Iran’s fading traditions
Social changes have caught up with conservative Iran. The younger generation is moving away from colourful wedding traditions – and public proof of the bride’s virginity, writes ALI AKBAR DAREINI.
IT’S A TIME honoured tradition on wedding days in Iran’s countryside. Radiant in her white wedding dress, the bride arrives at her new home on a richly decorated horse. The groom welcomes her by taking a pomegranate – long a symbol to Iranians of a healthy and happy life – and smashing it against the wall before she steps through the doorway.
Then, at a joyous party, comes the day’s fateful moment in male-dominated Iran. The couple retires to the bedroom, with women relatives waiting outside until a bloodied handkerchief – proof of the bride’s virginity – is passed through the door.
Shouts and whistles erupt at the party, and everyone joins folk dances that continue late into the night. Some men and women dance opposite each other – a challenge to Islamic strictures against public mixing of the sexes – but the couples never touch and the women are veiled. Young men gawk at the dancing girls, hoping to spot future brides.
Urban brides are more likely to take limousines to the wedding party, followed by a parade of cars full of friends and relatives. Any dancing is private, away from prying eyes.
And rarely do families ask for public proof of virginity. It’s considered a private matter, though almost all grooms insist their brides have no sexual experience before the wedding night.
Even talk of sex is taboo in Iran, where strict Islamic rules allow little socialising between the sexes. Young Iranians have been jailed and flogged just for dancing together at birthday parties.
Not only wedding traditions are changing. With more people acquiring illegal satellite TV dishes – bringing them glimpses of life elsewhere – social changes have sped up.
Birth control is available under Iran’s programme to cut a burgeoning birth rate, and more women are breaking the rules against premarital sex. Some have simple surgery to rebuild their hymens before marriage.
“A cultural genocide is taking place in Iran. Wedding ceremonies have changed because it has lost its previous significance,” says Mahdis Kamkar, a psychiatrist in Tehran who criticises the liberalisation.
Kamkar says Iran’s younger generation no longer views marriage as a sacred contract. “Lack of trust and commitment to married life are among the reasons for traditional values disappearing,” she says.
A Tehran physician who specialises in the hymen operation says she performs the surgery three or four times a week. She agreed to discuss the procedure only if granted anonymity because it is illegal in Iran.
Some women who have had the operation say they lost their virginity because of incest or rape, but many concede they simply had sex with boyfriends.
“I couldn’t wait for years having no sex until I get a husband. You never know when you die. I didn’t want to die before experiencing sex,” says Nazanin, 17, who declined to reveal her family name.
Kamkar, the psychiatrist, calls such attitudes a “behavioral disease” that Iranians are catching from Western culture. “Unfortunately, it’s spreading like flu. The young generation breaks cultural taboos partly as a sign of modernism,” she says.
Sociologist Shahla Ezazi, however, says only a small number of Iranian women have sex before marriage and adds that almost all men insist on their brides being virgins. “In Iran’s religious society, men like to have sex before marriage but never want their wife to have experienced the same,” Ezazi says.
More than half of Iran’s estimated 67 million people are younger than 30. By government estimate, more than 1 million women of marriageable age will remain without husbands in the next five years.
“Some girls ignore the taboo and have sex because they have no hope to get a husband,” Ezazi says. – AP