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VICE News

Iran’s Government Is Worried that Its People Are Having the Wrong Kind of Sex

Iran’s clerical leaders might be alarmed by the sexual habits of the country’s youth, but they’re also in the odd position of promoting baby-making.

by Samuel Oakford
Aug 14 2014, 2:20pm

Photo by Joel Nilsson

A recent Iranian parliamentary report has presented a candid illustration of the sexual practices of the Islamic Republic's youth — so candid that it was quickly withdrawn from a government website.

The Iranian Parliament's legal research wing published the document, a copy of which VICE News obtained. Using data from several studies that surveyed some 142,000 Iranian students over the past decade, it found that 80 percent of unmarried females acknowledged being in relationships with members of the opposite sex, while 17 percent of all respondents identified as homosexual. Being in a pre-marital romantic relationship and being homosexual are both illegal in Iran.

The report offers a revealing glimpse of the tension within Iran between its increasingly Westernized youth — who are tentatively encouraged by reformist President Hassan Rouhani — and a deflated conservative vision imposed on the nation by its repressive clerical leadership.

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"Under present circumstances, sexual desires are intensified due to high-calorie diets and sexual stimulants such as images and movies containing lustful nudity, pornographic images, and movies, etc.," it says. "Therefore the average sexual maturity age is decreased, resulting in earlier puberty of teenagers. On the other hand, lack of suitable circumstances for permanent marriage, as well as the adverse teachings of Western culture, have resulted in sexual relationships and behaviors beyond rational and religious restrictions of Islamic societies."

Mismatches define contemporary Iranian society, in which daily lives and customs operate ambiguously on either side of Islamic law.

Parliamentary researchers suggest that the harmful spiritual effects of young Iranians' sexual proclivities can be tempered by their use of the Shia practice of temporary marriage. Much of the text is devoted to a theological discussion of the arrangement, known as sigheh in Farsi, which has been promoted by Iran's religious authorities since the revolution that deposed the Shah in 1979.

Temporary marriage, which is generally arranged in private, offers practical benefits to young couples looking to stay on the right side of the morality police while allowing the country's theocracy to coat the sexual practices of its population with religious varnish.

Sigheh, which is called nikah mut'ah in Arabic, can last anywhere from mere minutes to years, and at a minimum requires a verbal agreement between the couple. Men who do not wish to commit adultery — a crime punishable by death — can sidestep this violation by entering into a temporary marriage.

Iranian men are permitted to have up to four permanent wives, but temporary marriages don't count — men can theoretically enter as many as they'd like, although women must wait until at least a few months or menstrual cycles have passed (a stipulation dating from a era before pregnancy tests) before they enter into another. The agreements have historically involved a dowry provided by the man, though this interpretation, like many things in modern Iran, is flexible.

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The practice evolved from customs in pre-Islamic Arabia, where men were separated from their wives for long periods of time due to war or trade. Instead of becoming serial philanderers, it was seen as preferable for them to enter into short-term contracts with other women, offering them a modicum of security and a guarantee that any resulting child would not be considered born out of wedlock.

"If men were based somewhere else, they would contract a marriage, with the difference that it would have a time period attached to it," Shaheen Sardar Ali, a law professor at the Warwick School of Law who specializes in Islamic jurisprudence, told VICE News. "It was generally seen as a way of preventing men from going to prostitutes or having multiple sexual partners if they were away from their family."

In contemporary Iran, sigheh is an anachronism — or, in Ali's phrase, a "historical mismatch." Yet mismatches define contemporary Iranian society, in which daily lives and customs operate ambiguously on either side of Islamic law.

Particularly short sigheh marriages have been linked to prostitution, an application that some officials have actually encouraged. Despite the illegality of prostitution in Iran, in 2002 government agencies proposed establishing so-called "chastity houses" where sex workers could interact with their clients after entering into a temporary marriage.

"I would not have supported chastity houses had it not been for the urgency of the situation in our society," Ayatollah Muhammad Moussavi Bojnourdi, a Shiite religious leader, was quoted as saying at the time. "If we want to be realistic and clear the city of such women, we must use the path that Islam offers us."

It's difficult to calculate the number of sex workers within Iran, but estimates have put the number as high as 600,000.

The chastity house proposal was abandoned, but sigheh continues to be suspected of providing cover for illicit and immoral behavior. That association presents a skewed picture, however. Temporary marriage is used across Iranian society for a variety of reasons. It can be used to lend support to widows or single mothers; many enter the arrangement to help maintain their piety alongside the opposite sex before permanent marriage; and others simply regard it as a loophole that allows them to live as freely as possible within the constraints of Islamic law.

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Because sigheh doesn't require a written contract, young unmarried couples confronted in public by Iranian authorities can potentially claim that they have entered into sigheh even if they haven't. It can effectively be used to allow a couple to go on dates or just hang out. But, as useful as this idea might be, many middle-class Iranians don't think it's necessary.

"In Iran, the population under 30 — which makes up over 60 percent of the country — isn't really configuring to what the government of the Islamic Republic imagined," a prominent Iranian-American professor who works on gender issues in Iran told VICE News. She spoke on condition of anonymity in order to protect her work and family.

"They imagined they would have a whole cadre that was born after the revolution that would subscribe more closely to its tenets, when in fact the rebellions today in Iran are more often fueled by the youth," she said. "So if they are engaging in Western style dating practices, this is their way of rebelling. If they were to engage in sigheh, they would not be rebelling."

Even the most conservative elements in Iran's government are caught in a certain sex-limbo, given their concern about the country's dwindling birth rate. From a rather incredible rate of 6.5 births per woman in the aftermath of the revolution to today's rate of 1.6 per woman, Iran's population growth has become anemic. Clerical leaders might be alarmed by the sexual habits of the youth, but they're also in the odd position of promoting procreative intercourse.

Following Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's decree in May calling for an increase in baby-making to strengthen the country and combat "undesirable aspects of Western lifestyles," the Iranian parliament voted this week to ban vasectomies in men and methods of permanent contraception among women, as well as any advertising of birth control.

The Iranian-American professor noted that a decline in the marriage rate among young people and an increase in divorce derives at least as much from Iran's stagnant economic growth, impeded by severe Western sanctions, as it does from Western cultural influence. "The sanctions make it very hard for young men to have the economic wherewithal to go ahead and get married," she said.

More Iranian women are also pursuing advanced degrees and careers, a trend that frustrates religious leaders. The bill banning permanent contraception can be interpreted as an attempt to force women into a traditional female role. The bill's restrictions could also lead to an increase in dangerous illicit abortions, of which there are already 250,000 in Iran every year.

"Whenever Iran is facing a fairly serious situation and the economy is in an absolute state of shock, you see various arms of the government turn to issues that pertain to women," said the professor.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

Photo via Flickr