When I was a teenager I made a bet with my cousin that I would lose my virginity before him. I remember we were sitting in our garden in Tehran, under the walnut tree, by the swimming pool.
It was the seventies, I was around fourteen, and my cousin, who was my best friend and confidant, was a year older. I had not yet lived in the West but I did attend the American-style Community School. My mother had attended the American missionary school in Tehran and was one of the founding members of the Saazemaan-e- Zanaan, a women’s organization, headed by the Shah’s rather notoriously promiscuous sister, Ashraf Pahlavi.
We were wealthy and Westernized. Even though I was a Muslim girl, only one or two generations removed from those who first abandoned the Hejab, my desire to lose my virginity was not so odd. It rose as much from my reading of my mother’s Harold Robbins novels as my own teenage, tomboy-feminism. In our very small circle of well to do, Western educated Iranians, a good number of women, either influenced by the sexual revolution raging in the West, or an elitist sense of license, were sexually active. These pioneers did not consider the loss of virginity before marriage as taboo.
Yet amongst my teenage peers I was a bit of a radical. I remember arguing with both female and male friends about the unfairness of expecting women to keep their virginity while encouraging men to lose it. I developed my stance in a very matter of fact way: if the guys could do it so could we. My belief in affording equal opportunity to female desire predated my reading of feminist tracts– before discovering de Beauvior and Friedan and Jong. It was the kind of feminism that grew out of playground experience, out of being able to kick the soccer ball as well as any boy.
The Islamic Revolution brought home to us the fact that we were not typical Iranian women. We, of course, always knew this, but now it was a source of shame. The Revolution, exposing the ‘cultural imperialism’ that had given rise to our liberated views, made us cringe. We distanced ourselves, feeling like we were not quite Iranian. Those of us who were abroad and already thinking in English began to feel more alienated from our roots than ever. We tried to take the objective stance of anthropologists studying another peoples’ culture.
We were interested in developments in Iran but felt too different and removed to be able to judge or participate in any real way. No one could deny the fact that the majority of women willingly took on the Hejab, newly imposed by the Islamic state. That simple fact, more than any ideological battle or bullying techniques, made us retreat. Inside and outside Iran women who believed in freedom of sexual expression were either silenced and/or made to feel alienated from the majority.
It had been a long time since I had had to argue against the need for virginity in not-yet-married women. Mostly because when living abroad, none of the women I knew were virgins. In fact at college, in Boston, the virgins were stigmatized. There was a kind of reverse discrimination. Even the Iranian men I knew considered it at best an inconvenience to sleep with or marry a virgin. The only technically virgin friend that I had, in my years of college, was a lesbian.
Of course I came to see that the blatant cooption of a male sense of sexuality did not work either. Too many broken hearts, too many one-night stands without an orgasm, confirmed the reality of a difference in male/female sexuality that my teenage feminism had not taken into account. Most of us soon understood the need to forge a unique approach to female sexuality instead of a simple mimicking of men. We evolved as women and feminists at a different pace and in a different context than our Iranian sisters both then and now.
Here, in Iran, there are more pressing needs. When you have laws that glaringly declare you half a human being, like the blood price for a woman being half that of a man’s, freedom of sexual expression takes a back seat to the quest for the simple recognition of your full humanity.
I ran into the issue of virginity again, some thirty years later when talking to women in Iran. From religious women and Hezbollahis I always expect a Koran-based, conservative stance and treat it with anthropological deference. But what shocked me was when I met a self-proclaimed feminist and atheist, an admirer of De Beauvior, who at the age of thirty-eight still holds fast to her virginity. So I started asking around to get a feel for how women in Iran, young and old, feel about the need for women to be virgins before marriage.
Even the types I least expected believed in it. Not out of any religious conviction but out of a type of female pragmatism that has bloomed here. Draconian laws, economic hardship and a state-sponsored return to traditional mores, have given birth to a new kind of female. Women here are modern, aggressive and ready to use their chastity to attain a better life. They become engineers and doctors; they get nose jobs and make themselves up like prostitutes, but that hymen they never give up, unless it is for a marriage. It is not a man they seek, but the institution of marriage itself, which in many cases at once gives them legitimacy and license.
Legitimacy, because only as married women are they considered successful regardless of other achievements. License, because only with marriage can they leave the paternal nest. With a fifty percent divorce rate many of these women become divorcees. More than a few women have told me that it is better to marry and then divorce than it is not to marry at all. In fact divorced women enjoy much more freedom and a degree of promiscuity is expected of them.
Much like Victorian England a whole underworld of drugs and prostitution thrive just under the skin of society’s conservatism. For ordinary women this underworld represents a much-feared hell.
Most of the women, I spoke to, believe that if they lose their virginity they will lose suitors. The man, they make a forceful argument, will not want to marry them afterwards and no one else will either. Some engage in non-penetrative sex but only as away to lure and keep the men interested. But they all look at their virginity as dowry. There is even a little cottage industry for surgically sewing back the hymen.
“But what about pleasure? Lezzat?” I ask these women, and without exception they look at me like I am a helpless child needing direction. They either think that any thought of pleasure is frivolous or that pleasure cannot be a priority under ‘these conditions’. When I tell them how I view the matter they stare at me and tell me, “You have been on the other side (meaning the West) too long.” I tell them, “but I thought this way when I was fourteen and living here.” They then make the common refrain, “things are different now.”
These women are too clever to be considered repressed victims who need their consciousness raised. Keeping their virginity makes them feel in control of their bodies, even if it is for trade. They want a husband not only because without him they are stigmatized by society, but also because it is the best way to find stability and security (terms often used in these discussions). Their pragmatism is their survival tool in the Islamic Republic. Take them out of this context and they are sure to value their virginity less. Theirs is an argument for efficacy and not one of conviction.