When I was twenty-two, having never visited any other country except Dubai for a couple of weeks, I left Iran for good. My only understanding of life outside was what I had seen on TV and in movies. Eight years later, having lived in Arizona and Washington DC, now I can look back on the society that formed me. I can reflect on what was normal where I grew up, and what was not. By the time I left, I believed Iran’s national history and culture to be rich and beautiful, and I had already intuited that they were under siege by the regime in power.
But it was in the U.S. that I discovered something deeper about Iran. The dimension of human life most distorted there by the fundamentalist regime is not politics or economics, but Iranian social life. In particular, the effects of government repression are manifest in the most intimate domain of social life, where widely accepted, informal codes of behavior structure the sexual life of the young. Indeed, contrary to what the average American or Iranian might think, the social and sexual ills that affect Western democracies like America are, in truth, even more prevalent and much more harmful in Iran. But unlike the democracies of the West, where sexual license is perhaps an unintended consequence of social freedom, it serves there to help strengthen the regime’s totalitarian rule. Let me explain how.
Totalitarian governments are so designated because they take over the totality of the nation. They nationalize industry and centralize power. They dictate political and economic norms. They regulate the flow of information and govern public behavior. All that’s left is what takes place in the confines of one’s home, in private areas, or in hiding. And even that does not remain free of the regime’s influence, for what agents of totalitarian rule cannot change directly they corrupt indirectly. And indeed, such is life in Iran. The regime may not intentionally engineer Iranian society at the micro level of arranging the sexual encounters of individual citizens, but it nonetheless benefits from the sexual atmosphere that pervades the society of the Iranian young.
To see how and why this is so, start from the fact that, from birth, Iranian boys and girls are separated from one another and raised without much social interaction with members of the other sex. From that rigorously enforced separation, a taboo grows around sexual matters. The other sex is enveloped in mystery, an inscrutable other to be discovered, conquered as a prize, but not loved. This leads to horrible acts. According to estimates, around ten percent of women in Iran have experienced incest at a young age, whether forcibly or consensually. Children, especially boys as they grow, are given to sexualizing their mothers, cousins, sisters, and aunts. I’ve heard many stories of how my friends would look at their relatives sexually, some even going so far as to molest members of their own family. (An acquaintance of mine told me about how he used molest his aunts at the pool.) Some clerics have declared that women should dress modestly around their sons so as not to arouse them.
Once they come of age, it is not uncommon for children hailing from a religious family to rush to marriage. Those marriages are often founded upon sexual longing instead of deeper commitments or the expectation of an enduring relationship. Marriages like this are not sacred unions but experiments in pleasure. They are ways to discover the other sex and one’s own sexuality.
The situation is no better inside the so-called radical camp. The very intensity of the unrealistic rules supposedly governing sexual behavior has had the opposite effect of encouraging children to rebel against sexual norms altogether. When I was seventeen, I left my parents’ house for college in Tehran. Coming from Gorgan, a mid-size town in the north, to the metropolitan capital was, I now realize, a culture shock greater even than my move from Iran to the United States. Free from my parents’ supervision, I was free to explore. And explore I did. What I discovered was enticing and exciting. Young men and women would freely talk about their “boyfriends” and “girlfriends,” in the plural, and sex parties were common enough that I knew several people in my social circle who went to them along with their partners and spouses. I’ve heard of such behavior in the United States, but in polite company it is seen as vulgar, and I don’t personally know groups of people who, together, indulge in that kind of sexual abandon. It was not until I moved to the U.S. that I realized that the plural versions of “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” were terms rarely encountered in regular society.
The parents of my generation, those who grew up in a different Iran, a more normal one, tried to tell us. They knew the difference, and berated us for our crudity. But we, subject to our unrepressed lust, didn’t listen. All we could see in the other sex was sex, soulmates reduced to sexmates. My experience is not unique. In 2008 one in eight marriages ended in divorce; ten years later, that number had risen to one in three. Many Iranian children are left, as a consequence, to grow up in broken homes before entering into a broken society.
The breakdown of the Iranian family is not just because love has diminished in Iranian society. It is also because many Iranians see little meaning in getting married, as they see little meaning in the consequences of their lives. This is the opposite of what most Americans probably think about Iran. Iran, the thought goes, is a religious society, and marriage and reproduction happen more in religious societies.
But that does not describe the reality of life there in the least. Iran is one of the most atheistic societies I’ve ever encountered. Remember that religious life in Iran is governed by the regime. And as a consequence, Islam is seen in the eyes of the Iranian middle class and increasingly the working class too as a superstition and a tool for the state to win the people’s submission. Many see the faithful as fools and sheep (and condescend to them as such). The argument can be stated like this: religion comes from the state, and the state is evil, therefore religion is evil. Atheism, on the other hand, has come to be seen as a sign of intellect and open-mindedness. Thus today in Iran mosques have never been emptier, and religion has never been more stigmatized. But secular Iranian society has not developed an alternative ethic that gives life the meaning that religion does; life for many Iranians has never been more purposeless.
It wasn’t always like this. Before the revolution, Iran was an autocracy, but it was not a totalitarian society. Despite its troubles, it remained a relatively normal-for-the-time society in which people had control over their own lives outside of politics. People were happier because they had more freedom: the state did not make decisions about their personal fulfillment. This condition of disestablishment was actually much better for religion, despite what the fanatics in charge of the country now proclaim. Mosques were fuller, religious practice was more prevalent, families were stronger and closer together, and national traditions were more widely observed because they hadn’t been co-opted.
All this adds up, counterintuitively, to a degree of individualism in Iran now that towers above the much-decried individualism of liberal and capitalist societies. Rarely do Iranians come together as groups. They love to talk about the country’s millennia of rich history and culture, but Iranians don’t know very much about their own cultural traditions or know how to perpetuate them. Customs and ceremonies are still observed, sure, but fewer and fewer people understand or care very much about their purpose.
For instance, the Chaharshanbe Suri (Festive or Fire Wednesday) festival that takes places every year ahead of Nowruz (the Persian New Year) has turned into little more than a giant party with fire. The symbolism—the fire represents purity, and jumping over it is an acknowledgement of our impure lives over the past year and the clean slate we get for the coming year—goes little appreciated. Likewise, the annual Yalda—winter solstice—night. In the past, friends and families would spend this longest and darkest night of the year together reciting the poems of Hafiz—the greatest poet to have ever lived—and eat fruits they had preserved six months before so as to have a taste of summer amidst the cold. Now Yalda, too, is fading more and more, and fewer Iranians celebrate it every year.
Money of course plays into all this. The domestic economy of Iran is a wreck, and the growing poverty is an obstacle to sponsoring and enjoying these ancient ceremonies and customs. (Partying, after all, requires money.) But notice how poverty and the erosion of cultural memory are connected: like the sexual encounter with a person whose only significance is as an instrument for personal pleasure, poverty and cultural amnesia all work in concert to force Iranians to think of themselves, alone, as individuals. Family, cultural institutions, what sociologists in the West call “mediating institutions” are all out of sight and out of mind. The absence of layered loyalties built on strong families benefits a totalitarian state. It stands to reason that Iran should welcome the disintegration of national identity and customs rooted in Persian tradition because they could be potent sources of domestic resistance.
A people without identity and without purpose is not a nation. It is a collection of individuals who share land. Occasionally, however, there are upheavals that threaten to change everything. There was one such moment in my lifetime: the 2009 Green Movement.
In June of that year, the quadrennial presidential election had been held. Before the election, state authorities had narrowed the field of competitors to four vetted candidates. After four years, the Iranian people had grown dissatisfied with the incumbent, the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There was genuine, overwhelming popular support for the challenger, the reformist Mir Hossein Moussavi. Yet even before the polls closed state media announced Ahmadinejad as the winner. You won’t get away with it this time, we thought, and, somehow, within a few days, millions of Iranians were marching on the streets asking for real democracy.
For the first time, I was witnessing a happy people, a society that had somehow pierced the narrow horizons of solitary self-regard, and had raised their sights to the common good. The degree of selflessness I saw overcame even my wildest expectations. “Don’t be scared, all of us are in it together,” we chanted. One anecdote, which will seem like nothing to Westerners, speaks volumes to me. One of the marchers wanted to record the event, but he was short, and the flow of the march was making the whole thing difficult. A stranger rushed to him to offer help: “Just go and stand on the rooftop of my car!” he said. Why is this strange? In Iran, cars are expensive luxuries. Iranians who own cars are protective of them and Iranians who don’t are jealous of those who do. But for a moment, this fundamental social divide did not matter.
Some on the outside appreciated what was going on and some didn’t. We made English signs so that Westerners could read them and be moved to help. Senator John McCain sponsored a resolution in the U.S. Senate to support us. Other foreign governments at least paid some lip service to our protests. President Obama, with whom we pleaded for help, did not publicly support us. As we later learned, he didn’t want to offend the regime and thereby jeopardize the potential of a nuclear agreement.
Within a few months, if not weeks, of that hopeful moment, it was clear to most of us that the Green Movement was over. We had lost and they had won; the election was not going to be recounted or recalled. Looking back, I now see that we took to the streets, risked our lives, and spent our time and energy for a cause we knew even then was dead. So why did we do it? Part of it was the adrenaline of freedom, sure; but part of it was that was the promise of purpose—something dignified, finally, to fight for.
So, outside of electoral reform in the political arena, what’s left to live for? That’s where my reflections return to the social realm. The older generation still has their children. But because of the sexual life I described before, few among the younger generation have even that. The family structure has broken. Iranians don’t have as many children as they once did, and those children are not raised in homes with both mother and father. More Iranians than you imagine live for themselves alone, which means they live for nothing.
Defeated, with no future to live for, with no inner sources of resistance intact, Iranians of my generation are understandably settling into the path of least resistance. They excuse their consciences. The state has succeeded—for the time being—in corrupting the souls of this generation.
For many Western tourists I’ve spoken to, the life of a young Iranian looks enticing, even great: they party and sleep around. But it is not great. It is a cry for help. It is the sign of a society that has become unmoored from its own traditions and now, by teaching the young to serve themselves, it makes them serve the state.
For if and when the young no longer see in one another a person bearing purpose and integrity; when they cannot see that in the promise of marriage one person can complete the other; when an Iranian sees in the body of every contemporary nothing but a toy to be exploited for personal satisfaction, then the regime, even if it does not actively devise this sexual conduct, will nevertheless benefit from it. Individuals are easier to subject when they are habituated to think only of private goods, and of their neighbors through the vantage of private interest.
Or will it? The totalitarian regime of Iran is built on a contradiction. The regime represses Iranians, but the human condition will not forever be so debased. My generation may, for the moment, be defeated. But who knows what could again kindle our frustration and suppressed energy and cause us to recover our larger, aspirational purpose, and steel us to oppose the state that has so immiserated us. I suspect, when the Iranian people eventually rouse themselves, they will spare none of their former oppressors. And that is why it is all the more important that, like all great ambitions, the capacity to bring about reform in the largest fields of human endeavor is ultimately rooted in the more personal capacities of self-government, capacities dissipated day in and day out by sexual anarchy.