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The Dating Scene in Iran

“You’re starting to get the hang of it”.

Abbas is grinning, and I can’t help feel proud of myself. I had just been accosted by a group of three girls, and, despite my shock, managed to gift them a juicy pomegranate. I’m not naturally shy but then again this is the first time in my three weeks in Iran that a girl has talked to me without being introduced first.

“But you should have carved your phone number onto the skin.”

Now, it’s my turn to grin. I’ve know him for a while now, but his resourcefulness in picking up girls still surprises me. Stereotypes aside, we’re still in Iran. Premarital sex and adultery are considered serious offences. Walking in public with a member of the opposite sex (that is not a relative) is also a crime but rarely enforced in major cities. Luckily for them, most Iranians don’t agree with these laws and since most people Iran are under 26 (contraceptives were forbidden in the first years following the revolution), they grew up learning how to avoid detection, how to speak obliquely, and, when the shit hits the fan, how to bribe officials.

Abbas is a prime example of this behavior, even though by now means does he represent the majority of twenty somethings. He tells me he has ten girlfriends, three of which he has sexual intercourse with. The others are still on probation until he figures out if they’re the type that waits. None of his girlfriends know about the others, but they know there’s just as much promiscuity here as in Western countries, at least with the people that do manage to have relationships.

It’s also easier, considering every relationship has to happen in secret. There’s little change of getting caught in the street since relationships have to happen behind closed doors. Problematic for my friend as he lives with his parents (as do the majority of young people, even when they’re married). The solution is pretty obvious: he meets his lovers by picking them up in their car and driving to whichever deserted place is closest. A desert, a forest. Perhaps the apartment of a brother who happens to be travelling, if he gets really lucky.

The same goes for drinking beer, dancing, or any other gathering where men and women might meet. Just the same as the United States in the 50’s but the stakes are higher. There’s that story of the guy who tried to smuggle his girlfriend into his dorm, hiding her in a refrigerator box. He got caught, kicked out, and is now unable to attend any university in Iran. Or the one where the girl tried to smuggle him into her room by tying bedsheets together. That one ended with a broken neck.

Probably the most uplifting story I’ve heard is of my friend Nourah, who met her boyfriend during a rock concert in Tehran. Don’t let your imagination run wild though, it’s best described as a rehearsal, where some friends are invited. Woman are dressed just as in Europe, people dance together and the moonshine and dirt-cheap Afghan hash is freely available. This happens about once a week in Tehran, a city of over 15 million people. They fall in love, and after a couple of months she moves into his apartment, a basement room with no doorman between him and the street.

Unfortunately, this is only the reality for a small minority of people.. For every dancing party involving members of the opposite sex, there’s probably three parties of six 26-year old virgins, rehearsing for when that one lucky day comes that they receive an invitation. They listen with rapt attention to my stories of the parties I’ve been to, something they have only heard about. They’re the unlucky majority, falling between the Fitzgerald-esque parties and arranged marriages. Waiting until they’re graduated, and maybe even a couple of years extra until they can afford a place of their own.

It goes downhill from here. Once you get married, the story is not finished. It’s legal to have up to four wives, with each wife having her own household. The man, in effect, has different families and it’s his obligation to support his wives financially. The bad part is that this only happens in remote, poorer areas. Often, the woman accepts this arrangement only because of pressure from her parents. While she might live a poor life, her absence allows her original family some financial relief.

Prostitution in Iran

You might think that the attitude of holding many wives is in sharp contrast with the prudishness suggested by the laws governing the contact between men and woman. Unfortunately, it gets even worse. Prostitution is ostensibly illegal in Iran, with repeat offenders risking the death penalty. However, Shi’a Islam (and, by consequence, the government of Iran) recognizes the sigheh, or temporary marriage. A sigheh can take anywhere between 5 minutes and 99 years, with the man paying a dowry to the woman on consummation of the marriage. A man might enter as many of these as he wants, provided he does not have more than 4 at any one time.

A woman has to wait for more than 2 months between consecutive marriages, in order to solve questions of parenting. But this is academic, as most of the time this form of marriage is used to as a legalized form in prostitution. The vast majority of customers are domestic tourists and seminary students. The vast majority of woman are impoverished widowers or run-aways that have slipped between the social security net of the extended family.

It’s most common in Qom, the Vatican of Shi’a Islam, probably because it gives a convenient excuse back home (No, honey, I swear, I’m only going on pilgrimage..). Because the practice is frowned upon by the silent majority, and social control goes a long way in every police state, the couples have the same problem as the premarital youths. No place to go, as the hotels don’t want to host then. So, often the festivities take place at the local cemetery. The woman remains shrouded, because showing her hair in public would be really obscene. I wish I was kidding.

One thing every Iranian will ask every tourist they meet is What do you think of Iran?. I heard it so often, I automatically replied the non-offensive it’s very beautiful, and the people are very nice. Which is true, but what I really wanted to say is that It’s amazingly complex and manages to be both subtle and brutal at the same time.

I was very happy traveling in Iran, but, after staying more than 6 weeks, I was very happy that I could leave.

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Daan Hansen