Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution
by Pardis Mahdavi
Reviewed by Laura Secor
A few years ago, in the course of researching her dissertation on changing sexual mores in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a young Iranian-American anthropologist named Pardis Mahdavi stopped by the Ministry of Education in Tehran to inquire about the country's sex education curriculum. Another visitor happened to be there. An older woman named Mrs. Erami, she was covered head to toe in the most conservative form of Iranian hijab: the tentlike black chador, held in place by the wearer's teeth such that it obscures half the face. Under her chador, Mrs. Erami wore another voluminous layer of hijab, including a hoodlike head scarf and a long, loose coat. Hers was the uniform of the government faithful, the traditional-minded and the sexually puritanical -- the very image of the older generation that Mahdavi's main research subjects, Tehrani youth, rebuffed with their outsized vanity and sexual libertinism.
But Mrs. Erami had come to the ministry on a mission related to Mahdavi's. She taught courses on health, puberty and relationships at a Tehran high school, and she had come to talk to the minister about her frustration with her students' unwillingness to discuss sexual matters frankly with her. In a country where premarital sex with multiple partners is increasingly common but remains culturally taboo and punishable under the law, this severe-looking, chador-clad woman was, at a glance, hardly the person in whom one might feel comfortable confiding one's illicit activities or seeking intimate advice. Mahdavi didn't even feel comfortable letting the older woman see her nail polish, which is illegal but commonplace in Iran. Nonetheless, Mrs. Erami could not understand her students' reticence. "They are so difficult," she told Mahdavi. "I can't get them to talk to me, but I know what they are doing and what they are not doing. I had a teenage daughter myself, and I know that they are having a lot of sex, but not doing it right. I just can't get them to talk to me about it."
Mrs. Erami, it turns out, is one of the more dramatic products of the generational upheaval in Iranian attitudes toward sex. A conservative Muslim, she was not sympathetic, some years before her encounter with Mahdavi, when her gay son came out of the closet. Her husband threw him out of the house. When their unmarried daughter announced that she had a boyfriend, Mrs. Erami slapped her and called her a prostitute. The daughter left home that day, never to return. And so the Eramis lost both of their children over their unwillingness to accept sexual behavior that had become the norm not only globally but even within many circles inside Iran. A year later Mrs. Erami's husband died, leaving his wife entirely alone and flooded with regret. That was when she devoted herself to sex education reform, both as a teacher and as a campaigner within Iran's education ministry.
This story is one of the gems buried in Mahdavi's new book, Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution. Mrs. Erami's tale encapsulates the wrenching transformation of a society that, thirty years ago, attempted to resolve its divisions and ambivalences by legally and ideologically committing itself to tradition over modernity, even at the price of denial, repression and loss. Today's Iranian youth, especially those from the urban middle and upper classes, are no longer willing to accept that bargain, and the older generation is beginning to allow itself to be moved by the young. Mahdavi's best and most groundbreaking material has to do with the public health implications of this rift between generations and between acknowledged and unacknowledged behaviors, as well as the society's slow and patchy but often ingenious educational response.
In a country where run-of-the-mill dating and fashion are illegal, extreme practices have emerged in the private spaces occupied particularly by well-off, heterosexual Tehrani youth. Mahdavi shows up at a party, thrown by a mullah's daughter whose parents are out of town, that turns out to be a giant orgy. Smaller parties, too, frequently become occasions for group sex. Out on the heavily policed city streets, young people cruise for anonymous sex partners by passing notes into the windows of neighboring cars when they are stuck in traffic, or by driving to poor neighborhoods where nobody will recognize them as they scour the sidewalks for partners they hope never to see again. Adultery, for women, is punishable by stoning in Iran, but fully half of Mahdavi's married, female research subjects are unfaithful to their husbands; for many of them, picking up lovers is a regular form of recreation. And despite the legal requirement that women in Iran cover their hair and hide the curves of their bodies, fashion obsesses the women in Mahdavi's study. They apply layer after layer of makeup, and they find ways to make the hijab as sexy as the skimpy summer attire of Western women.
While this portrait of Iranian sexual experimentation may be shocking on its surface, it has grown familiar to most people who have visited Iran or followed cultural developments there in the past decade. Less well known is that, for all their promiscuity and seeming sophistication, many of these young Iranians suffer from a lack of sexual education and resources that fits the official culture of pious abstinence rather than the actual one of looseness and risk. The birth control method of choice among Mahdavi's informants is withdrawal. Women who take the pill frequently lack the most basic information and take it only erratically, depriving themselves of almost all of its effect. Condoms are considered so filthy and embarrassing that even people who share florid details about their sex lives with Mahdavi blush at their mention, and no one wants to be seen requesting them at a pharmacy. AIDS, educated young Iranians tell Mahdavi, is transmitted through visits to the dentist or hairdresser, and other STDs come only from a certain unsavory sort of woman. While wealthy women can obtain abortions -- illegal in most cases but common, thanks to poor contraception -- from sympathetic doctors at vast expense, poorer women acquire on the black market pills or injections meant for animals. Mahdavi went to a back street where dealers sell these medications, just to see how easily they could be acquired. A dealer sold her a vial of pills without the least instruction on what to do with them. Physicians she interviewed told her that they see a great many women seriously injured or rendered infertile by self-administered abortions meant for animals.
On its face, Iranian state ideology conflicts with the requirements of public health, given the sea change in public attitudes toward sex. Yet there is good news in Mahdavi's study. Close to the ground, where it counts, Iranian doctors, parents, educators and even institutions are bending to the forces of change. For example, since 2000 the Islamic Republic has required Iranians who seek marriage licenses to attend state-administered classes on family planning. One that Mahdavi attended in Tehran's central business district sounds perfectly appalling. A chador-clad woman shrilly lectures a room of gum-snapping, nail-filing, indifferent young women, offering the following counsel: "You must always be ready for your husband's sexual needs. If perchance he is watching a football game on television, you should be resting to prepare yourself, or else preparing your bed for the evening. If you should feel overcome by fatigue yourself, make sure always to ask your husband, 'Is there anything else you need from me?' or 'Would you like to have me later?' before retiring."
But then Mahdavi attends another such class, this time in the city's north, in the upscale shopping district near the Tajrish bazaar. This class covers disease transmission, contraception, fertility, mental health, marital relations and even female sexual pleasure. The teachers wear the less forbidding hijab -- head scarf and fitted thigh-length coat -- common among their students, and the women attending these classes, Mahdavi reports, confide freely to the teachers about their relationships and their sex lives. Here, and in her chapter about the older generation's response to the sexual revolution, Mahdavi shows us a society beginning to shake off its denial and rigidity out of the sheer necessity of serving the burgeoning needs of its young -- a generation of adults who have either grown sympathetic to young people's yearnings or, like Mrs. Erami, recognize that they risk greater losses than they can bear.
Something major is happening -- a generational shift, a process of social change on which Islamic law has only limited effect. But how deeply does it penetrate Iranian society, divided as Iranians are by geography and class? And how political is this movement in a country where politics is a live wire?
Mahdavi cannot be everywhere at once, and her study does not purport to explain the sexual behavior of everyone in Iran. Rather, it focuses on upper-middle-class, heterosexual Tehrani youth. This is a subculture worth studying -- Tehran is a city of 14 million and a trendsetter for smaller Iranian cities -- but Mahdavi is also aware of the study's limitations. Most significant, it excludes the social base of the ruling regime, which is rural Iran, where village life is the norm and values may be changing but where they remain, by all accounts, more traditional than in the bigger cities. Although she includes a few lower-class urban young people in Passionate Uprisings, we don't get to know them as well as we do the better-off informants. These omissions become significant mainly because Mahdavi makes big claims for her Tehrani revelers: their actions are not only political, in her view, but revolutionary; they are intended, finally, to bring about regime change.
In a narrow sense, this claim is obviously true. Insofar as the Iranian regime mandates Islamic dress and abstinence until marriage, young people who force the government to loosen these restrictions by defying them are engaged in a political act -- one that is effectively changing an aspect of the regime. But there is something tautological about this observation, and Mahdavi does not draw out any deeper links between the political movements, like the one for secular democracy, roiling Iran and the changing sexual mores she observed.
What she does document is a groundswell of young people who reject Islamic sexual morality, feel they should have the right to associate with whomever they wish and to do what they please with their bodies, and who are willing to risk brief, but plenty unpleasant, run-ins with the morality police in the name of fashion, partying, dating and sex. Some of Mahdavi's subjects describe a night or two spent in a jail cell; others are whipped, and one couple is forced to marry. (Mahdavi doesn't say whether class differences among offenders figure in the ways the morality police mete out punishment.) Does Mahdavi imagine that these young people, if granted a modicum of personal, sartorial and social freedom, would fight on -- for freedom of expression, freedom of religion, prison reform, representative government, an independent judiciary that respects the rights of the individual? For the rights and freedoms, in the end, of others?
Those who would choose to fight such battles, and to make the sacrifices that such a fight would entail, are few in any society, and Mahdavi's subjects are not to be faulted for choosing the already uphill battle to enjoy their youth. But the distinction is worth noting, mainly because it is not lost on the Iranian regime, which has shown a willingness to cut deals with its populace -- loosening social restrictions, or turning a blind eye toward parties or translucent head scarves in upscale neighborhoods, precisely while tightening the screws on political activism and the independent press. Hence, Mahdavi is optimistic for the future of reform and brushes off the crackdown under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which has had only limited effect on fashion and sexual practices. But she does not mention the wholesale exclusion of reformers from government, or the imprisonment and torture of dozens of feminist activists, starting in 2006, for the crime of circulating a petition calling for the amendment of laws that classify women as second-class citizens. (Among other things, the petition calls for equal rights for women in marriage, inheritance and divorce; an increase in the age of criminal responsibility from 9 to 18 for girls and from 15 to 18 for boys; the prosecution of honor killings; equal consideration of a woman's testimony in court to that of a man; and an end to the capital punishment of female adulterers.) The political claims Mahdavi makes for Tehran's sexual revolution are, or should be, complicated by these developments.
Somehow, one suspects that the grassroots push to change sexual mores cannot be totally divorced from the effort, on the part of feminist activists but also some reformist parliamentarians and even liberal-minded clerics, to improve the status of Iranian women under the law. But the women in Mahdavi's study seem to occupy a wholly perplexing historical moment, or a palimpsest of historical moments. They live in a theocracy with a premodern, religious legal code, and they are undergoing, all at once, what we in the West would recognize as a 1960s-style sexual revolution, 1970s-style second-wave feminism and the contemporary postfeminist embrace of female sexuality, with all its complexities. The messages these women receive are mixed, to say the least. Mahdavi describes some of her married subjects as spending literally hours every day on their makeup and clothes and the rest of their time cruising the city for lovers. In a society that tells these women they should be chaste, domestic slaves to their husbands, who in turn have the freedom to acquire up to four wives and as many as 99 "temporary" wives, this could be seen as a kind of female empowerment. But there is something undeniably sterile about it as well.
The lives Mahdavi describes are rich in fleeting pleasures and bereft of deep engagement, whether personal, political or professional. It is a dissolution one feels at the heart of contemporary Iranian middle-class culture, and it has to do with the structure of the postrevolutionary state, which has written off huge swaths of its population in its economy, culture and politics. Unemployment is highest among educated young people, who traditionally live with their parents until marriage. Many twentysomething Tehranis -- bored, sexually frustrated, infantilized by the state and their families -- live like teenagers in small-town America. They spend a lot of time in cars, getting high on ingeniously obtained or concocted substances, and looking for sex. Is this a sign of political ferment or of a disused demographic -- unmoored and decadent, dissipating its energies -- for which its country has no use?
Mahdavi does not press such inquiries. Nor, notably, does she ask her subjects about religion. By engaging in sexual behavior the state deems "un-Islamic," do Iranian young people feel they are questioning the state's monopoly on Islam, or are they questioning Islamic sexual morality itself? Are her subjects evidence of a secularizing culture, or have they found a way to absorb Islamic spirituality while flouting Sharia law? The absence of searching analysis along any of these lines is striking, and it prevents Mahdavi's extensive collection of anecdotes and informants from rising above the level of observation.
In fact, what she calls ethnography often feels more like a thinly academicized memoir of the Iranian party scene. Mahdavi, who grew up in California and spent extensive time doing research in Iran, gets in the way of her subject by compulsively inserting herself, often in self-flattering terms, into the frame. We never hear her subjects speak without also seeing Mahdavi nod and smile. She includes her diary entries verbatim and emphasizes her feelings about the parties she attends. "My smart, beautiful friend from America. Knowing you makes me so cool," she quotes one of her informants as telling her. She quotes others saying that only she can help them with their problems, or that maybe the women in the beauty parlor are asking her why she isn't married because they feel threatened that Mahdavi appears to "have it all."
Although Mahdavi writes that she did research among poor youth as well as the middle and upper classes, in the one extended account of an outdoor party on the wrong side of the tracks, we hear next to nothing from the poor urban youth in attendance. Instead we get a scene in which a young woman admires Mahdavi's shoes and Mahdavi generously offers to trade her fashionable footwear for the girl's tattered sandals, to the girl's gratitude and delight. "I've never met a rich girl like you," Mahdavi quotes her as saying. "Who are you, anyways?" These authorial intrusions make the first five chapters of Passionate Uprisings feel aimless and amateurish. Fortunately, when we get into the material about public health and sex education, about which Mahdavi has done truly original and far-reaching research, the author steps aside and allows her material to order itself before the reader in all its richness.
After all, at the level of observation, there is still something about these cultural currents at which to marvel. It is not hard to see why Mahdavi felt that her young subjects were the leading edge of something significant, even if we don't come away quite knowing of what. Nearly thirty years into its Islamic Republic, Iran has become a country its revolutionaries never imagined, let alone desired. Its population has doubled; its countryside has modernized; its cities have burgeoned. Heavy-handed religious rule has produced a profound ambivalence about organized religion even among Iranians who cleave strongly to their private faith. Young Iranians, born after the revolution, burrow tunnels under the walls the regime has erected to isolate them from the West. And no amount of repression has succeeded in smothering the seemingly trivial but inextinguishable human impulse toward beauty, the playfulness of fashion or the electricity of sex. Maybe this is a story about Iran, with its restive political culture and loss of faith in institutionalized religion; maybe it's a story about Islam and the return of its repressed; or maybe it's just a story about the human spirit and the things it is not prepared to live without.
Laura Secor is a 2008-09 fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, at the New York Public Library.