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Shahin & Sepehr

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    To live or to be alive?
    That is the question for Iranian women

    March 2, 1999
    The Iranian

    It is recommended that there be a difference in age between men and women, favoring men by - oh, say - five years. Men (or at least their mothers) seem to find it unimaginable to marry or even love a woman older than them and the ages between men and women engaged in a relationship seem to diverge widely as the men grow older. Men generally find this ordinary, as one of the most important qualities of a woman seems to be the way she looks, and somehow an older woman (and I, at 30, am definitely an older woman) apparently loses her attractiveness, her "shadaby" (freshness). The words used in relation with women all seem to define fruits: the aforementioned freshness, my unspoken "torshidegy" (over-ripeness or having been pickled), as if we are singularly fragile objects negatively subject to passage of time. I, who have sometimes obstinately chosen my education and personal freedom over marriage, who feel "relaxed" enough (as they say) to speak loudly and freely, am viewed with a mixture of curiosity and fear. I seem to carry in me a freedom that is potent and dangerous. I find a sudden affinity with the witches drowned and set ablaze in medieval Europe. Perhaps they were also "spinsters" whose freedom gave them powers beyond what the society found permissible.

    I have yet to meet another woman older than 25 who has CHOSEN to remain single. The question of "choice" (or absence thereof) is indubitably the definitive constituent of the equation, as I find an absolute faith in predetermination the dominant belief of most men and women. Perhaps the impetus behind all these early marriages is that there is very little to do outside the home, that many activities taken for granted by us in the West are strictly prohibited, that the relations between men and women are not only governed by laws of desire and affection but by regulations of the state and even more importantly by loathsome social constraints and norms - to which everyone, even the most tolerant and open-minded subscribe to some degree.

    The duality of public versus private in everyone's life - so intensified since the revolution - tends to manifest itself in the behavior of women in a very schizophrenic way. The hyper-feminine role assigned to women takes two aspects: within interior spaces, we are supposed to be the fragile temptresses, dress in feminine clothes, use cosmetics to dramatic effect, have sexy (and preferably) long hair. I, who normally stop at lipstick and mascara in the United States, find myself actually putting on makeup with some abandon. "Eshvegari" and "lavandi" (flirtatiousness and a sort of shy-seductive game playing) of which I know nothing are the "net" with which the women are to capture men. At the same time, a woman is not to instigate conversations. She is to dance beautifully, she is to entertain, she is to serve fruit and tea and food, but she is not to begin conversations with strange men even at a party of friends. She is the nurturer and the seductress. I fail miserably at these roles. I voice my boredom. I don't hide my intelligence or my interests. I don't dance too well. I laugh too loudly. I am more at home in "male" conversations. I know not how to flirt or seduce in this particularly complex Iranian way where you drive the man away and you call him back, where you look at him from under your eyelashes, where a turn of the shoulder and the motion of hesitant fingertips can be pregnant with meaning. I am something else, perhaps unbecomingly unfeminine, dangerous perhaps, unknowingly so.

    The same hyper-femininity translates into something else outside the house. In the public domain, the woman is to display "veghar" (dignity) and "effat" (purity), not to stare or look directly in men's eyes, certainly not to smile. I am apprised of a certain type of girl who refuses to hail taxis in order to find herself a more suitable "ride", who is made up a certain way, who stands in a certain fashion, who signals by all these outward signs her willingness to be literally "picked up" by a strange man. There are many instances, I am told, that a driver that was turned down by such a woman actually revved up his engine and ran the woman down. What a pay-back for rejection! I am unable to distinguish these women from any other, however.

    I have lived alone and independently in the United States since I was 16 years old, and since I have not returned frequently to Iran, some of these social constraints are difficult for me to fathom. I find some of the norms of behavior even ridiculous. I have had to modify my gait as I walk in the streets, not to stride widely, not to swing my arms, in order not to attract attention when I am wandering alone. I have had to actually promise all sorts of caution in order to convince my concerned uncle that I can take care of myself on the streets of Tehran and am not in need of a constant guide and companion. The fact that I have traveled alone around the world seems to have very little bearing on the argument as everyone seems to think that Iran is far too dangerous and unsafe (the truth is of course otherwise when Iran is compared with other countries, particularly the United States). I, a youngish woman, can be the subject of all sorts of attacks and kidnappings, I am told.

    On the streets, I have to be careful about what I stare at and suppress smiles of irony or memory so frequently on my lips. I have actually heard "what are you smiling at?" hurled at me when I have been unconsciously smiling. I stare at my feet or straight forward when I walk in the streets; I ignore all men speaking to me. Some other girls don't do this. The street is one of those places where men and women illicitly meet. I have seen flirtatious exchanges of "matalak" (witty retorts) between handsome men and beautiful young women. I am told that a "good girl" from a "good family" doesn't do this, but then the definition of "good" and "bad" seem to be fairly fluid - in the first furtive steps of a relationship anyway. The meanings are much more fixed when it comes to marriage.

    I have seen clean and clear demonstrations of the disparity between "girls you date and girls you marry." One of my handsome young cousins has been dating a beautiful, smart, and stylish girl for some three years now. He loves her much. I can tell. I actually find this girl easy to meet and easy to talk to, unlike just about all other young women I have met so far. She is gregarious and funny and confident and not terribly shy. But when I ask my cousin whether he is going to eventually marry her, he says he doesn't know. After some three years, he says, there are characteristics a girl requires for marriage that may not be necessary for a friendship and he is not sure whether she has these qualities. When I ask him what these characteristics may be, he frets, but then talks about a girl's family. This one has always rubbed me the wrong way. After all, a girl marries a man, not his entire family, I say. But this is never EVER true in Iran, emphatically so. Here you DO marry your beloved's family.

    Regardless, establishing a relationship is always a first step.

    Mixed-gender parties are looked upon by many as corrupting influences. They are often raided by vigilant vice police, the ubiquitous Komiteh, everyone is arrested and subjected to all sorts of harassment and humiliation. Whether because of the loss of face such arrest brings or because of fear of corrupting influences, many middle-class families tend to be very strict with their daughters about attending such parties. When my three (male) cousins gave a fairly large party to celebrate the termination of military service of one and the engagement of another, the girlfriend of the former had to tell her father that she was coming to an all-girl party (with the host being me) in order to be permitted to come. She is 22 years old and this was her first mixed-sex party attended only by the under-30 set.

    Parties are particularly good occasions to begin semi-illicit friendships and relationships. They generally begin with the men and women sitting shyly apart in small clusters in opposing sides of the room, and only when dancing begins, or when the noise level is so high to lend a modicum of privacy to the conversations that the furtive tentative exchanges begin. The girl looks up at the man through her lashes, tries hard not to stare into his eyes yet at the same time she appears to look wholly focused on the man and the conversation. The guy blocks out the rest of the crowd, physically turning his back on it, in a sense making an aegis of his body to protect the girl from view. If the conversation ends fortuitously, phone numbers are exchanged privately and away from the others' curious eyes, and from there a relationship begins.

    Universities are another great place to meet a member of the opposite sex. I have also heard of relationships beginning when a persistent girl discovers a boy's name and his phone number and the relationship begins on the phone. There are endless phone calls where an anonymous caller plays music for the called, or simply hangs up when someone answers the phone whom the caller does not desire. Many conversations begin this way.

    To prevent meetings outside high schools, the release time of boys' schools has been changed from that of the girls' schools; nonetheless, they find one another on the streets, glances are exchanged and friendships begin thus (though I have been told that the color of school uniform of girls have been changed from the invariable gray of my time such that each school has a distinctive color now, hence allowing the authorities to recognize the school of a girl who may be misbehaving on the streets).

    Most of these relationships are essentially composed of endless phone conversations, very secretive and infrequent meetings (the frequency seems to go up as does the age and courage of the participants in this dangerous game), illicit hand-holding and embraces and kisses, and whether it goes much further beyond that, I know not. I have not dared ask this very sensitive question from even the closest cousin. I know that my very open-minded older cousin himself told me how he hated these "cheap" (he used the English word) girls "who left themselves at everybody's service." Love is defined as the grand spiritual passion stripped of the physical aspect of it, a "fire of the soul" that burns the lover and the beloved. Simple friendships between members of opposite sex not belonging to the same family are rare, as they can mark a woman as "used", much less a relationship of pure physical desire.

    Films and books all are unforgiving of women. Popular books are generally about women who choose to marry outside their class and suffer the horrible consequences (physical deformity due to beatings and the ultimate de-feminization, infertility, are the usual repercussions), or about women who choose to abandon unhappy marriages and as such destroy their own lives, their husbands' lives, their children's lives and the lives of their entire line of descent. The films - even if made by female directors particularly sympathetic to plight of women in Iran - are seen with unforgiving eyes towards the "loose woman." Women - if they want social approval - are to keep marriages together even if the husband beats them. The duty to preserve a marriage is singularly the woman's even if a marriage is the coming together of two people. Self-sacrifice is the domain of the woman alone, otherwise she can so easily become the destroyer, the devil, the Jezebel.

    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. Pleasure is truly sinful in this country and nonconformity can be punished horribly not only by the machinery of law but through rigid social ostracization. I often wonder if this young generation of fatalistic women who have to create multiple personalities for themselves merely to cope with and within the various social spheres, know of the long-dead poet Forugh Farrokhzad, and what they think of her; this woman who chose to leave her husband and child behind, became a "loose woman", chose a married man for a lover, wrote her dazzling potent poetry, made her exquisite films, abused every norm and broke every taboo, to surpass being alive, in order to wholly, magnificently live. The Iranian society today -and many others elsewhere - would never approve of her.

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