The Rebels with Raging Hormones: "In Iran," Said the Businessman, "We Do Everything -- Sex, Drugs and Rock'n'roll. It's Just That We Do It Behind Closed Doors." and They Talk about It Incessantly, as Helena Smith Discovered. (Features)
Smith, Helena, New Statesman (1996)
It was a bizarre co-existence, to be sure, Barbie and the mullahs. Until mid-May, when the public morality police began eradicating the American icon assiduously, Barbie was the one barnacle that Iran officially preferred to ignore. She was blonde, busty and skimpily dressed, and, strangely, she appealed as much to fully grown men as she did to little women in the Islamic republic.
"Barbie is dead and that is bad because Barbie is beautiful," groaned one aficionado, a man with raven-black hair. "But sex is not, and in Iran that's the one thing men and women have on their minds, so don't be fooled by the chador."
This was my first visit to a nation that had attempted to create a utopian religious society. I had been in Tehran for all of three hours when the gentleman in question, a young lawyer, approached me in a toyshop whose shelves had lust been purged of the doll.
Sex is not a subject one expects to hear a lot about in a country governed by the immutable strictures of theocratic rule. Unfairly, I assumed that the heavily Brylcreemed Barbie devotee was a bit of a crank. But since the 1979 revolution, Iran has become seriously idiosyncratic. With the youngest population in the world -- three-quarters of all Iranians, numbering roughly 40 million, are under the age of 25--prohibition has succeeded only in sexualising le tout.
Iranians, who still avail themselves of sigheh, a temporary marriage contract, to satisfy their sexual urges, rarely shy away from addressing the subject, once taboo. Nearly every conversation, even those with po-faced officials, inevitably leads to the three-letter word (in my own notes, taken over a week, there were 49 references to it). And sexuality exists where it should not: shaking a man's hand, allowing a headscarf to slip enough to show a provocative swirl of hair, even sitting on a chair that may previously have been occupied by a set of male buttocks -- activities steadfastly banned under Shia Islamic law.
For the Islamic republic is nothing if not opaque. Just as Iran's politics are characterised by conservatives and reformers, with their interminable feuds, Iranians delight in telling you that there is an indoor and an outdoor life, a mask for the street and a face for the home, a uniform for the frump and a designer dress for the chador-less nymph, a public and a private morality.
"In Iran," said one British-educated businessman, as we sipped cocktails and danced to "Hotel California" at his home, "we do everything -- sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. It's just that we do it behind closed doors."
When it comes to making love, confided another British-trained engineer, Iranian women simply make sure that men are extra-cautious. Premarital sex is punishable by up to 70 lashes. A ruptured hymen can mean disownment by the family and lifelong social ostracism. "Often, they ask that we do it in other ways," he said, in a matter-of-fact way. Thus followed a near-pornographic explication of how such congress could be concluded happily.
But although Iran has loosened up immensely since the reformist Muhammad Khatami came to power in 1997, fraternising with a member of the opposite sex who is not also next of kin still requires some measure of strength.
Young Iran is hooked on television. With US satellite channels beaming "westoxified" scenes to most parts of the country (Iranians are MTV addicts), increasingly, it is sexual frustration that is propelling the youthful clamour for change.
As Iran's post-revolutionary baby boomers come in to their prime, this is a force more potent than might at first seem. Stroll the parks that pepper Tehran and you will encounter youths on the prowl. Many come armed with slips of paper inscribed with vital details which they pass on to promising partners.
"The new generation want change and they want it now," Muhammad Ali Abtahi, Iran's vice-president, told me somewhat forlornly. …