Zoe Mendelson is traveling the world, talking to friends and strangers about the messy, wonderful business of love. Our series Love in Far Off Lands tracks her journey, highlighting the best of her encounters.
It was a Thursday night in Istanbul and I was sitting on a patio at a going away party with three Persian cousins: two men living in Istanbul for graduate school and a woman living there who works as a journalist. I didn’t want to turn playtime into work time but the opportunity seemed too ripe to relinquish. How often do Americans actually meet Iranians? How often do we get to share a beer and actually try to understand each other? I had no idea what I was in for.
I told them that I was writing about dating cultures in different countries. They agreed to interviews but definitely, absolutely did not want me to use their names; they said it could end up preventing them from re-entering Iran at all. Deal. They laughed because dating is illegal in Iran.
“Iranian rules are based on Islamic rules. So it’s forbidden by law, informal dating when you’re not married. But you know, everything forbidden is more interesting.”
I asked how dating is different for them in Istanbul than it is back home and both men instantly replied that it was way easier to date back home in Iran.
“Maybe people are much more in the mood?” One said and laughed, but then added more seriously, “Maybe they feel more freely. When you’re in a closed place and you’re under pressure, you want to experience something that is illegal.” The other chimed in, “Yes, I have had 15 girlfriends and I’m only 30! And I had many one-night stands in Iran. But here, it’s much harder to get girls.”
I asked if girls in Iran have sex before marriage and one of the men speculated that 10 or 15 years ago only 10 percent of girls would, but that now the percentage is probably closer to 90. I was genuinely shocked, and tried to play it off like I wasn’t such an ignorant American thinking that Persian women were just bundled up virginal victims. And then things got even realer.
The woman chimed in, “In Iran it’s hard core. People think they’re so repressed. But because they are so repressed, they go to extremes to compensate. Have you seen what Iranian girls look like? They’re totally dressed up and made up and with the hair… they take advantage of things more. They’ve got like three boyfriends, they’re always screwing around… it’s like intense. It’s like orgies and shit. Seriously.”
I was dumbfounded. “Three boyfriends?” I asked. “Yes! More!” Replied one of the men, “They’re always lying!” he said, feigning spite, and then in a high-pitched voice said, “I love you. I love you. You’re the only man for me.” The other man laughed and nodded.
“How do they do that, if there’s no bars —“ I started to ask. They were starting to catch on to my astonishment and were all smiling.
“There are bars; they’re just at home. Everything is private. We make our own vodka. In the capital city, in Tehran, it’s like drugs and orgies,” one of the men explained.
“Orgies?!” I asked. “Like really?!” And they all nodded yes. At this point they were all grinning because they must know how misconceived the rest of the world’s vision of life in Iran is. The woman said she hadn’t been to any but she had heard about plenty. Then one of the guys with a knowing smirk said that yes, parties sometimes do turn into orgies. I pointed out that he was smiling and he laughed.
I thought they might be putting me on, but a Spaniard I met later who had just come from Iran verified all of this and beyond.
“Yes well, if everyone drinks so much so much and there’s a lot of drugs…” He explained that since Tehran is so close to Afghanistan, which produces a huge amount of drugs, “Iran is the gateway of drugs to the West. You can get anything you want.”
The female cousin mused: “Iranians are very influenced by American culture. They’re obsessed. Illegally, of course, but everyone’s on to it. Movies, TV, everything. Anything that’s out there. And they overdo it. They say, ‘Oh, Americans have sex casually, lets have sex casually times 10.’” Both men agreed. I was floored.
The woman explained, “basically the country is divided into two halves: the supporters of the government and the liberals. There’s public life where everyone is covered. You can’t laugh in public. You can’t hold hands with someone or you’ll get arrested. And then there’s the private life of the liberals, and it’s very indulgent. My family, my uncle, he has a mansion and they have massive parties, sex, everything goes.”
The Spaniard told me he had been to crazy parties in Tehran and that as soon as the girls walked in, “se quitaron todo,” they took off everything. He said they wore short shorts and dresses, “casi nada.”
I just kept saying, “really?!” and it was starting to make the men laugh. “Really!” they kept answering. They also assured me of the presence of a massive gay underground community in Tehran as well as the prevalence of prostitution.
But aren’t those things illegal? Well, yes, but, “it’s illegal but it’s also political,” the woman said. “You can do a lot with bribes. It’s not that they give a shit about religion, they’re just using it as a political tool to suppress people.” The men nodded in agreement.
“OK, so if dating is technically illegal, what do you tell your parents?” I asked, stupidly assuming parents would embody the values of the state.
“Well, it depends on the culture of the family;” one of the men explained, “I even know some families where the girls’ boyfriends used to live with them. Most educated families allow their children to date.”
Thinking of the next thing I took for granted about the country, I asked how Persian men treat their wives.
Instantly the woman’s finger was pointing in the air: “I have something to say about this! Sorry guys, but Persian guys are soft! Like compared to Turkish guys, who are rough and they’re cheaters and they’re hard core—which is why I like them—[she winked] Persian men are like really nice and soft. The women are in charge.”
“Yeah, modern men are like that right now. They do anything for their ladies,” one of the men agreed.
“Yep,” the woman began, “If you’re a girl, you get to decide how much you’re worth.”
Now there’s a sentence that inverts the American conception of women in Iran. The men explained that when a woman gets married she decides on an amount of money that the man owes them if they get divorced. They explained that the right of divorce is the man’s, but that most middle and upper class men sign a clause in their pre-nuptial agreement giving their wife the same right.
“And how do Iranian women treat their men?” I asked.
“Like shit! My grandmother walks around with a whip and my grandfather is basically not allowed to talk. Americans think Iranian women are oppressed. My grandfather is oppressed!”
“But really,” she continued, “the boys are much softer and the girls are getting more powerful because they think their rights were underestimated through history. Iranian culture is almost but not quite matriarchal. And then the regime is very patriarchal. It’s not quite aligned. In our culture, which is ancient, the women have a lot of sway,” the woman explained.
One of the men elaborated, explaining that modern Iranian women are the embodiment of a “hard core backlash. Also they’re graduating a lot more from university, to the extent that if a girl and boy are both applying to the same department at university, they’ve lowered the standards for the boys to try to even it out. The graduation rates are like 62 percent girls.”
I walked away from this conversation a bit rattled and sad. Not sad for the Persian women, but rather that in my mind and in the general American imagination, we paint them as such helpless victims. While the laws in Iran are extremely stringent for woman, to think of them merely as victims of their government robs them of their agency. We condemn from a high feminist horse, completely ignorant of just how much power Iranian women have and exercise. If we want to actually stand in solidarity with them we must recognize the complicated truth: despite their limiting circumstances, we have a lot more in common than we think.
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