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Relationships, Iranian Experience, a Brief History
A Brief History
Last Updated: October, 2009

Relationships are one aspect of male/female socializing processes that are hardly dealt with by the Iranians and their media. The origin of direct relationships between males and females in Iran 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 intentions such as, dating. Veiling kept women at home and they became totally inaccessible to 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 young concubines, often living in the same household, satisfied the male appetite for sexual pleasure. At the same time, the practice 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 behaviour and psychological disorders for both males and females.

Religious prohibition of most visual and performing arts including dance and music, particularly in the urban areas, and the Shi,ite 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 and war captives in more remote times), prostitution always existed. Segregation of sexes limited employment opportunities for women. Consequently, the poor and the widowed with no children to support them had little choice except begging, domestic work and prostitution.

During the 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 the 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 backfired in the form of a culture of indecent language and verbal abuse using male and female genitals that still persists today as evident by the Iranian on-line chat rooms that are full of such language.

Islamic codes of behaviour recommended by the clergy, best illustrated in the Shi’a scholar; Majlesi’s colossal work Ocean’s of Light (Bihar al Anwar), treated sex and desire in its most primitive form: reproduction and instinct. In such literature women are totally devoid of any instinct, are reduced to sex organs, and are treated as mechanically reproducing agents. Their bodies were assumed to have satanic properties that would send all men to hell if exposed to the naked eye. With the women being the property and honour (namous) of their husbands, veiling and their exclusion from the 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; it is also encouraged and accommodated through polygamy and the use of concubines. 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 behavioral codes 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 wish. Hadith and other religious literature are full of recommendations about such matters and condemn any deviations. The sexuality of women was identified to be the same as the ‘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 traveling accounts describe restrictions imposed on women and violent punishments women endured. 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 towards the end of the 19th century and started with the better-educated, merchants and aristocrats acquainted with European ways. The first intellectuals of this period were patriotic, reform-oriented and, amongst major national issues, they demanded emancipation, monogamy, education, equal rights and opportunities for women. However, as progressive they were, they remained traditionalist with respect to family and male/female relationships. The 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 behaviour ruled firmly and were 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, very few 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 lifestyle, like Taj Saltaneh, Naser al din Shah’s daughter, were immediately labeled as ‘loose’ or a whore by all, including their admirers and lovers.

The brilliant artist and nationalist, Aref Ghazvini in his memoirs mentions quite a few such women with whom he had illegitimate affairs and sexual intercourse. One account about his love making in a public bath, with him dressed as a woman and meeting his lover in the private bath chamber 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 behaviour of ‘double standards’ in their writings and made a clear distinction between such women and the good and the 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, ethical and motherly 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 morality. 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 and unsettled. Bozorg Alavi’s major novel, 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 from her 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 novel The Blind Owl can only make love to the female characters in the world of death, the ethereal woman and his murdered wife—dead women are not a threat and he is safe with them!

Emancipation of women was imposed by the government in 1936. While it was welcomed by the modernists, it was despised by others. Its most significant effect was sharing of the public space by both males and females. Most people in the urban areas 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 with family members). Now thrown together they had to start from the beginning and learn how to share the same space, to work together and to socialize like normal human beings did
throughout 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 1960s 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, though some went further. Unwed women got pregnant, abortions became safely and legally available for the first time, and were carried out. Sexually transmitted diseases soared. One look at the papers and magazines of the 1930s through 1950s 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 in the end. Virgin brides were still in demand by most men including the intellectuals subscribed to the ‘double standard’ ideology. Jalal al-Ahmad while married to Simin Daneshvar had many affairs openly and indiscreetly.  If Danshevar had ever talked about the relationship, it would be interesting to know what al-Ahmad would have done if his wife had all the affairs.

Masses remained traditionalist and the number of honour killings and physical abuse of women by their lovers increased and became front-page news items. Any attempt by the 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 1950s, but most were destroyed in the process.  Although no statistics are available, rape would have been a serious problem. Most rapes were committed by men known to the victims (e.g. boyfriends).  Such men were alien to the notion of equality of sexes and assumed any girl who went out with unrelated men was ‘asking for it’. Rape still is a taboo and in the majority of cases will not be reported. In most cases, it is the woman who will be punished (by family members) rather than the rapist.


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