Given the limits on male-female contact, happy marriage can prove an elusive goal

January 06, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh | Gelareh Asayesh,Sun Staff Correspondent

TEHRAN, Iran -- Life in the Islamic Republic poses one great dilemma for the young: how to achieve a happy marriage.

In Islamic Iran, social contact between men and women is forbidden. Men and women no longer shake hands when meeting in public. The komitehs -- revolutionary committees that patrol for signs of un-Islamic behavior -- are the enforcers of such standards. A visitor from abroad who unconsciously slips her hand through an uncle's arm while walking on a Tehran street is quickly warned: "Careful. Don't want the komiteh to pick us up."

In universities, male and female students sit in separate sections and are discouraged from looking at one another. Though some young men have girlfriends and some young women have boyfriends, such relations are highly illicit, consisting of furtive telephone conversations and stolen moments at a street corner or in someone's house.

The intense taboos make otherwise ordinary actions provocative. In a Mashad mall, an unwary visitor makes the mistake of greeting a stranger with a polite "hello." The young man immediately begins to follow her, urging her to visit him at home.

When the visitor complains to a female friend, the friend says: "Don't even make eye contact. That's why I wear sunglasses."

Though more liberal parents grant their children a level of freedom not seen in the society at large, many parents restrict their sons and daughters, not out of principle, but for fear of the consequences of flouting Islamic restrictions.

"Here, they ruin their daughters' lives," a young Iranian girl says bitterly.

For the Islamic Republic, restoring modesty to women is a key revolutionary tenet that fundamentalist Iranians guard jealously. The issue also reflects Iranians' traditional concept of honor, in which a woman's purity is the measure of her family's respectability.

Even among the young, opinions are divided.

In an English conversation class, a group of Iranians in their late teens and 20s is asked the question: Should young men and women be allowed to associate before they marry?

The answers: a definite no, a definite yes, and a moderate yes-if-their-contact-is-supervised.

Why not?

"It is wrong," Maryam, 17, says simply.

Why yes?

"How can we have a happy marriage if we don't know each other?" says Sara, also 17.

Though Islam sanctions "sigheh" or temporary marriage, and the Iranian president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, suggested sigheh last month as an appropriate way of socializing between the sexes, the practice lacks broad acceptance. Educated Iranians disapprove of it, and it is inevitably perceived as devaluing the woman, who is less likely to make a good match after an unsuccessful sigheh.

Many couples achieve happy marriages with someone they meet in the family circle. But with such limited options, families often choose a spouse based on appearance alone.

The groom or his family members see someone they like, and the female members of the family go courting -- khastegari. They meet her family and look over the bride-to-be, who traditionally serves tea and sweets. Later, the couple meet once or twice. Negotiations on dowry follow, and soon, two strangers are sharing a bed.

A young bride, showing off her wedding pictures, is typically dissatisfied with this arrangement. "It was two months before I'd even let him touch me," she whispers.

In Mehrabad International Airport one evening in November, two black-veiled women waiting for a plane share this exchange:

"Did you see those girls?" the young one asks. "Should we get their address?"

The older woman strolls over to take a look. She comes back, hesitant.

"No," she says. "Remember that time we got an address, then never went?"

"That girl was too old for Mohsen," the young woman replies. "I hope my mother shows up; I want her to see them," she adds.

The older woman's eye alights on a young woman sitting next to her.

"Are you a girl?" she asks. The woman lifts a hand to show the wedding band.

"No, I'm a woman, so to speak," she replies.

"Oh. Because you're pretty, too."

"Yes, but looks don't guarantee a happy future."

The old woman sighs and agrees.

She says she was married at 13.

"I haven't had one moment of happiness," she says.

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