Archive for the ‘Sex’ Category

Changing Mores

February 12, 2009

From the collection Nil Nil by Shadi Ghadirian, solo exhibition from February 13th to April 4th 2009.

From the Archives

Tehran Bureau | dispatches

May 2005

At the turn of the 21st century, I noticed a flood of messages from Iranian strangers each time I logged on to my instant messenger service. My first thought was that most were from Los Angeles, where the largest concentration of Iranian immigrants reside outside of Iran.

But an adjective in one message struck me. “Take a look at my photo,” one guy implored, after several unsuccessful attempts at beginning a dialogue. “I’m really quite ghashangh.”

‘Ghashangh?’ The word, meaning “pretty,” was something my grandmother in Tehran might use to describe a young boy. What macho Iranian-American in California would refer to himself that way?

I wrote him back. “Are you in Tehran?” I asked on a hunch.

“Yes,” he said, “Aren’t you?”

As it turned out, all the messages were streaming in from Iran. And that was a surprise. In the Islamic republic, the most innocuous forms of courtships are prohibited. Authorities patrol the streets, detaining couples in public, ordering them to show proof of an Islamically sanctioned relationship. From schools to ski slopes to stretches of beach on the Caspian Sea, the sexes are segregated.

But since the 1979 revolution, there has been a population explosion in Iran. Some 70 percent of Iranians are under 30. As they come of age, with satellite television and the Internet, it has become an increasingly difficult task for the government to control what they see, hear and seek, especially when it comes to dating and sex.

Even in the most religious parts of the country, young Iranians log on to the world from the sanctity of their own homes, and flirt away to their hearts’ content, even arranging secret rendezvous with someone who may turn out to be a neighbor.

At, a Web site where members post pictures of themselves and have site visitors rate them, postings originate from the holy city of Mashhad, from near the Iraqi border in Ahwaz, or from the southeastern province of Kerman, among other locations. Some of the women are tightly veiled, yet fishing for a compliment.

One profile in particular illustrates the contrast of the public face and the private life. A young man brimming with pride at his good looks poses for a Web cam. Behind him, on a mantel, stands a framed portrait of an older, chador-clad woman. One eye peers out from the Islamic garb, looking as if she’s taking in her son’s break from tradition with scorn and skepticism, but not completely devoid of curiosity.

For a long time, Mehran, a 40-year-old lawyer who travels frequently between New York and Tehran, never thought he would have much in common with Iranian women. In 1979, he left Iran, where he had attended an American school, and in the United States, he dated non-Iranians “almost exclusively.”

But because of satellite television and the Internet, he said in a telephone interview from Tehran, “le chick or le dude knows the latest fashion, the coolest way to think and the most fantastic music. The Internet has opened up everyone’s mind.”

The litigator logs on to a more sophisticated Iranian dating portal,, to set up dates for when he returns to Iran on a long visit each year. “I’ve met great women,” he said.

Since launching in 2001, Said Amin, CEO and founder of, has seen his Iranian site grow dramatically.

“Oh my goodness, it’s out of control how many in Iran sign up,” he said. Approximately 35 percent of the 110,000 profiles are posted by Iranians based in Iran, he said.

Sex is taboo not only in Iran, but widely remains so among the Iranian diaspora, which is loath to part with the old ways.

A 16-year-old Iranian woman in New York who surfs cyberspace with the name “AngelLove” was unavailable for an interview because “My dad is here,” she said.

“Iranians don’t date,” said Amin, “or at least not in the open. They get engaged, then say they are dating.”

When Amin wanted to start his Iranian dating site several years ago, family and friends in the United States did not believe such a public forum would be in sync with the private Iranian mentality. “They did not see the vision,” he said.

It’s not necessarily welcomed by the government, either. Islamic officials are increasingly finding ways to block access to such sites. Starting a few months ago, Amin started receiving e-mail messages about people being unable to access his Web site.

But he does not seem perturbed. “Supposedly the young in Iran are so computer savvy that they are finding ways around that too,” he said.

Amin got the inspiration for from “the mecca of Iranian Web sites,”, he said. published its first issue in September 1995, and long before the first blog it began serving as a communal bulletin of ideas for a young generation of Iranians everywhere.

Amin was surprised to see that such a diverse group of Iranians existed. Their backgrounds ran the gamut, from Republicans to Democrats, from hard-core nationalists loyal to the shah to sympathizers of President Mohammad Khatami. Subjects range, too, from politics to poetry; from Silicon Valley boardrooms to–well, yes–brothels in Tijuana, Mexico.

It also appears that a new generation of Iranians first started talking about their dating and sex lives in the open on “But it really quickly picked up,” said publisher Jahanshah Javid. In fact, the number of blogs and Iranian Web sites carrying intimate tidbits appears to be “growing by the hour,” he said.

On, a presumed woman who goes by the name of “Nooneh” writes about serial boyfriends and “Sarvenaz” details a romp on a plane from Paris to New York and other sexual exploits–or fantasies, perhaps. A photographer sends in a series of stills depicting a driver picking up a tall, elegantly dressed prostitute in Tehran.

Though the first of such articles drew outrage, Javid said, his readers have come to expect anything. Much more outrageous antics hardly get a response now, he said.

The entrepreneur Amin said one optional question on asks members to rate their sex drive. “Honestly, that’s kind of private,” he said. But “it’s surprising how many people answered it.”

The Other Revolution

February 11, 2009

Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution by Pardis Mahdavi

Tehran Bureau | vitrine

Since Iran’s revolution nearly 30 years ago which ousted the last Shah and instituted an Islamic Republic governed by Sharia law, Iran’s population has exploded. Rising in number in that time to nearly 70million, two-thirds of Iranians are under the age of 30 and constitute a highly educated and generally under-employed group; one that, by sheer power of numbers, will influence the shape the Islamic Republic will take in years to come. This demographic, a result of Ayatollah Khomeini’s post-revolutionary edict urging Iranians to give birth to a ‘revolutionary army’ and the early Islamic Republic’s banning of family planning services, constitutes a major change in Iran. As a result of post-revolutionary education policies, these ‘children of the revolution’ are generally well-educated (65% of university graduates are women), engaged with the outside world and plugged into global youth culture through the internet and illegal yet ubiquitous satellite television. The economic failures of the Islamic regime has given them education but scant employment opportunities, Sharia law gives them few sanctioned pastimes, and the post-revolutionary changes in the class system and urbanisation of the population have radically altered the social landscape. Nowhere is Iran’s current struggles with and transition into modernity more acutely obvious than in the challenges facing this younger generation, and how they choose to express themselves socially and culturally will undoubtedly have far-reaching consequences for the country and possibly even the regime.

Pardis Mahdavi, an assistant professor of anthropology at Pomona College in California, is a US-born and raised Iranian, who charts the changes she has seen taking place in Iran over a period of seven years from her first visit in 2000. As a young Iranian woman she has access to the country and its youth, as an American she brings an outsider’s perspective and as a Western academic she attempts to apply exacting methodology to her findings. However, Mahdavi’s book, in identifying the social and sexual changes among Iran’s younger generation suffers – a little like the youth she describes – from a confusion of identity. In essence this is an academic work – it has grown out of Mahdavi’s doctoral thesis – but it seeks also to engage the general reader who will be attracted by the book’s titillating subject matter (she does not shy away from describing sexual encounters and orgies for example). Mahdavi’s main thesis is that the changes occurring in the sexual practices and even in the sartorial choices of Iran’s youth indicate a ‘revolution’ that has political implications for the country, and she sets out to present these changes and analyse their implications through an anthropological framework that is not always convincing.

Mahdavi is aware of the limitations of her research, acknowledging that in drawing on interviews with only a small section of Tehran’s middle classes, “it is impossible to make generalisations about the majority of the nations’ population”. She concentrates her conclusions on the opinions and lifestyles of seven main ‘informants’, insisting that they are the trend-setters whose behaviour and style will influence the rest of the population. Flimsy though this hypothesis is, it is nonetheless an intriguing lens through which to observe the changing habits of a generation that has done more to push the boundaries of social freedoms than any other since the revolution. Risking severe punishments – ranging from fines and imprisonment to flogging and enforced marriage – for parties, drinking and pre-marital sex, the urban youth Mahdavi depicts embody an appealing pop culture sensibility that will enlighten those whose knowledge of Iranian society is restricted to the fiery pronouncements of Iranian president Ahmadinejad.

In outlining life in the Islamic Republic, Mahdavi’s insights are most satisfying when they involve her own experiences, and although she attempts to keep a scientist’s objectivity, her own love of and emotional investment in Iran sit uncomfortably with the academic impartiality she seeks. The resulting prose suffers from repetition that borders on the pedantic, but behind the academic lurks a writer with an attractive style and the passages in which she writes of the contradictions and bitter-sweetness of life in Iran are the most engaging.

Mahdavi depicts young Iranian women as strong and in control of their destinies – in direct contrast to the regime’s desire to control every aspect of their lives and the Western media’s depiction of Iranian women as disempowered and passive. This is laudable and every Iranian will recognise her depiction as nearer the truth. However to suggest that women’s pursuit of sexual pleasure – often outside marriage which offers the only culturally and legally sanctioned form of sexual contact – puts them in control of their destinies overstates the case. In fact, Mahdavi’s examples present the reader with a rather gloomy picture in which unfulfilled women in unhappy marriages pour their energy into looking good, partying and finding sexual partners in the absence of any meaningful control over their own lives and bodies. Marriage is still the unequivocal goal of women and the importance of making a ‘good’ marriage and gaining status through their men is paramount. While Mahdavi presents examples of working mothers who have managed to carve out successful careers with the support of their husbands, there are no corresponding instances of women who have been able to assert control over their own destinies in the absence of marriage.

The book becomes altogether more interesting when Mahdavi delves into the contradictions embodied in the ‘sexual revolution’ such as the continuing importance of the virginity of the woman on marriage when sex before marriage is now more acceptable – albeit secretly so – and the paucity of sex education on offer which leaves people with a shocking lack of real knowledge about their bodies, STDs and HIV and AIDS. The implications of the risky sexual behaviour that Tehran’s youth are engaged in from both a physical and mental health perspective are touched upon but not examined as much as the reader might like. In fact, Mahdavi concentrates her efforts more on expounding and illustrating her oft-repeated theory – that the changes in social and sexual behaviour constitute resistance to the regime – than in examining the long-term implications of such behaviour when the dominant culture remains traditional and those traditions are enshrined in the law.

Promiscuity rarely constitutes a social movement by itself. In order to truly represent a revolution, the said behaviour would have to have overt political implications and some form of politico-social organisation. In the absence of such organisation, the behaviour that Mahdavi depicts could be seen as mere hedonism or even nihilism. It is true that, as Mahdavi asserts, while the regime chooses to concentrate so doggedly on the way its people dress and behave then by extension any deviation from the norm can be said to constitute a political rebellion, it is doubtful that many of Iran’s multitudinous youth consciously wear heavy make up, inappropriately tight and provocative Islamic dress and attend illegal mixed parties where alcohol is served as a form of political dissent.

Mahdavi has charted an interesting phenomenon in this much-misunderstood country and she is to be applauded for bringing to light one of the most taboo subjects in Iranian culture – sex. Her book, however, overstates the case that there is a social and sexual revolution taking place. Rather Mahdavi’s thesis shines the light on subtle trends and shifts that are slowly changing Iran’s social landscape and shows how 30 years of clerical Islamist rule have shaped a rebellious counter-culture that rejects Islamic ideology in favour of what looks suspiciously like Western-style consumerism and hedonism born of boredom and the failure of the State to provide recreational and employment outlets for its highly educated populace. Mahdavi’s overly optimistic theory assumes that the State will continue to engage with the rebellion by giving in to Iranian youth’s demands for greater social freedoms. What she shies away from is the most interesting question of all, one that closes the book – what will happen to Iran’s youth if the regime, in fact, does not change?

Kamin Mohammadi’s first book, a family memoir and modern history of Iran, will be published by Bloomsbury later this year.