Lana Olinik
Last updated: 2 May, 2014

Together, but alone in Tehran

On how Iranian relationships are often calculated strategic games, with trust and sincerity an exemption rather than a rule.

The question of personal and intimate relations between the sexes has grown into an issue of overwhelming importance in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini himself wrote pamphlets on what kind of sexual intercourse is halal and what is haram. Later on, almost every mullah who considered a career in politics followed his example.

Any totalitarian regime (either secular or religious) must make sure that people will be so busy with their personal lives, that they simply won’t have time to question the state’s political and economic failures. This requires that people subconsciously never feel safe, knowing that the state has reserved unlimited right to violently interfere and control their most intimate sphere.

The lack of personal and intimate security creates a great amount of distrust among people. Distrust, mixed with a traditional system of unspoken language – where a person never expresses his or her dissatisfaction or anger directly, but rather via indirect signals – leads to a society where depression, uncertainty and desperation are common feelings in relationships.

“The lack of personal and intimate security creates a great amount of distrust”

To find love in your late 20s or early 30s in Tehran is quite a complicated task. And finding a person who would also become your soul mate, apart from just being a “date”, is even harder. But not impossible.

Moein, is 26 years old and comes from well-educated, middle class Azari family. His parents live in one of the cities in Shomal, Northern Iran, but he moved to Tehran some time ago.

“I’ve lived and studied in Turkey for four years… I’ve known many foreigners there, they are more open and honest. I got accustomed to people trusting each other more in their relationships. When I came back to Iran, I had to transform into an entirely different personality. You have to play in this lie-and-hide game, it’s the only way of communication. But as long as I am here, I have no choice,” he says.

Siavash, 27, lives in central Tehran, around Vali-e Asr square. His father works in movie productions and his mother is a photographer. Siavash has been struggling to find a “soul-mate” in Iran for quite a while. He has dated someone for three years before moving to Dubai, but eventually the girl’s parents disapproved of their daughter getting into serious relationship with someone outside their clan.

“It’s not that I was bad for them. But in their eyes I was not a man who could support a family, you know. I’ve just finished my studies, I didn’t have a job, anyhow I wasn’t ready for a marriage. And it’s the only thing that matters for them. House, income… that’s it.”

Ashkan, a 28-year-old mechanical engineering student who lives with his parents and two sisters in the well-known Tehran area of Ekbatan, gave up the idea of finding a girlfriend long time ago. Instead, he switched to hunting for girls’ mobile numbers and then having one or two dates before setting out on a new journey with someone else. He goes car cruising in Iranzamin or Velenjak streets – a common entertainment when boys and girls drive in certain areas trying to get each other’s mobile numbers.

“Azizam I just want to ask an address, we got lost, do you mind opening the window?” he says to the girl in the nearby car. We are standing in a usual traffic jam in Iranzamin street and Ashkan is obviously not lost, but just tries to start a conversation. A girl looks at me – I’m in the front seat – skeptically. For sure, Ashkan doesn’t seem to a serious dating candidate to her.

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“Oh, she is foreigner, she doesn’t understand anything. We have a party on Thursday night. Do you want to come?” he immediately tries to resolve his situation. Another day, when I organise a party, he asks me: “Would you invite any single girls?”

Some people go beyond traditional schemes though. Mina, who lives in the northern part of Shariati street, tried to break the established rules of this hypocritical game giving her full trust to her partner. They even lived together for 2 years, which has become more common among young people, who sometimes can’t afford the price of “traditional marriage”.

“That was quite a decision, you know. I regretted it afterwards though… traditional mind is still traditional mind, he took it for granted and betrayed me,” says Mina, who is 31 and single again.

This attitude when boys change girlfriends up to twice a week leads to a completely natural reaction – girls become defensive and before entering any relationship they try to secure different kinds of guarantees, making sure they will also gain something from this union. Eventually, there is distrust, jealousy, calculation and any human interaction transforms into a coldly calculated game, where there are winners and losers.

“You know, I can’t accept it when we are going out and the boy asks to split a bill. Of course, I’d easily do it, I haven’t got problems with money, but I can’t accept it when my man can’t pay for me. He must show his respect to me,” says Mahshid, a 25-year-old fashion designer who lives with her parents in the prestigious district of Farmaniyeh.

Ashkan tells me how one of the girls he dated for few months insisted that they go to the most expensive restaurants in the Northern Tehran.

“It shows a class, she used to repeat to me.” Having or not having “class” in richer, northern neighborhoods is equivalent to having “honor” in the southern, poorer parts.

“The importance of ‘what people would think’ is extremely exaggerated”

“Once I suggested that maybe we shall do something else,” recalls Ashkan. “Maybe spend some time on our own, cook dinner together… she treated that almost as insult! Well, apparently I’m not a man worthy her if I can’t take her out every night.”

This also leads to a situation where personal relationship becomes a way of public show-off. It turns into a means of self-representation for many young people, and is reinforced by a restricted society with isolated groups where any entrance into public space is curiously judged.

The importance of “what people would think” is extremely exaggerated. As much as a good-looking, “classy girl” is a “presentable” trophy in Iran, a boy might also become a trophy for a girl, and she will “present” him at all the gatherings, parties in her “circle”.

“Mind you, they (people) will judge you. Always…when you do your groceries, when you walk into a restaurant, when you buy a newspaper. I miss my home, but it feels much more relaxed when I’m away,” says Mahsa, who has moved to California for her PhD.

With her one entry visa to the US she has doubts she’ll go back to Iran in the next couple of years. As many young Iranians she decided that her future success lies abroad. Despite being able to live a quite relaxed life in Iran, where her parents who are successful businessmen could have provided everything she needs, after finishing her degree in Sharif University at the age of 24 she decided to move.

Unfortunately, perhaps as long as Iranian society stays closed and restricted as it is now, personal relationships will very often remain calculated strategic games and trust or sincerity will be an exemption rather than a rule.

The interviewees in the article have chosen to only use their first names to protect their identities. Any views expressed belong to the interviewees or the author and do not necessarily represent those of Your Middle East.