When people read Foreign Policy's "Erotic Republic" by Afshin Shahi many were in awe at the notion of sexuality in the Islamic Republic of Iran -- as if it were the first time someone had written on this seemingly 'taboo' subject matter. Why is it such a surprise that a sexual revolution exists amidst the "Ayatollahs, religious fanaticism, veiled women," as Shahi notes? Did Orientalism get in the way of depicting the people of the Islamic Republic as progressive in the realm of sexuality?
Indeed when the Western media depicts Iran, it tends to fall into that context, unfortunately, since the revolution of 1979.
Those who study the Islamic Republic extensively since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 will point to the fact that social attitudes changed as a result of disappointment in the failed promises of the Velayat-e Faqih, but also because the 'Children of the Revolution' -- those aged 30 or younger, born during or after the revolution -- were coming of age. Asef Bayat calls this era the "Post-Islamism reform movement" and believes much of what we see today is a result of sociopolitical change of the 1990s.
After the Iran-Iraq war, the regime tried hard to produce 'true Muslim youth,' but failed at doing so at the realization that they were impossible to control due to a yearning for individual freedoms and lack of connection with the fervor their parents experienced during the revolution. The mannerisms of the youth in Iran "differed little from those of youngsters elsewhere in the world," Bayat claims in his book, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn.
What Shahi's piece seemingly failed to mention was the psychological aspect of Newton's Third Law, i.e., if religion is forced upon people, expect an opposite reaction. This is accounted for not only Iran, but also Saudi Arabia and its famous compound parties in Riyadh. Just the other day a friend shared a story about his encounter with numerous drunk Saudi women at a club, who were not only decked out in designer labels, but also had bottle service in Beirut, Lebanon. And of course there are the stories of parties in Iran as demonstrated by the arrange of article titles: My First Iranian Orgy; Sex parties and cocaine behind closed doors but you can be arrested on the street for showing a lock of hair; Believe it or not, Iranian youth party hard; Partying on Wheels in Iran; and so forth.
Having lived in Tehran for seven years of my adolescence, such seemingly new stories were ordinary. For example, my friend Masoud* described a party he was at in Karaj -- a city on the outskirts of Tehran known for having numerous villa parties -- and how suddenly some of the partiers had turned the scene into an orgy. When his friend took out his camera phone to film it, one woman supposedly exclaimed, "Don't film me! I have a husband!"
So it is oppression by means of Islam making Iranians and Saudis act out in this 'promiscuous' manner?
The answer is not really.
All these articles talking about the stories of sex parties, drugs, alcohol, and raves are only part of the worldwide phenomenon known as 'experimenting' -- it is not breaking news. The fact that it is making sporadic appearances in the East as a "sexual revolution," does not mean the people are acting out against oppression necessarily, only that they are human. It simply seems unusual because it is has to do with countries where religion rules policies and politics, such as in the case of Iran's theocracy.
Just like in the West, if you are caught high on drugs or drunk, you will be reprimanded. But on the other hand, the reprimanding in some countries in the Middle East is on another level, which consists of being arrested, flogged, and in rare instances sentenced to death. Just like teenagers in the West who like to rebel by breaking rules, the youth of these countries do much the same. When you ask them why they do it knowing the risks, they tell you something along the lines of: "It's exciting! It's invigorating! Isn't it what you guys do in the West?!?"
Interestingly, the notion of a sexual revolution in Iran has been around since the 19th century and it is Iran's "rich social and cultural heritage" that helped defy the various regimes Iranians were governed by, according to Janet Afary in Sexual Politics in Modern Iran.
Furthermore, even though prostitution is part of the deteriorating economic situation in Iran, it is one of the oldest professions in history. Prostitution existed under the Shah's time not only on the streets, but also in designated Red Light districts such as Shahr-e Noh. Although prostitutes can be found with no trouble in post-revolutionary Iran, the Beverly Hills of Tehran known as Elahieh -- famous for its Fereshteh Street -- is the designated area for high-end prostitutes.
It is important to note that Iranian clerics attempted to solve the problem of premarital sex through the concept of a 'temporary marriage' or sigeh - a loophole in Shiite Islam that has existed for centuries in Iran. Although there is a stigma for it amongst various Iranians, some use it as a means to have legal sex, by means of obtaining a temporary marriage license from a cleric at a marriage registry. The time can be as short as a sexual encounter or for life, depending on how long the individuals decide upon it.
Moreover, the notion of a sexual revolution being the sole reason for the decline in birthrate and a rise in the age of marriage ignores the fact that there is a direct correlation between women's education and birthrates and that Iranian women are the most educated in the Middle East and North Africa (Iranian women make up 65% of students at universities). As Nikki Keddie claims in her book, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution:
"With the continued rapid growth of female education and urbanization, two factors correlate dramatically with falling birthrates worldwide, birthrates can be expected to fall even further, and low birthrates may ease burdens on women and bring more into the labor force."
It is also important to mention that Iranian women are not only engaged in the largest women rights movement in the region -- predating the 1979 revolution -- but that a decent number are also post-Islamist feminists. With these two components, women attempted to make their voice heard and allowed for small changes in the patriarchal dynamics of both family and society.
In addition, the economy of Iran in terms of high youth unemployment and the current onslaught of bad economic policies and sanctions, have caused Iranians to avoid marriage and even children until they are financially secure. It is also important to account for the ongoing 'brain drain' -- why would Iranians want to settle down when they are trying to leave the country for better opportunities overseas?
Having that been said, the sexual revolution in Iran is nothing new, except maybe to Mr. Shahi.
*Name changed for the sake of privacy.