Morality & marriage

"Sexual Politics in Modern Iran"


Morality & marriage
by Janet Afary

Sexual Politics in Modern Iran
Cambridge University (2009)

Janet Afary is a native of Iran and a leading historian. Her work focuses on gender and sexuality and draws on her experience of growing up in Iran and her involvement with Iranian women of different ages and social strata. These observations, and a wealth of historical documents, form the kernel of this book, which charts the history of the nation's sexual revolution from the nineteenth century to today. What comes across is the extraordinary resilience of the Iranian people, who have drawn on a rich social and cultural heritage to defy the repression and hardship of the Islamist state and its predecessors. It is this resilience, the author concludes, which forms the basis of a sexual revolution taking place in Iran today, one that is promoting reforms in marriage and family laws, and demanding more egalitarian gender and sexual relations.


Chapter 9: The Islamic Revolution, Its Sexual Economy, and the Left

The 1979 Islamic revolution was not a wholesale return to the past; rather, the new state reinvented and expanded certain retrogressive cultural practices and presented them as what Foucault has called a “regime of truth” through modern technologies of power. As part of its commitment to modernity, the Islamist state continued the literacy and health campaigns of the Pahlavi era. It also created, alongside the army and the police force, a parallel series of paramilitary forces.

As soon as the regime attained some degree of authority, it established a new juridical discourse on sexuality, whose underlying theme was granting more power over women’s sexuality and reproductive functions to the state and to men, while also reversing modern trends in love and marriage. The state encouraged polygamy (multiple ‘aqdi wives) and temporary marriage, as well as the return of repudiation. While these measures weakened conjugal bonds of affection, they also served to compensate men who had acquiesced to the rules of the new theocratic state.

In the name of morality and the preservation of women’s honor, men of all social classes gained easier, cheaper access to sex, both inside and outside of marriage. The state reduced the age of marriage, and encouraged motherhood and large families, while limiting or closing other life choices for urban professional women. Small openings that had emerged for a modern, gay lifestyle in elite urban circles vanished and were replaced with a partial return to practices of covert bisexuality in male and female homosocial spaces.

The long Iran-Iraq War helped the regime to consolidate its new policies on sexuality. . . At home, the war allowed Khomeini and his allies to speed up the implementation of their harsh Islamist program and eliminate their moderate Islamic, nationalist, and leftist allies. By 1986, the Pasdaran had grown to 350,000 personnel grouped in battalion-size units, including a small navy and air force. The Basij had enrolled some three million armed volunteers, including many women’s units, at 11,000 centers. The Pasdarans received professional military training and operated on a fulltime basis, while the Basij consisted of those on active duty and others kept on reserve. Together, the Pasdarans and the Basij were considered the “eyes and ears” of the Islamic Republic. They served under the direct authority of the Revolutionary Council of Guardians led by Ayatollah Khomeini, and later Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and were never subject to any elected bodies such as the presidency or the parliament (Iran: A Country Study 2004, 11; “Pasdaran” 2007).

While they undertook many such activities during the war, after it ended, the Basij and the Pasdaran gave even greater attention to the surveillance and repression of the domestic population. Equipped with the latest weapons and subject to sophisticated riot-control training, they worked with the secret police SAVAMA and were instrumental in eliminating dissident groups. They spied on the general population. One of their most visible activities involved prowling around schools and factories to enforce the hijab regulations, often arresting youth for improper clothing and conduct. This could occur for as minor an infraction as a young man caught wearing a wearing a short-sleeved shirt. They also stopped cars to check for alcohol consumption or use of make-up by women; they burst into weddings and arrested guests for improper dress, alcohol violations, or Western music; or they broke into homes to destroy banned satellite TV receptors. These activities were coordinated with the Party of God (Hezbollah) who intimidated intellectuals by firebombing bookstores, disrupting social and political gatherings, and killing dissidents (“Niruyeh Moghavemat” 2007; “Pasdaran” 2007).

As the new revolutionary regime was placing greater limits on the rights of modern urban citizens, especially women, it simultaneously encouraged the more cloistered women of the old middle classes to become politically active in support of the Islamist cause. This is why Iranian women reacted to the policies of the Islamic Republic in such varied ways. Modern, urban women condemned the severe restrictions of the new regime, which deprived them of numerous rights, but many from the old middle classes actually gained greater rights. They credited Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolution, and the war with emancipating them from rigid and patriarchal households and allowing them to become active citizens. This was true, even when this activism began by denouncing the more secular supporters of women’s rights.


Recently by Janet AfaryCommentsDate
Sexual revolution
May 27, 2009
more from Janet Afary

To Skeptic

by Taytelbaum (not verified) on

Read your comment, and I believe the element of prime truth in it speaks loud and clear. Iran was becoming decadent before the revolution, what was also my impression in the late seventies.

In our 21th century the west has one or two imperfections of it's own, actually since 1800, when it comes to prostitution, or hard core prostitution. But do not compare it to Iran's mentality of dealing with this problem as so the west does. Because overhere this is a global problem...

But some of us like the lordship over women better, than par example plotting with her to make some money, for cigars, booze and expensive clothing. To have a decent christmas with the whole family and friends/ neighbours.


There is always a choice

by Skeptic (not verified) on

Listen Someone.
There is always a choice. I have seen women holding a small child sell socks in gas stations in Iran to make living. There are a million things women can do before they participate in the oldest profession in the world.
Becoming servents in houses is hard but it is better than that.
There are houses for runaway girls in Tehran, it is called Rayhane house. It may be closed, but there is help. They have places to turn to. Many older women do bring younger ones to take care of them in their houses.
The governemnt could have the strictest of rules, but if individuals do not comply what then?
Isnt Islam the most strict religion when it comes to out of marriage sex? stoning.
It is the individuals that has to go beyond the easy and do what is right. No one said life was a rose garden, but you can start planting.
We all need to evolve.


"I am not saying let them

by someone (not verified) on

"I am not saying let them eat cake, but women dont have to sell themselves cheap, if they dont want to."

Women sometimes do not have a chose in terms of prostutution... They do it to survive, does the iranian government care about all those young irls who flee their abusive homes.? NO.
One does not always have a chose.No one cares about theise girls, on the contrary people take advatage of their situation.
Yes prostitution is common in western countries aswell, but it is rather due to drugproblems and these women can turn to their government for guidance and help at anytime.

Who can the Iranian girls turn to??

NO ONE...!!!!


"The 1979 Islamic revolution

by skeptic (not verified) on

"The 1979 Islamic revolution was not a wholesale return to the past;"

What past are you talking about?

"The state encouraged polygamy (multiple ‘aqdi wives) and temporary marriage"

Then why do you have to get your wife's signature if you want to marry a second wife and a man will be beaten with shalagh if his wife complains about his 2nd marriage?
Get updated. There is no undocumented temporary marriage and Aghed will not perform ceremony unless the marriage has been certified in the mahzar.
In all cases the first wife's permission is required.

"men of all social classes gained easier, cheaper access to sex, both inside and outside of marriage."

Sex has never been cheap, and although you get what you pay for is not too nice to say here, but Mehriye is the price a man pays to have a woman in Iran for marriage. Mehriye is set by the father and a woman can collect it at will anytime. Most women get married to collect the Mehriye and get divorce to do what they want.

"The long Iran-Iraq War helped the regime to consolidate its new policies on sexuality. "

While your one sided view blames no one for the war that was imposed on Iran by Saddam invading, you blame everyone else for the necessity of adding soldiers to the society.

"While they undertook many such activities during the war, after it ended, the Basij and the Pasdaran gave even greater attention to the surveillance and repression of the domestic population"

You fail to mention that the past that you mention,pre revolution, Iran had three official state sponsered whorehouses, One in Tehran, called the New city, the other in Shiraz, called Shirin Bayan. Ahvaz and Abadan may have had one also. The only reason Cities like Mashhad, Tabriz and Isfahan did not have any official Pahlavi sponsered whorehouses, were because they are considered deeply religious cities. Not that sex was not happening without prostitute but they were not officially housed in a place and monitored by the police.
Ashraf Pahlavi was the official sponser of these houses. You are forgetting the stories etelaat Banovan used to print of the prostitutes every week, and how they were brought to the city by truck drivers.
Yes our culture has some problems and it seems that women have limited rights, but the religious or society rules are in place for a reason and if you want to blame individual's action on the government then that is your problem. I am not saying let them eat cake, but women dont have to sell themselves cheap, if they dont want to.
Ayatollah's and Mullahs have daughters too and they think about who will marry them. Most dont want their daugthers hurt.
Your blame comes from a distorted view of accepting the western behavior towards women as norm, not seeing all that is wrong with the abuse of the women in the west. Pictures of women's bodies are used to sell products and that is ok with you? Is the child pornography in the west ok?
Is that fact that most women that cant find work in the west have to resort to selling their bodies to be able to go to school not bothering you?
If west is so good to women why these women have to do these: check the erotic section of the craigslist london or any European city. Do they like to be prostitutes or they are economically forced to do it?


There was an article about a large percentage of young women in France who resorted to becoming escorts so they can afford high tuition costs of schools.

By the way, they burst into weddings because the neighbors complain about the noise. Those that were not invited.

Your articles has many flaws, but I only mentioned a few, and it comes from the fact that you look down on the Iranian society and accept all that is wrong with the western society where you live as ok with no problem. For you probably the glass ceiling in the west is fine for the woman workers.
We all need to evolve and treat each other better.


Title of your book.

by Taytelbaum (not verified) on

Comprehensive title to your book. Congratulations, especially when Iran's president M. Ahmadinejhad wants to change the world.


My hope

by MiNeum71 on

The Iranian women are the key to success. I wish them all best.




by Female Reader (not verified) on

I find it a relevant and interesting subject. Yes, I will seek out this author's book.

Thank you for making us aware of it.



by Fred on

Those seeking substantiation and proof might perhaps consider consulting that great Islamist sage famouse for his quotes such as this little nugget of mind-blowing wisdom: "overcrowding should not be viewed as a curse, but rather a blessing"



by varjavand on

Dear Dr. Afary;

I would like to congratulate you for the publication of your new book.Is this supposed to be a review of your book? If it is, I must admit that it is not a much revealing one. It does not clearly discuss the main theme of the book and what is it that you are trying to prove or disprove.

You mention:  In the name of morality and the preservation of women’s honor, men of all social classes gained easier, cheaper access to sex, both inside and outside of marriage.” Is this a substantiated statement? Is there any evidence to back it up?

Reza Varjavand