08/20/2014 10:50 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

Tying the Knot in Today's Iran

Over 11 million eligible Iranians are unmarried, according to official statistics. The government has repeatedly expressed concern over the low rate of marriage in the country over the past few years, and has encouraged single people to tie the knot. Every now and then, incentives are announced as part of a major effort to increase the rate of marriage and thus reproduction.

Majid Abhari, a sociologist often interviewed by Iranian news wires, has described the current low marriage rate in Iran alarming. In an interview with MEHR news agency, Abhari has warned against the negative effects of belated marriage on the society. He has added that the average age of marriage has increased by 7 to 13 years.

The weeks before and after Ramadan are generally the most popular for marriage and wedding feasts in Iran. On June 11th of this year, the government announced a raise of 50 million rials (around 1500 dollars) in wedding loans for couples who decide to officiate their marriage two weeks prior to Ramadan, in time for the birthday of the Shiaa twelfth Imam, when weddings are pretty popular.

Officials encourage marriage and throw very modest collective wedding parties with only the immediate family members of the couple invited to the solemn -- but free -- ceremonies sans music, dinner and most festivities: naming them "simple weddings". Meanwhile, Iranian upper middle and higher class families spend an average of a billion rials (over 30,000 dollars) on each celebration, and wealthy families spend much more than this amount on lavish parties.

Pari, a wedding planner based in Tehran and Tabriz, barely has time for my questions. Having tracked her for several days, I knew how busy she is. Pari tells me that over the course of a month, she throws at least a wedding a week in both cities."

In a phone interview, Pari says, "My sister runs our office in Tabriz and I oversee it. But here in Tehran is where we are the busiest. We provide everything for wedding ceremonies: the venue, catering, music, photographers, cameramen for videotaping the celebration, flower arrangements, and solarium (tanning salon) sessions for the bride. The price is not fixed and is quoted based on what is desired by the bride and groom. Some people obsess more and micro-manage more, so they would rather handle parts of the preparations themselves. Others are easier to work with. Brides are generally hard to please anyway. Over the month before and the month after Ramadan, I have at least two weddings a week to throw."

Traditionally, the groom's parents pay for the wedding in Iran. If the groom is well-established and can afford the wedding dues, however, he usually takes over. Wedding parties are categorized in two kinds in Iran: "separated" and "mixed", the latter being forbidden and therefore thrown covertly, made possible through bribery to the security forces.

Wealthier families--many of whom are bazaaris (merchants and store-owners)--tend to throw their wedding celebrations at official wedding venues or elegant hotels, and since a large group of this class is traditional and religious, they wouldn't wish to throw a "mixed" wedding party anyway. Commercial wedding venues are under the umbrella of the administration and it is illegal for men and women to be present in the same part of the premises unless women are covered. Such venues are separated into two sections: one for men, and the other for women and children. In the women's section, guests are not obligated to be covered, and they are allowed to sing and dance. That is how wedding parties are defined in Iran: "separated" versus "mixed".
Those who prefer to have a "mixed" wedding throw their party at a residence or premises secretly functioning as "mixed" wedding venues.

Mahshid, a 29-year-old software progammer who is getting married on June 21st, is celebrating her marriage at her aunt's house. In a telephone interview, she tells me, "I'd rather not have a wedding party at all than have a separated one. My fiancé's parents are retired and don't have much money, so he is paying for the wedding himself, and I'm helping him a bit. Since my aunt offered her house and garden for the occasion as her wedding gift to us, we decided to accept and throw the party there."

Some middle-class folks and most wealthier people entertain their guests with live bands. Nima is the manager of a band that is based in the greater Tehran metropolitan area and specializes in playing at wedding parties. When I interview him about the details of his profession--which is a totally covert one through which he earns a large income--he says, "I provide my music services based upon the budget of the host. The more you pay, the more you get."

About his band members and instruments, Nima says," I have multiple instruments, and the players are assigned to jobs on a case-by-case basis. I have two male singers and a female singer. There are monitors, artificial smoke, and disco lights also. We tailor our services to people's needs and preferences. For instance, requesting a female vocalist adds a large amount to the fee: much more so than an extra male singer, because of the higher amount of bribe that needs to be paid to secure the female vocalist."

Pegah, 32, is one of the two female singers in another band based in Karaj, in suburban Tehran. In our phone interview, she talks about the anxiety she undergoes whenever she performs at a party, "If the "morality police" or the police force raid the venue, I'd be more busted than anyone else. Other women would be in trouble for not covering themselves and perhaps for dancing. But I sing and that takes the issue to an entire differently level of illegal. It's a serious offence, but the pay is really good."

Generally, hefty bribes are given to the neighborhood police station, paid in advance to secure the celebration and prevent a potential raid, unless there is a complaint filed against the hosts or the venue owner. So in most cases, there is no real guarantee despite the bribe.

Alcohol consumption is quite common in "mixed" wedding parties, but is rarely served openly, and generally smuggled in flasks by the guests themselves. Exceptionally over-the-top celebrations, however, might include formally served alcoholic beverages (usually liquor).

I got in touch with Nahid, a 27-year-old newly-wed receptionist who tied the knot in a collective administration-sponsored celebration. I had asked her for pictures, and she'd told me she still hasn't received the wedding photos she was promised. When I called again when writing this story, she said, "I followed up with them several times. I finally gave up after I went to my friend's wedding party. Her party was the kind you'd want to save memories of. But, my husband and I are still grateful for the help we got from the government. We were able to get married and the loan was a good jump-start for our married life. I wouldn't mind not having pictures, though. I look prettier on a regular work day than I did on my wedding day, anyway."