February 14, 2011
Iran’s men are having trouble dealing with the brave new world that’s imposing itself on their bedrooms: an unnoticed tide of sexual change that could prove far more important in shaping the country’s cultural and political values than the 2009 democratic revolt-that-failed.
“It is still widely accepted,” Negar Farshidi writes , “that a groom can make his marriage conditional on the bride remaining a virgin, and cancel it if it turns out she isn’t. Traditionally, a bloodstained sheet was produced after the wedding night as evidence of an intact hymen, but nowadays many men and their families ask for a ‘virginity certificate’ in advance.”
Similar practices are common throughout large swathes of Asia.
But an official Iranian study, Farshidi records, has determined that more than half of all young people in Iran have had premarital sex – which means those certificates probably aren’t worth a whole lot.
Iran’s powerful clerical establishment embraced the technological products of modernity, like computers and the internet, while railing against its cultural manifestations. But the fact is that modernity imposes its own culture. More and more young Iranians are working independently of their families. More and more Iranians are marrying late. More and more young Iranians are having premarital sex.
Kelly Golnoush Niknejad had, a couple of years ago, written an insightful account of how the internet had made it increasingly difficult for the regime to censor what young people in Iran “see, hear and seek, especially when it comes to dating and sex.”
Iran’s clerics, whatever their other failings might be, aren’t stupid: unlike Xerxes , they see that even three hundred lashes aren’t going to tame the sea. Ziauddin Sardar, in a must-read article , wrote of the clergy’s efforts to battle this epidemic by promoting muta , or temporary marriages. Precisely how these marriages are distinct from hiring a sex worker, I am unclear – but the distinction at least keeps up the pretence that the new sexual culture doesn’t violate religious order.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, has ruled that even if a married woman who claimed to be a virgin was proved to have had non-penetrative premarital sex, her husband could not divorce her unless the couple had agreed in advance that virginity meant no sex at all. Put crudely, it’s OK to play.
Some clerics are putting their faith in technology. Ayatollah Sadeq Rouhani, a conservative cleric, issued a ruling that that hymenoplasties – the surgical reconstruction of virginity – was lawful in Islam. “There is no difference between a real and fake hymen,” he reasoned, wisely putting pragmatism before principle.
The point is the claims to tradition and faith on which clerical authority rest are being eroded. Plastic surgery only allows the fiction of tradition to be sustained: everyone knows it’s dead (interestingly, there are websites in the US offering hymenoplasties to married women who want to give their husbands something “ really special ” – virginity has been packaged as a retro cultural artefact).
Islamic cultures aren’t alone in their attitudes to virginity. Pope Pius XII, in a 1954 address, extolled virginity as “something beautiful and holy.” This attitude, I learn from the venerable Journal of Orthoptera Research , Volume Vol. 17, No. 2, 2008 , is shared by Poecilimon laevissimus: Tettigoniidae , the Greek bush cricket, which values virginity more than body size when it comes to choosing a mate.
There is a large literature on exactly why societies value virginity at particular points in their evolution. I’m not going to recapitulate it here: if you’re interested there’s scholarship out there on the practice and meaning of the state in every conceivable setting, from medieval England to modern America , the Swahili of Mombasa , Spanish gypsies in Madrid, and Echo Island , wherever that is.
Neighbouring Saudi Arabia has an interesting variation of the virginity problem. Its intellectuals have been desperately trying to do away with the idea that Paradise is filled with doe-eyed virgins – a notion that, it is claimed, is driving pimply adolescents to queue up to become suicide bombers.
Last year, the Saudi scholar Anwar bin-Majid argued that God “knows that human minds cannot grasp the nature of the pleasures of Paradise, so He made it closer to their understanding by mentioning dark-eyed beauties, wine, milk, and fruit.” In fact, he went on, “in Paradise there are no sexual impulses. Therefore, people’s sexual organs will disappear in the afterlife.”