December 20, 2013 1:27 pm

Iran’s young adults look for a change in social mores

People enjoy lunch at a restaurant in Tajrish Bazar north of Tehran©AP

People enjoy lunch at a restaurant in Tajrish Bazar north of Tehran

In an upmarket female-only beauty salon in western Tehran, Roshanak, 39, reveals the details of a love life so complicated that it resembles a soap opera.

The mother of two girls has been married for 20 years but for the past two years, she has been having an affair with her best friend’s husband

“I live with my husband under the same roof but I love my boyfriend,” says the university graduate and swimming coach as she waits for a manicure in the salon in Sa’adat Abad, an upper middle class neighbourhood in western Tehran. Her husband doesn’t know about the affair; their relationship operates on a don’t ask, don’t tell basis, she says. “My husband and I don’t even fight. He has his own fun, too.”

Her open disclosure of her extramarital affairs is no less striking for the fact that some other women in the salon are equally forthcoming. Sahar, 34, a housewife with two children, also believes “when my husband has relationships with women, I have the same right”.

Their experiences reflect the social change bubbling underneath the surface of Iranian society, as the adult children of a more conservative generation rebel against the traditional and Islamic strictures their parents conformed to and seek to emulate what they see as more western norms.

In recent years, the divorce rate in Iran has risen, the marriage rate has fallen as has the birth rate. “The pace of developments is so fast and vast it is as if this nation wants to jump 50 years ahead overnight,” says Mostafa Eghlima, head of Social Workers Scientific Association, a non-governmental group. Academic research shows 70 per cent of divorcees are under 27 years old, he says. “Newly married couples think marriage and having children deprive them of their freedom,” he adds.

In depth

Iran under Rouhani

'Iran after Rouhani' in depth

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is looking to pursue a foreign policy of moderation after tough sanctions have brought the Islamic Republic’s economy to a standstill

The conservative leadership in Tehran has long told its citizens that social norms should correspond with Islamic teachings. So far, it is unclear how the new government, now negotiating a more open relationship with the west under President Hassan Rouhani, will respond to evidence of changing social mores.

With the exception of occasional official warnings about a rise in alcohol consumption, “a tsunami” of Aids and other sexual diseases, Iranian officials usually refrain from releasing data on social norms.

In a rare acknowledgment of changing mores, Ahmad Toyserkani, a senior judiciary official, this month warned that marriage had declined by 5 per cent over the past seven months against the corresponding period of last year. Over the same period, the divorce rate had risen by 6 per cent. Temporary marriage, which allows couples to limit their marriage term to a short period if they want, has risen by 31 per cent in the same period, he said. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and ultimate decision maker, recently warned about a declining birth rate (from 3.2 per cent in the 1980s to 1.2 per cent between 2006 and 2011) and called for family planning policies to be reversed.

Such social upheaval is a natural outcome of the tension between a conservative regime and a changing society, says Saeed Moidfar, a prominent sociologist.

“Iranians increasingly adopt modern lifestyles, which are based on individualism and rationality rather than official diktats, leading to a kind of hidden lifestyle under the skin of big cities,” he said.

“This is increasingly widening the gap between the head [leaders] and the body [people] of Iranian society. Such discrepancy means the regime will be forced to address it even though it indirectly costs the political system a gradual weakening of its ideals.”

There have been previous flowerings of cultural change. The victory of Mohammad Khatami, a reformist president in 1997, rang alarm bells for hardliners who then suppressed his political and social reforms. Regime officials hoped the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, a populist, would empower the lower class, improve their economic situation and lessen demands for social change.

But more than 30 years after the 1979 Islamic revolution claimed it had put an end to the country’s “westoxification”, there is an increased fascination with western modernity, even in rural areas. This partly reflects frustration with a worsening economic situation, characterised by high inflation and unemployment.

The victory of Mr Rouhani, backed by reformists, caught many politicians and analysts by surprise. Most of the president’s votes came from smaller constituencies, highlighting that demand for better living standards in Iran had spread beyond bigger cities. Even in rural areas, higher education, a good job, social freedoms and the ability to travel are as desirable as marriage, analysts say.

“Iran’s new generations, unlike their predecessors who resorted to revolutions and violence, believe in rational decisions and want a change of lifestyle. You can now see this even in poor areas where people care for having a good car,” Mr Moidfar adds.

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