Private Lives and Public Domains in Contemporary Iran1


Back home after a decade-long stay in America on a short visit in 1973 to find an Iranian wife, my uncle wondered aloud why so many pedestrians here enjoyed rambling along the street (not only on the pavement, but in the motorists’ route as well), watching the people in passing cars. I had to remind him that it had been a youngsters’ pastime when he grew up here. Nothing new.

Eying the people around may be regarded as an impropriety in some cultures. The outlandish habit of staring at total strangers sometimes irritates foreign visitors to countries where people do not see anything wrong with unsolicited eye contact. To the natives, being looked at may be a sign of due attention, recognition and even respect. Many prefer a probing gaze to being politely ignored.

Looking straight into each other’s face as a daily behaviour is far from an invasion of privacy in Iran. Things, however, are changing. Once shooting a film on location in the streets of Iran was almost impossible –– a crowd of curious onlookers would make a mockery of the supposed realism of the scene. Nowadays, rarely does anyone slow down on the streets of Tehran to peep into digital movie cameras shooting soap operas for domestic television channels (coming across a top celebrity, of course, would be a different story, even in San Francisco). Rather than bother to watch the boring chores of filming crews, one could watch the equally boring end result on TV screen.

Old photos dating back to Europe’s belle epoch depict the gentry, dressed elegantly and even ceremonially, sauntering along the boulevards of Berlin, London and Paris. Years ago, we were horrified to read that Los Angeles had no place for walking along its endless highways. As youngsters beginning to develop a picture of the world, we took it for granted that strolling down a park avenue, where people could solemnly scrutinize who is wearing what and which girl’s contours are flourishing, was an indispensable part of civilized, modern life.

Only one generation later, the middle class citizens of Tehran are accustomed to driving their cars to parties, preferably through highways that have no place for strollers but are invariably congested with impatient, often careless, motorists. These parties are irrigated by bootleggers who provide not only home-made arak distilled from raisins, but also deliver to the buyers’ homes smuggled bottles of spirit. Though Swedish bottles of vodka, French wine and more expensive brands of whisky look and taste genuine, the labels of some bottles overemphasize their being produced in Scotland (price: US$ 15-20 a bottle). From among boozers, even those who have bought or seen bottles of Scotch when abroad, very few seem to doubt the genuineness of the brands very likely bottled in Turkey, Jordan or other nearby places. People tend to assume stoically that, 1) when something is boldly declared in English, there must be sort of truth to it; 2) having a good time is more a matter of inner joy and good company than the quality of the consumed liquid, whether or not it meets the EU’s mandatory standards.

Soon after the 1979 Islamic revolution of Iran, there was an ironic joke in currency that once people used to pray at home and wetted their whistles outside of it, while they now drink behind closed doors, but say their prayers in public places. The late Ahmad Shamlu, renowned Iranian poet, sadly wrote in 1979: ‘‘Love, light, gusto and God should be kept hidden in the closet,’’ so to save them from impounding by morality police.

One can never be sure to what extent alcohol has been part of Persian life through ages. The majority of common folk see sobriety as a requisite to warding off temptations to wrongdoing. Even under the former regime, when beer was available round the corner, taverns were ordered to remain firmly closed on public holidays, lest intoxication turn repressed whims into outbursts of aggression. To devout Moslem believers, alcohol is a sinful filth one should strictly avoid.

Nonetheless, some Western observers who have stayed in Persia long enough note the impulsive craving of the people for alcoholic drinks. Friedrich Rosen, Germany’s chargé d’affaires in Tehran in 1890s, wrote:

On the whole, the Persians were a most sober nation. Most of them lived and died without ever tasting wine. Persia is in every respect a ‘dry’ country. But when a Persian drinks, he generally does so with the idea of getting totally intoxicated. The sin, he argues, is anyhow committed, therefore it is advisable to make the best of it. . . .  Most of the Persian poets extol wine and praise the pleasure of revelry, but all these songs also admit of a mystical interpretation which makes them appear harmless.2

The impression of booze-avidity, as Rosen notes, could have been partly inspired by the unqualified admiration for wine interspersed in Persian poetry. Persian poets, even when known as teetotallers, tend to idolize inebriety as an existential experience through which man attains emancipation from the degrading dullness of routine life. The transcendence is an all-male club to which women are not admitted. Although there are instances in classical Persian literature of precocious female emancipation in which women express carnal love for a man, never ever are they depicted as transgressing into the off-limit domain of drinking, despite the literary simile that grape is the celebrated daughter of the vine.

The shift of cultural patters and the inversion of inside-outside activities seem to have affected this exclusivity too. The confinement, under the Islamic regime, of religiously prohibited activities to the private domain has brought with it, though in a thin, Westernised social strata, some gender equality in the consumption of alcoholic beverages, a ‘privilege’ many women would shun merely out of concern for the unpredictable consequences of drunkenness, rather than any religious inhibitions. By contrast, smoking seems to be on the decline. In line with the changing world attitude, gone are the smoke-filled rooms and the Feminist days of the 1960s and ‘70s when lighting up a cigarette was taken as sign of intellectual emancipation.

One other case of change in gender attitude is notable in modern Persian literature. In the 1960s and ‘70s, harsher literary critics denigrated the romanticist poets and novelists of the time as providers of sentimental sob stuff to schoolgirls. Nowadays, thanks to millions of educated young women and their purchasing power, using such a label would amount to an irredeemable self-inflicted blow to one’s cultural credibility.


Novels and collections of poems authored by women often lead the bestseller lists and win top prizes, and women editing journals or running publishing houses are remarkably active, though with their numbers still is small in proportion to men in these professions.

As the share of girls passing the university entrance examinations has passed the 60th percentile mark, some observers have begun to wonder aloud as to the marriage prospect of millions of women with university education who may find the corresponding number of men far from sufficient. The concern led even to a suggestion on the part of some higher education authorities to enact sort of reverse affirmative action so as to equalize the number of boys and girls admitted to universities. Warned that it would be undue, discriminatory intervention in a natural process, the idea was soon abandoned.

Another major achievement for women was won not by the educated middle class, but thanks to aggressive grass-root pressure. Widows of militiamen killed in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq found not only their allowances going to the deceased man’s parents, but the latter’s having the right to take away the children from their mothers, since Islamic law invariably grants the right of custody to the man and his next of kin. After intensive lobbying, women Majlis deputies and the surviving mothers managed to convince the judiciary that an automatic right of custody was neither fair nor practicable. Now in all divorce suits, it is up to the court to decide which parent is more eligible for the custody right.

As the physical body of cities is changing together with the disappearance of extended families under paternalistic hierarchies, the box-like, jerry-built apartments have hardly space for more than a nuclear family. Also gone are the patriarchs who could support several youngsters at subsistence level until they made it on their own. Hence, there is an overflow of townsfolk into big cities where the young are left to themselves in a daily struggle for survival.

At the other end of the spectrum, Tehran’s better off boys and girls take to the streets where they are seen and see others in motorized promenades. Readers often complain in the press that the traffic congestion caused by young motorists who keep driving up and down Africa (formerly, Jordan) Street, in a posh quarter of Tehran, makes life difficult for local residents and businesses. Some observers believe young people in expensive cars abuse the street as a sort of communal catwalk for finding dates.


Attempts by police and vice squads to stop what religious conservatives label as immoral conduct in public have failed due to the social repercussions of arresting a large number of young people merely for cultural reasons. Years ago, one of the vice squads, under the pompous title of ‘‘Propagation of Virtues and Prohibition of Vices,’’ used to storm parties and arrest drinkers and dancers. The detainees would be released the next day if they paid huge fines for which no receipts were given. The squad was disbanded in late 1990s.

The adventure-seeking well off youth is not to blame for the entire traffic problem afflicting the Iranian capital. Unlike Paris that is composed of circles, or London with its semi-tartan pattern of neighbourhoods, Tehran has been sprawling in the vacant spaces between small suburban villages, agricultural lands, gardens and orchards in a haphazard manner. Two centuries after its being chosen as the capital, new highways may end up in the bottleneck of tightly packed old quarters that have to be bulldozed for the sake of the road. As more and more cars roll daily off the country’s assembly plants (Iran now produces more than a dozen European and East Asian brands), levelling the old quarters has proved hardly effective in easing the traffic congestion. Narrow access roads built for middle class neighbourhoods only a generation ago have turned into main thoroughfares connecting major sections of the city. Urban planners warn of the ruinous consequences of compulsive demolition. As an example, when built in 1960s, Jordan was supposed to be a side street leading to a geographically limited neighbourhood. Now it is a conduit to far away destinations. Widening the streets as buildings are renovated, experts warn, leaves the city with disposable constructions in which architectural sophistication has no chances of flourishing.

Aesthetics is another problem. A big city cannot be beautiful if developed by unsophisticated immigrants from smaller communities who only aggrandize their own familiar small-scale architecture into huge concrete buildings. Traditional ways of urban land ownership in Iranian cities aggravate the problem of aesthetical naivety. Many builders tend to care only for the street façade, presumably regarding the three other sides as the problem of adjacent plots’ owners. They are, in effect, bringing the culture of small-town architecture into a far bigger milieu. No wonder the mountains wrapping Tehran to the north, capped with snow usually up to late June, increasingly seem to remain the city’s only site of genuine, natural beauty.




The doubling of population in the past two decades has created a severe bottleneck in Iran’s human development processes as well. The combination of growing conspicuous consumption in the well off quarters of the sprawling city and insufficient employment opportunities for a great number of young people has brought about a condition in which having fun, discovering the world and earning a livelihood overlap. An authoritarian regime asserts its right to enforce the divine rules also in the moral domain, while the growing younger population increasingly challenges the right of the state to impose the morality of a certain subculture onto all other strata and classes.

Unlike many other societies in which an upper-middle-class establishment sets a paradigm for the population at large, the Islamic regime of Iran has never succeeded in a similar task. German or French establishments, for examples, leave no doubt as to the overall picture and definition of the mainstream culture. Mandarins of China, who have been ruling the country for centuries, may claim to have been the standard-bearer of everything ––– be it Communism or economic liberalization. In contrast, with the historical background of being an opposition subculture via-a-vis secularism, Iran’s Islamic establishment has survived as one competing tendency among many, pushing to win ground against the rival subcultures, rather than being the indisputably established culture. Thus, a subculture has the pretensions of having the final say in all matters, while being incessantly challenged in various domains where it has little chance of winning, least of all in the question of sexual permissiveness.

Shiite Islam advises temporary marriage, an utterly personal contract that needs no registration whatsoever. The disposable wife is not entitled to inheritance from the transient husband. Nor are the children, if any, from their putative father. Giving birth certificates to unwanted children of traditional temporary marriages is a headache for the authorities, therefore thousands of children denied identity cards due to putative fathers’ decline to declare their parenthood are reportedly in limbo in Mashad, a city known as the venue of such extramarital relations of traditional men who travel there to spend some time away from their families.



Although almost all denominations of Sunni Islam have always opposed the practice, some clerics inside the Islamic establishment of Iran have begun to try to modernize it by incorporating the Western-style premarital relations. When and if, the proponents of the practice argue, a boy and a girl maintain relations without certification, it could be an example of temporary marriage, provided they profess to be acting according to religious canon. That is, as a Persian saying goes, just doubly folding the cloth when it is already too short for the purpose –– i.e., an attempt to solve a problem by compounding it. A battle in the field of nominalism.

Whether or not orthodox Islam could possibly sanction temporary marriage is a canonical argument falling outside the domain of this essay. In a cultural context, however, the obstacle to the reconciliation of texturally incongruent world outlooks is that premarital sex is part of the life style of a Westernised subculture that refuses to return to what it regards as pre-modern.

The traditional religious subculture bluntly attacks the Westernised subculture as promoter of prostitution albeit in disguise. The latter barely hides its contempt about temporary marriage, regarding it as nothing but thinly veiled prostitution. The debate is really a clash of subcultures revolving around formal approaches, rather than a critique of what people really do. One could expect that, despite setbacks, modernity will finally prevail, though with undesirable consequences.

On a related topic, the clergy defend polygamy as a solution to otherwise insolvable family situations, while examples of the practice are tried to be kept out of public domain. Officials in charge of the press seriously warn the country’s tabloids to avoid stepping into the realm of family life. As in almost all other societies, few stories here can attract as many readers as the mouth-watering combination of celebrity, glamour, money and sex.

Giving publicity to salacious stories of contemporaries’ extramarital relations or polygamy often raise suspicions of political exploitation. Last year when a woman filed a lawsuit that her husband, a former minister of culture, had defaulted in paying her what he had undertaken when registering the marriage, it made front-page headlines in Tehran. She produced photos and documents to the effect that she was the third wife of the former minister, and the second of the two still in his wedlock. Although according to Islamic law a man can be married to up to four women at a time, the controversy was widely regarded as a political plot to discredit the former minister. Nevertheless, against the backdrop of general disdain for a rising new class of philistines hurrying to enjoy themselves as intensively as possible, he was politically destroyed.



From the viewpoint of the Holy Order, as the Islamic state calls itself, any issue involving women smacks of dissent. In 2003, the publication of a book on women singers of Iran before the 1979 Islamic revolution so much enraged the clergy-dominated judiciary that the prosecutor not only charged the author and the woman who had reviewed the book in a national daily, but indicted the censors who had licensed its publication as a volume on cultural history. The official view holds that no such thing as women singers has ever existed. They were just a bunch of prostitutes who entertained their clients.

The indictment was the end of a short era. As part of the late 1990s liberalization policy, publishers had been authorized to send books straight to printers at their own responsibility. Now things are back to the days when the censors would read the submitted typescripts and scribble orders for omissions or modifications on pieces of paper with no official insignia or signature.

With or without books on female musicians, the question as to whether women could be allowed to sing for men remains far from clear. In Tehran, women play musical instruments in ensembles, including the Philharmonic Orchestra, sing in choirs, and also sing solo for rare occasions of all-female audiences. But influential conservatives vehemently oppose women singers’ solo performance for mixed audiences. The flexible limit is, however, subject to minor changes. Last winter, Armenian female musicians and singers from the conservatory of Yerevan performed for mixed audiences at the community’s arts centre in downtown Tehran, but men, even Armenians, were not admitted to the performance of Armenian female dancers. Although the centre enjoys a degree of cultural autonomy, Islam has the final say in matters of public chastity.

Women’s music has so far remained limited to Tehran, where it is commonplace to see young girls carry their musical instruments on the way to and from art schools. They cannot expect to have the chance any time soon to perform onstage in the provinces where even music schools sponsored by the Ministry of Culture have trouble with local mullahs who incite believers against spending the public money on what they regard as depraved activities. Compared to the provinces, the capital is the outpost of Western-global culture.

State television channels do air classical Persian and Western music, but never show musicians performing. Nor do they broadcast jazz or Western pop music, though some Iranian pop music makes it to the airwaves. Generally, music lies in the twilight of permissible, when serious and solemn, and impermissible, when suspected to induce sensuousness. The benign genre is aired out of the expediency that most people refuse to tune to a station with no music at all. The late Ayatollah Khomeini’s guideline in that regard was pragmatic and simple: When a piece of music is hard to define as to being sensuous or not (seda-ye mashkuk, i.e., dubious sound), give it the benefit of the doubt. Among others, the works of Mozart and Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons concertos, illegally copied cassettes of which appeared in shops soon after the revolution, successfully passed the test of being free from undesirable effects on the believers. ‘‘Illegal’’ refers to copyright; the work has obtained the cultural censors’ official approval.

Middlebrow listeners naturally opt for more familiar tunes and melodies. Iranian pop music still has the upper hand in the local disc market. Although no female voice receives reproduction permit, cassettes and CDs of women singers abound under the counter. Taxis, intercity buses and other public vehicles are not allowed to play unapproved music when on duty, but on the streets of Tehran voices of women singers could be heard from the open windows of passing cars ––– often thunderously blaring from powerful loudspeakers. The CD player is a favourite feature of the younger motorists’ cars. Horns, lights, bumpers and exhaust pipes are also tampered with to serve as stags’ mooing for gaining more attention from other youth.

The expatriate Iranians’ television channels have seized upon the vacuum caused by the ban on female voice in the state-controlled electronic media. Mostly operating from around Los Angeles, they air clips or entire videos of women singing. Music critics doubt that if the far better female musicians and singers back home were allowed to compete, the overseas productions, with lyrics and melodies far from imaginative, could have a remarkable market share. In fact, the music exported from Tehran seems to enjoy a far higher artistic niche in European and American cities where sizable Iranian communities reside. Iranian bands regularly go on well-received, lucrative tours abroad. Copies of these performances, including those of women singers, are later reproduced, illegally, in Iran.



The clash of subcultures is nowhere more obvious than in places mostly frequented by wealthy young people. Food Court, a thoroughly modern and highly expensive upper floor venue of the trendy and chic citizens in a smart quarter of north Tehran, posts warnings on the walls to the effect that photography in the rather vast premises is strictly forbidden. And there are enough athletic bouncers around to keep any intruder Hizbollahi paparazzi from trying to shoot what the place’s patrons see only as a leisurely way of life.

The ban on what is religiously regarded as feminine sensuousness may have unexpected, even ludicrous, results. Advertisements for hair shampoos run into the obstacle that showing female hair is not allowed. Therefore, in commercial clips aired on television, sponsors have to show men with fair hair supposedly displaying the softening effects of the product. In a society men are expected to sport masculine traits, the coquettish gestures of the male model can cause viewers’ ridicule.

Again, expatriates’ satellite television channels step in to fill the vacuum, though often with limited success, lacking as they do young staff in touch with Iran’s contemporary culture. The satellite channels’ airtime is filled with a middle-aged Iranian man or woman responding to phone calls from audiences back home. People pay telephone bills for international calls only to say hello to the anchorperson sitting before a camera somewhere in California, exchange repetitive greetings, tell him or her how much they like them, wish him or her good health and success, say good-bye and hang up.



Ambitions of Iran’s educated younger generation, however, do not stop at making phone calls to television channels abroad. Monitors of international communications put the number of Iranian Internet users at six million, and sharply increasing. Iranian webloggers, attracting millions of surfers at home and abroad, are among the forerunners of the cyber wave worldwide. Persians weblogs are said to be the fourth, after English, French and Portuguese.

Iran’s 1979 revolution successfully exploited the advent of cassette tape recorders and home-to-home international telephone calls as a means to subvert the establishment. Iranian youth’s dramatic mastery of cyber dialogue is spearheading the drive for deep social reforms in a society where subcultures bitterly clash over aesthetical, artistic and moral issues. If private is political, as young aspirants in Germany and France once believed, weblogging could turn out to be a highly effective hobby-cum-campaign tool.

The country’s younger generation can see no reason to hide its unrest over what it perceives to deserve –– a higher rate of human development. Their parents, when university students in the 1960s and ‘70s, shared the hippy ecstasy of the historic explosion of the youth power in Germany, France and US. Now the succeeding generation feels it is endowed with the power to repeat a similar experience not by proxy, but directly and personally.

Yet, so far, very few seem eager to contribute to a repetition of the 1979 experience. Again, much like the German youth in the 1950s, they kept asking their formerly pro-revolution parents as to why things changed from bad to worse. As this essay goes to print and while the spectre of what the Iranian educated middle classes regard as cultural Neanderthalism is looming, one cannot be sure of what the future may have in the offing.

What French students accomplished in 1968 and the achievements of German youths’ alternative Green Culture through gaining a reasonable share of power, in the past eight years fascinated many of their Iranian counterparts who felt things had better improve gradually so as to be revisable, rather than provoke violent changes beyond everyone’s control, helping only a few self-serving winners. They keep their fingers crossed that the country’s establishment will act as wisely as its German counterpart did by incorporating an otherwise hostile youth power.

Never ever has Iran possessed so many educated youth as it does now. Outgrowing scholastic questions such as whether God has ordained any particular patterns for mortals’ behaviour or dress, and equipped with more technical knowledge and a better understanding of the world than their predecessors did, Iran’s young men and women may fulfil the dreams of prosperity and steady growth long cherished by the nation.


 1 A German translation of this essay has appeared in StadtBauwelt, Stuttgart, 23 September 2005.

 2 Friedrich Rosen, Oriental Memories of a German Diplomatist (Methuen, London, 1930), p. 139.  

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