In Islamic Iran, Shifts in Gender Relations/Family Values Challenge Society

ByDr. Banafsheh Keynoush

In Iran’s young society, there has been a shift in gender relations. Many prefer to avoid marriage, stay single, and participate in pre-marital relations. In this regard, many experts blame economic pressures, social media, and western cultural influences. But the fact of the matter is that since the 1979 revolution, strict government controls, restricted rights and fewer prospects for a good life have encouraged Iranians to question their social norms.
The problem is too large to ignore. On 5 April 2018, several experts gathered at Tehran University to speak about “pre-marital sexual relations in Iran” and “adultery and betrayal in Iranian society.” This was the second gathering of its kind to raise awareness on such sensitive subjects.
experts urged for a new definition of the family to be drawn. There are only a few definitions explaining the family unit in Iran, and none that is new has emerged considering the differences that exist between the government and the experts in accounting for the shifts in social standards. The “obligationary family unit” promotes traditional values like reproduction and material support by the husband. However, these values are no longer the only motivators behind Iranians wanting to have a family. In traditional or tribal segments of society as well as in the conservative upper class there is a “transactional family unit,” which motivates Iranians to have a family. The family bond is grounded on blood ties, tribal relations, or to preserve or elevate social networks and economic rank. According to sociologist Azadar Maki, a new individualistic trend has emerged which is motivating Iranians to have partnerships.[1]
This trend has led to a higher number of pre-marital relations for pleasure rather than for something meaningful such as having a family or emotional support. Mohammad Hussein Sharifi Sayee, a participant at Tehran University, claims that higher education and work have increased the interaction between women and men. So, has social media which has provided privacy for women and men to interact without supervision. Fardin Ali Khah, also a participant at Tehran University, says new social friendships discourage emotional ties. These days, women are less emotionally and economically dependent on their husbands, leading to adultery.[2]
In a closed society like Iran where setting new trends and pushing boundaries is celebrated, a range of support groups have emerged to help women and couples cope. These include “non-sexual friendship circles,” “adultery therapy,” and “shunning attention in social media.” These groups allow participants to understand the physical and emotional dangers associated with extra-marital behavior in Iran. But Ali Khah argues that not enough is done to support women. He says celebrating male biological characteristics at the risk of downplaying women’s biological traits encourages adulterous affairs.[3]
Azadar Maki believes that restricting discussions of sexual behavior to psychologists and family therapists prevents the sociological dimensions of this social problem from being studied. In addition, ideological stigmas associated with sexual behaviors may exaggerate deteriorating family values at the risk of ignoring major normative shifts in society.
Majid Abhari, a behavioral sociologist, blames television and radio for inadequately addressing sexual delinquencies, consequently encouraging adultery and emotional divorces.[4] Many experts say the rate of emotional divorces is higher than the divorces which are officially registered. While the government blames modernity for divorces, sociologists say that at least half of the divorces happen because of the government’s policies, such as promoting concubine and mass marriages aimed at lowering the financial cost of starting a union, thereby destroying the sacred foundation of the family in traditional Iranian society.[5]
It is now more frequent to hear of Iranian couples leading openly separate lives or participating in extra-marital affairs as societal stigmas about the issue disintegrate.
In fact, adulterous affairs have reached alarming levels, according to the Iranian Parliament Research Center (PRC).[6] In an 82-page report on patterns of sexual behavior in Iran, the PRC recommends temporary marriages as a quick fix to discourage adultery. The PRC provides Quranic evidences to argue that temporary marriages are legitimate and mustahab.
Figures from a study of 141,555 middle school students in the past two years reveal a total of 105,046 students or 74.3% having participated in relations that are “not permitted,” a term that infers some form of sexual interaction.[7]
According to Mahmoud Golzari, a psychologist at Alameh Tabatabai University, 80% of girls interviewed in several high schools in Tehran report that they have experienced friendship, a term that infers physical intimacy in the Persian language, with the opposite sex.[8] Other figures gathered from 8 million young Iranians reveal that the average age for premarital sexual relations has dropped to middle school levels for girls.[9]
The PRC report cites that 24,889 of the middle school students interviewed or 17.5%, were involved in homosexual relations. In large cities, 15% of single men studied implied being homosexual by demonstrating a preference for white marriages. Though there are no clear figures of such marriages, they are high enough to have warranted Iran’s Interior Ministry to set up special staff to examine the issue.[10]
Public displays of homosexuality are on the rise in Iran where people prefer to stay quiet about it. But it is not clear how pervasive it is. Many experts argue that more than other pre-dispositional factors, the inability to cover the cost of marriage including heavy mahr’s and gifts to the wife such as money or property, have contributed to an increase in homosexual behaviors.[11]
Some hardliners are quick to attribute homosexuality to certain behaviors that they dislike. A member of Ansar-e Hezbollah, Sadegh Koushaki, writes that more girls are seen holding hands or displaying intimate affection, smoking in public spaces, choosing not to wear the compulsory headscarf, and showing signs of only casual friendship with boys.[12] He suggests these acts could imply non-heterosexual behavior and chides the local police for failing to address this issue.
But there is very little that the police can do when few studies in Iran address youth behavioral patterns in the critical period between adolescence and marital age. This has increased the levels of sexual harm post-marriage. Pre-marital relations with a future spouse results in a five times higher chance of divorce.[13]
In Iran divorce rates are already high, like many other places in the Middle East. On average, one out of 3.6 cases of marriage ended in divorce last year. This is about 20 divorces per hour. In Tehran, one out of 2.2 cases or almost half of the marriages lead to divorce.[14] The subject is no longer a stigma as it was in the past, consensual divorces are on the rise, and divorce parties have become more frequent. But with fewer economic opportunities to remarry, there are concerns that unhindered sexual behavior may rise. Women are particularly vulnerable. According to the PRC report, 12.5% of women stay silent after experiencing physical and sexual abuse, and 62.5% percent refuse to speak out after experiencing verbal sexual harassment.[15]
Figures point to a high number of HIV/AIDS infections in Iran resulting from sexual habits and drug use. According to UNAIDS, from 2010 to 2016 the number of HIV infections increased by 21% in Iran. Iran is on a fast-track national AIDS program to target and end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. Television, cinematic programs and billboards address the issue. There are limited educational campaigns as well, such as the AIDS bus line in neighborhoods, which provides classes and therapy on living with and preventing HIV. But the UNAID report in 2016 says that HIV/AIDS is still on the rise in Iran.[16]
Majid Abhari chides Iran’s early post-revolutionary policy to shut down prostitution houses as well. Poverty, socio-economic marginalization, family pressures, and prostitution rings make it impossible to manage prostitution in Iran. Figures released by the Iranian parliament reveal that 11% of prostitutes in Tehran participate in prostitution with spousal knowledge. The result is fewer moral boundaries in Iran’s modern society about the issue. According to Majid Abhari, most Iranian women are in some way or form exposed to the consequences of prostitution.[17]
Despite pervasive prostitution, Iran refuses to effectively address the issue of sexual trafficking. Iranian women engage in prostitution locally, but many are trafficked to neighboring countries or voluntarily travel abroad for prostitution purposes.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has stepped in to address concerns about insufficient monitoring of sexual patterns in Iran. According to statements made by the IRGC Deputy for Intelligence Ebrahim Bayani, Iran ranks first among 182 countries in the use of immoral websites in the afternoon of ashura, a popular holy event to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, and a hotspot for rendezvous.[18]
In Qom, Iran’s major Islamic center, clerics are scrambling to address deteriorating family issues by holding classes and outreach activities. The Islamic Propaganda Office has stepped up examining social pathological and family issues to educate clerics on how best to address them[19]. The office’s Qom branch leads some 400 groups that address social and family issues across the country, and operates 200 websites to propagate Islamic social norms.[20]
Though it is hard to blame any single government in Iran for deteriorating family structures since the revolution, there is a conspicuous opening up of social freedoms since the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers in July 2015. The agreement promised the revolution an opening to the outside world, and it was keen to show that it respected social freedoms.
But even hardliners recognize that it is the revolution itself that has failed to address social problems from the start. At a recent gathering at the hardline Fars News Agency, academics argued that since the revolution, the family values that it set out to promote were never realized. They faulted poor institutional support, the lack of government support programs, and the government’s refusal to acknowledge that Iran faces a family crisis. They called for the urgent founding of a family ministry, the promotion of sexual education and an Islamic charter for sexual health.[21]
What is clear is that there are no quick fixes to any of these issues. The revolution is still keen to build a pious society. But its early desire, to tightly regulate and control people, has led to a backlash that challenges the traditional fabric of Iranian society and now the revolution itself.

“A Report on Sexual Relations in Iran,” Fararu, 7 April 2018.
“The Short Life of the Iranian Mr and Mrs.,” Fararu, 13 April 2018.
“Illegitimate Sexual Relations has Alarmingly Increased,” Fararu, 11 August 2014.
“A Report on Sexual Relations in Iran,”
“Age for Pre-Marital Relations Dropped to Middle School Age” Fararu, 6 January 2012.
“The Short Life of the Iranian Mr and Mrs..”
“Is Taleghani Street a hangout for Homosexuals?” Fararu, 5 May 2018.
“A Report on Sexual Relations in Iran.”
“The Short Life of the Iranian Mr and Mrs.”
“A Report on Sexual Relations in Iran.”
“AIDS Bus Operationalizes in Tehran,” Fararu, 29 October 2015.
“A Report on Sexual Relations in Iran.”
“Is Taleghani Street a hangout for Homosexuals?”
“Entering Realm of Social Pathology is Main Strategy for Propaganda Office,” Shafaghna, 10 May 2018.
“Islamic Propaganda Office Supports 200 Propaganda Groups in Virtual Space,” Shafaghna, 12 May 2018.
“Why has No Government Authority Been Summoned to Parliament to Address Rising Divorce Rates?” Fars News Agency, 14 May 2018.
Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush
Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush
Non-resident fellow at Rasanah-IIIS