I believe, however naively, in the human ability to transcend one's surroundings, and if I wistfully dream about an iconoclastic generation of young men and women, it is only because I believe that it IS possible. That I have yet to observe it in Iran is either my misfortune or the very fundamental nature of humanity.
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