Dear Laleh Khalili,
I read your article “To live or to be alive? That is the question for Iranian women” once, read it one more time, and finally printed and read it yet again! After all that I am still uncertain what “the question” is!
You start by stating the fact that there are double standards in viewing men and women's age, particularly when it comes to dating, or marriage. You then, in the same paragraph, make it sound as if it is only in Iran that this holds true. I live in the U.S. and I can tell you for a fact that unfortunately many of my American acquaintances (male and female) share the same views.
You speak of your “independence” and “personal freedom” being viewed as “potent and dangerous”. But to whom? Is it Iranian males or their mothers only? Perhaps you are referring to Iranian culture? But then again I find American culture feeling the same threat from its free and independent women.
Madonna, one of the most successful pop artists and business women of the last two decades, is viewed negatively by many from different sects of American society for a wide variety of unfair reasons (I do not particularly care for her art or her looks by the way). Hillary Clinton, one of the smartest and most outspoken women who ever lived in the White House is viewed negatively by many for all the wrong reasons (I personally do not care for her politics either).
According to your article, you have chosen a way of life which leads you amongst a small but quickly growing minority of women. Why do you act so disappointed or surprised when people can not make sense of the way you live? It is simply because of their lack of familiarity with your chosen way.
When I was in my teens (I am 36 now) average Iranians married in their late teens and early twenties; now they do in their mid and late twenties. The same tendency can be observed in the West. Perhaps single people in their late twenties were viewed as strange two decades ago, but certainly not now. A way of life has changed and another is changing as I type these words.
It seems to me like you want to have your cake and eat it too! We all wish we could, but that is simply not the way things work. If you are pushing against the socially and culturally defined fences, you should expect to feel a resistance. These fences will not fall unless enough people like yourself start pushing. Now the question is whether they will or not. In this particular case, I believe they will.
You talk about the way young men and women meet in Tehran. The way a young woman lays the “net” and the way a young man steps on it. You honestly admit that you know not much about these techniques but does that make them wrong? I think not. The whole process is nothing but a ritual through which the young Iranian men and women find a mate. It may be a temporary union, but as the high (but apparently falling) marriage rate in Iran shows they eventually do find a supposedly long term mate.
The same young women that men such as your “open-minded older cousin” dismiss as unworthy for their love, eventually meet their mate through the same rituals. Perhaps the real reason that your cousin has not chosen any of the young women he has met to be worthy of his love so far is that none of them has made him feel like he was walking on clouds. Isn't “true love” really what we are all looking for in a relationship?
I, like yourself, moved to the U.S. when I was 16. I did not date any Iranian women until I was in my late twenties. Like yourself, I did not know anything about the methods in question, but once I got more familiar with them, I found them to be nothing but the same universal techniques used by men and women all over the world, only more exaggerated.
I have yet to hear of a couple who met without the initial eye contact. The only difference is that the Iranian version is indeed longer and more seductive. I admit to be guilty of loving it! There is nothing like the moment when the eyes lock for a third or fourth time, and you realize you may approach and initiate a conversation. Where it goes from there no one really knows, but that only adds to the excitement. Now that I have seen “the Iranian way”, I can not imagine myself preferring any other to this most enjoyable and delicious process.
I wholeheartedly agree with the first two sentences of your last paragraph (“The standards are certainly dual. Being a woman is very difficult anywhere, but more so in Iran, where the prescribed and proscribed public and private roles are so vastly discordant.”). However; that is where I pause and wonder if the same is not true everywhere else.
Think back to your high school and college days in the U.S. Didn't the young women who were not socialites referred to as being cold while the socialites were called “cheap” or “easy”? (I left out the four letter word which starts with an “S” and ends with a “T”). At the same time the young men who were dating numerous women were looked up to, and were called all sorts of complementary names.
Such double standards exist everywhere and must be put aside. Women and men must have equal rights, and we must reach a point where we can treat both sexes with the same set of social, cultural, political, personal, and professional rules. But for God's sake let us not take away everything that is good about men and women's interpersonal relationships in the process.
I once watched a program on TV about some Central American native tribe. The mating ritual for their youth required the males to attempt to initiate a conversation with the females. The females, if interested, were supposed to completely ignore the young male as if he did not exist! This could go on for months, and the young man would not even get a simple look for acknowledgement. Then just about when it seemed like he was finally giving up, the young woman would give him the pleasure of a few words, and only then the “relationship” would move into its next stage.
I found that ritual to be very strange and difficult to understand, and I am sure that there are millions of ways to analyze and devalue it by our own standards. But why should we? Who says a direct approach and an exchange of phone numbers over a couple of drinks is any better?
My point is that while we should all be made aware of the double standards engrained in our brain cells and try hard to erase them, we should not hastily do away with some of the natural, harmless, and joyful rituals that make us live AND feel alive.
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