Sexual Iran
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It is 1379 according to the Islamic calendar – and the year 2000 in the western world.

I am at the family home of Nadir, a young Iranian journalist I met in Tehran. Nadir’s father hands me a glass of arak-é sag – ŒDog sweat! One glass for you, one glass for me’ – a potent Iranian spirit that translates as Œdog sweat’ in Tehrani slang. It is typically served with stewed sheep’s head.

When Nadir was 22, he covered the 1999 student riots at the University of Tehran and the meeting in Rome of the Pope and Iran’s reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. Abroad, I had read newspaper reports about the trip to the Vatican. I remembered the Pope, in stunning red velvet and gold, chatting amicably with the mullah (Shia Islamic priest) in the Sistine Chapel. Khatami looked equally striking in the full medieval robes and black turban reserved for sayyeds (descendants of the Prophet Mohammad).

‘It’s all about trusting your source,’ Nadir’s father tells me. But he isn’t referring to his son’s journalistic strategies. He is talking about the alcohol in my glass.

That was the only drink I had during my stay in the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was my first trip to Iran since 1978, when I lived there for a year as a small child with my Iranian father and American mother. From the even the earliest days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iranian Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians were allowed to distill and drink alcohol. And ever since, they have been selling it illicitly to the Muslim majority. As with narcotics and hallucinogens in the western world, so with alcohol in Iran – a reliable source is everything.

‘Don’t worry – I drank some last night, and I’m not blind today, so please – ‘ Nadir’s father lifted his glass in a toast, ‘to your good health!’ Bad homemade alcohol leaves people blind. Nadir knew of occasional cases from his job at the newspaper. It was hard to enjoy my drink.

On the other hand, it is illegal to sell opium in Iran, but legal to use it. My grandfather was probably addicted, although one cousin insists opium is not necessarily addictive, but cheap and calming, and a traditional evening pastime for old people in the village. Children’s earache was treated with opium. My father still says it is the most wonderful thing he has ever smelled. The reason the fundamentalist government seems to have settled for a prohibition on sale – but not use – is that it could not possibly hope to stop the practice. (Compare marijuana and prostitution in so many western countries.) There were simply too many elderly habitual users in villages across Iran. Though certain orders of sufi mystics – the famous ‘whirling dervishes’ – used to drink crushed opium in wine in their quest for higher spiritual insight, alcohol is not an old Iranian tradition. Opium is. The first time you try it, you vomit. My cousin Sohrab has tried it four times, each attempt resulting in a fit of vomiting followed by insomnia. After a while, opium users develop thick leathery skin and hoarse, husky voices. Young women hoping to attract khastégars (marriage suitors) are told to avoid picking up the habit.

And there is also heroin. One of the most common causes of divorce in Iran, which is still very rare, is the husband’s heroin addiction. Heroin traffic – across Iran’s eastern border with Afghanistan and across the country into Turkey – accounts for over 50% of the executions imposed by the justice system in Iran. The drug problem is so grave that a special body of Islamic criminal law has been developed for drug crimes – with reduced evidential safeguards and the penalty of hanging outside the convicted party’s home. Normal executions take place inside prisons. My cousin’s husband, Mehdi, a lawyer, once came across a public hanging as he walked back from the office. It took place in the street outside the house of the convicted man. Mehdi had nightmares for weeks.

‘Is there anything good about Islamic law?’ I asked him one evening. We were drinking tea and eating tiny chickpea-flour cookies. He had practiced law under the Shah’s legal system, which was modeled on European civil law systems. Revolution brought a complete conversion to sharia (Islamic law). Mehdi’s frustration mounted as his work was interfered with by clueless clerics ignorant of the intricacies of business law – but determined to make it Islamically correct. ‘No,’ he shook his head, ‘not a single thing.’

After several months in Iran, however, I disagreed. Another lawyer friend took me to the courthouse where she used to work. We attended a hearing. It was a criminal case of kidnapping and assault, committed by one family against another, part of a long-standing feud between the two. In Islamic law, a crime is not considered an act against public order, as in common law systems. Rather it is an act against the victim and his or her family. In Islamic law, therefore, parties are allowed to settle out of court. In the case I heard, the judge was more of a mediator than a judge – aware that any ruling by him would be resented by the losing side. The two families had been in court against each other many times before. Retaliation was inevitable. The judge urged the families to come to an agreement outside the courtroom. Ultimately they did so. The case was dropped. In the west, common law jurisdictions have only recently begun introducing procedures to allow the victim more control and participation in his or her own case. Victims often feel neglected and marginalised during criminal proceedings. This is a problem Islamic law does not have.

Islamic criminal law also has very strict evidential requirements. Which is a point rarely mentioned by the western media, which tends to focus exclusively on Islamic criminal penalties like the removal of a hand for theft – a penalty only carried out in the early days of the Revolution in Iran. Adultery, for instance, can only be proven by testimony from four reliable people who witnessed the sex act itself. Since the penalty for making unsubstantiated claims of adultery is a whipping, entirely fabricated accusations are rare. Even if the necessary four witnesses are found, there are still mitigating circumstances. Should either adulterous party lack sexual access to his or her spouse, the penalty is reduced from death to a whipping. If the parties had sexual access to their spouses and are convicted, the technical penalty is stoning. Or a version of stoning. As my lawyer cousin told me – ‘the parties are first buried waist-deep in sand, but are then given the chance to dig themselves out before the stoning begins in earnest. In most cases, they do dig themselves out and escape. From then on, they are legitimately free.’

There is another, simpler way to avoid prosecution altogether – sigheh, or temporary marriage. This works as a defence against the charge of adultery, provided that the woman is not already married. Sunni Muslims consider it tantamount to prostitution, but in Shia Islamic law, one can contract to be married for a pre-established period of time – anything from an hour to 99 years. The marriage expires at the end of this period, and imposes fewer rights and responsibilities along the way. Any child conceived is deemed legitimate. The father must support him or her until adulthood. These temporary marriages are legal but not socially acceptable. Temporary marriages are hushed-up affairs. According to one cousin, the usual strategy for adulterous couples who have been discovered is to claim a temporary marriage. It is a convenient story because the formal requirements for temporary marriage contracts are so lax. The parties may perform the acts of contractual formation as well as the marriage ceremony by themselves. Neither witnesses nor registration of the contract are required. Technically, men can have up to four wives and an unlimited number of temporary marriages. However, polygamy and temporary marriage are considered scandalous in Iran. Women can have one husband at a time, either permanent or temporary. In practice, having a temporary marriage effectively precludes a woman from ever securing a permanent one.

There are other devices for thwarting fanaticism. Bribery, for instance. Unmarried people who have sex and are caught can usually pay their way out by bribing the ‘morals police.’ In the unfortunate event of arrest by a staunch ideologue, they may be sentenced to 70 lashes. But again, according to Mehdi, not since the early days of the Revolution has this been consistently enforced: ‘Sometimes the whipper puts seventy matches together in a bundle and says that each match represents a lash, then taps the girl and boy lightly with it. That is their 70 lashes!’ The trouble is that the outcome of any particular case depends entirely on local enforcement practices.

Many stylishly clean-shaven teenaged boys have had harsh encounters with the morals police. Levis and lack of ‘regulation stubble’ are a direct invitation to arrest. According to Islamic law, Muslim men should only trim their facial hair with scissors, producing what looks like two-day stubble by western standards. Essential practices for ‘Westoxified’ teenagers include dressing in fashionable western attire, eating pizza doused with ketchup at every available opportunity, and refusing to take off one’s shoes inside the house. They smuggle in techno CDs and Hollywood DVDs from their trips to Dubai and Turkey (where Iranians can travel without visa problems). They visit websites that would make westerners squirm with embarrassment. When I logged off at a cybercafé in Tehran, the young café owner’s screensaver was a graphic innuendo – a close-up of a greasy bulging hotdog.

One evening, my cousins and I were eating pizza in full hijab (Islamic dress, with face and hands exposed) among a crowd of trendy North Tehrani teenagers. Then the morals police arrived on their motorcycles. They had batons in hand, and one was carrying a sharpened stick. The first few were wearing jackets over their green uniforms, so that they were able to beat a few more young men with their batons before people realised who they were. Out of some sense of chivalry, they only pursued the boys. But they beat them only because they looked fashionably western and were eating pizza. Most of the teenagers got away. The crowd scattered as kids sprinted in all directions. But a few were caught and taken away in the morals police van – to have names registered, parents called, whippings threatened and bribes paid. If this was not the first offence, those arrested could also be blacklisted and prevented from ever attending university.

To avoid the morals police, teenagers go skiing and hiking, hoping to escape fundamentalism at high altitudes. They are not always successful. The one time I went skiing (in the Alborz mountains north of Tehran), I spotted the mountain division of the morals police patrolling the slopes on skis. Desperate teenagers also sneak out of their homes and meet in parks around dawn on Friday mornings, the one time of week when the morals police, being devoutly religious, are at the mosque. The kids come prepared. They carry their name and phone number on tiny slips of paper, and distribute them to anyone of the opposite sex who looks promising – no time wasted on western anxiety over ‘whether we are just friends’. Prohibition sexualises everything. Acts I had never thought of as sexual took on new significance while I was in Iran. Shaking a man’s hand, for instance, is forbidden if he is unrelated because you can feel each other’s touch and warmth. Sitting on a seat that an unrelated man has just left is taboo because you can feel the lukewarm heat from his bottom on yours. Riding a bicycle is no simple task in roossari (headscarf) and manteau (trenchcoat-like robe). And it is a high-risk activity for a young woman because there is a danger of breaking her hymen.

Unsurprisingly, most unmarried young Iranian women do not have pre-marital sex. This makes sense, given that young people do not have their own flats. For most, it is impossible both financially and socially. It would be assumed that a young woman living by herself was a prostitute. Typically, people live at home until they get married (for women, usually in their early twenties). It would be virtually impossible to find the time or a place to be alone with a boyfriend – in the unlikely event that one has managed to procure one. The small number who have boyfriends are faced with two alternatives: to do everything but have vaginal intercourse, keeping their hymen intact for the wedding night, or to have vaginal sex. On the trip back from the courthouse, a young female judge named Darya whispered to me that some young women opted for anal sex to avoid any damage to their hymens. Those who do break their hymens through premarital sex may get ‘sewn up’ by illegal reconstructive surgery before their wedding night. Such strategies are nothing new: European medieval medical treatises mention tricks like inserting an animal bladder filled with blood to make her new husband believe she is a virgin on their wedding night. But these strategies are not so high on the western list of priorities in 2001 as they were in 1379.

My cousin Mona is a physician who originally specialised in surgery. She soon found herself in the highly dangerous position of being approached by young women who had lost their virginity and now wanted to marry. They begged her to sew them up. Mona wanted to help, but also risked discovery by the government. She eventually changed to a different specialty. Another cousin had a female friend who was a gynaecologist. Late one night, several well-dressed men arrived at the gynaecologist’s front door and requested that she come with them to perform a gynaecological exam. A wedding party had been interrupted after the groom had emerged, outraged, from the bedroom – claiming that his bride was not a virgin. The gynaecologist promised to examine the bride and determine the truth of the groom’s claim, on the condition that she be left alone with the bride. In private, in tears, the bride admitted to the doctor that she had lost her virginity earlier with someone else. She begged the gynaecologist to lie for her sake, and the doctor did, telling the crowd waiting outside that the bride had a rare medical condition in which the hymen was absent. The party continued, the groom and his family satisfied. A week later, the doctor found a sumptuous Persian carpet delivered to her home – a small token of appreciation from the bride’s family.

And yet, despite all the stories about hymen reconstruction and hijab, not every man dominates every woman in Iran. Iran is not so much about men oppressing women as it is about a fundamentalist minority (and the inevitable apparatchik barnacles) oppressing a moderate majority. I met feisty young intelligent women with impressive careers, as well as meek husbands and fathers. I met many men who opposed Islamic dress for women. And I met many women (older, more religious, more rural) who considered hijab essential for women. In order to enter my father’s childhood mosque, I had to wear a chador over the top of my usual headscarf and trenchcoat. A chador is a black tent-like half-circle of cloth that leaves only the face showing and must be held closed with one hand at all times. ‘You are so much more beautiful in this chador than in your normal western clothes!’ my 65-year-old female cousin from the village said as she arranged my chador.

Ironically, I only wore more make-up and began painting my fingernails and toenails while in Islamic dress. When I had only my face, hands, and toes to work with – sandals being a recent concession – I had to overcompensate. In 1379, about two inches’ worth of hair could be exposed, as well as the bottom of a braid or ponytail out the back of one’s scarf – a significant advance from the early days of the Revolution, when one could show no hair at all. Women could now jog in the parks, which I did every morning, grateful at least that the added cover allowed me to wire a prohibited walkman under my scarf and black trenchcoat. Dancing and listening to music in public are illegal.

Another important point is that not everything Middle Eastern is Islamic. Of course in the world’s only theocracy, religion plays a greater role than in most western countries. But there are whole Iranian traditions that position themselves against the severe strain of Shiism that took power in 1979. Iranians are fiercely proud of their pre-Islamic Persian heritage – of the poets Hafez, Saadi, and Rumi, of Persian miniatures and carpet art, of the Indo-European roots of the Persian language, and of the ancient Zoroastrian spring holidays like the Persian New Year and National Picnic Day, which no cleric has succeeded in quashing. They liken the relationship between the ancient Persian Empire and its Arab Muslim conquerors to that of the late Roman Empire and its Germanic tribal invaders – a great civilisation vandalised by a messy band of nomads in skins.

Even within Islam, there is the tradition of sufi mysticism that strives against Shia fundamentalism’s literalism, its dourness, and its obsession with the minutiae of daily life. I met one sufi in Iran – an elderly sage with long wispy white hair and a waist-long beard. He spent his days sitting cross-legged in one corner of his Persian-carpeted living room, surrounded by books and fruit, where he studied the Koran and Rumi (a Turkish-Persian sufi poet) as he had done every day for decades. ‘What is the position of women in Sufism, and what do sufis think of hijab?’ I asked him. ‘It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman in Sufism,’ he replied. ‘There is no difference. We are really not concerned with the practical rules of daily living like a dress code for women or what you should or should not eat, and where and when. We are in love with truth – that is what we really care about.’ A tall glass bottle of Coca-Cola had been carefully placed beside his Koran, with a straw so he could drink it through his beard.

Other Coca-Cola fans, the jeans-clad teenagers eating pizza and dodging the morals police, exert anti-fundamentalist pressure of their own. The irony is that the great demographic bulge in the 15-20 year-old age group in Iran – where opposition to the current regime is fiercest – was the creation of the revolutionaries themselves. They encouraged large families and limited birth control on coming to power in 1979. It is the product of those campaigns – the current generation of Iranian teenagers – who overwhelmingly support reformist president Mohammad Khatami, to the consternation of fundamentalist conservatives. Half of Iran’s population of 60 million are under 20 years of ages, and the voting age in Iran is 15, giving teenagers significant political weight.

The Islamic Republic of Iran in 1379 is a world unintelligible outside its own peculiar logic. Its official rules and unofficial avoidance strategies are bizarre, baffling, but perfectly consistent with each other. So there is good news and there is bad news.

The official laws do not represent most Iranians. That’s the good news.

It is also the bad news.


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