[In the city of Tabas,] women do not dare to talk to men. If any woman would do such a thing she would be killed, and the man would also be killed…Of the cities I have seen in the lands of Arabs and non-Arabs, this city was one of the four places I found safe and ruled by justice.
—Nāser Khosrow, Safar-nāme (The Travel Notes) written in the eleventh century.
Last night I saw two movies at the Annual UCLA screening of Iranian movies: Maryam Keshavarz' Color of Love (2004) and Mitra Farahani’s Zohre and Manouchehr (2003). Both movies were about the ways that contemporary Iranian society deals with sexuality. Color of Love pictured the interactions between several young couples in the city of Shiraz during Āshūrā, and Zohre and Manouchehr mixed interviews of different types of people about having sex with a Parajanov-style depiction of a nineteenth-century Persian poem about sex.
Watching these kinds of documentaries about sexuality is shocking to the Iranian community outside Iran who has been away from the “mainland” culture for years. Iran has changed a lot during the last 27 years. The societal restrictions imposed by the Islamic government (in order to form the kind of “model society” Nāser Khosrow speaks about in his travel notes) and the imagined model society presented on the satellite TV and the Internet deeply have affected the current moral system. Many people do not respect the traditional moral "values" any more. Many others see them as still valid and want to force them on others who don’t believe in them. Many imagine “the West” as a land of free sexuality and dream about moving there. Others, mostly the older generation, see it as a threat to the traditional values. The culture is obsessed with the idea of sexuality. Thinking about concepts such as Bekārat (virginity), Qeyrat (male extreme jealousy and feeling of honor in ordering around the female members of the family or community), and Nejābat (female suppression of her sexual needs) are sometimes more important to Iranians than anything else in life.
I have never forgot observing this in my daily life in Iran. As a male it was impossible for me to get into a taxi full of male passengers (in Iran we share the taxis with other passengers) and not hear a sexist comment about “how horrible women are these days.” There was always a passenger or a taxi driver who had a story about “a corrupt woman” who tries to seduce him. The story mostly ended up with him, strong and victorious, rejecting the seduction and going back to his proper moral life. The story always was followed with comments from the narrator of the story, or the others, about what a moral disaster this is. “Āqā, vaz’ kheyli kharāb shode… zanā az dast dar raftan.” (Man, this is a disaster; women don’t know their limits any more…) The first part of the story was basically the same literary material the porn film industry uses in its studios in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. The second part is very similar to the value system that makes it possible for the churches, prostitutes, and the casinos to co-exist in Las Vegas. The difference here is that the repression of desires and the contradictions between what people say and what people do is hundreds of times worse in the Iranian case.
Sexuality is the main topic of conversation for Iranian men and probably women. It also is the main problem that Iranian society has with “Western culture.” Controlling the sexual behavior of the citizens (and not their political actions) is the main justification of the government for controlling the society. This justification sounds convincing to many, even those who hate the government. The mentality of the eleventh-century writer, Nāser Khosrow, is still pretty much alive in twenty-first-century Iran. Having justice and safety is still tied to the government observing the social life of the citizens and correcting them by force. The public still supports the punishment of those, who respond to the sexual hormones in their blood, and sees the government’s enforcement of moral values as legitimate and defendable.
The fact is that in today’s Iran the divorce rate is high, prostitution is widespread, and the new generation questions anything related to morality. The younger generation is passing through a "1960s". A sexual revolution has begun among the youth that scares the elders. The Iranian government blames “corrupt Western culture” for Iranian “moral problems,” and the political opposition outside the country accuses the Islamic government of destroying the “integrity of Iranian culture” by creating an environment that makes prostitution possible. The media on both sides sheds tears for the moral corruption of the nation, and both sides believe that what is happening among the youth is a major problem that the country is facing.
* * *
Despite all of these facts, hearing the news about all these supposed corruptions is music to my ears. To me, this disgusting rotten corpse known as Iranian traditional morality, based on eleventh century moral values, needs to be buried, and if the spread of prostitution helps this process I definitely support it. Getting rid of Iranian traditions such as keeping virginity and glorifying qeyrat is more essential for the nation than having democracy or fixing the economy… ok, reading this might upset the few Iranian readers of this blog, since for some obscure reasons we think we should defend some outdated moral values just because they have been there for years. My opinion on this issue is very different: the right to have sex is as basic as the right to drink water or to breathe air, and if a cultural code deprives people of that right, I hope to see such a moral system eradicated. In a world ruled by religious fanatics (either the Bush type or the Iranian mullahs) fighting with traditional moral values is as essential as fighting for freedom of speech. The seemingly apolitical Iranian youth has already begun the fight in Iran. I think the manner in which this fight ends will eventually change other aspects of the culture, including politics, both in Iran and the Middle East. It eventually forms a new version of Islam that is more tolerant towards sexuality and probably more tolerant towards everything else. Am I a dreamer? I hope not.
- Top: From Color of Love (2004).
- Bottom: From Zohre & Manoucheh (2003).
* Another post on the Iranian youth here.