High heels and hijabs: Iran’s sexual revolution

For more than 30 years, the Islamic Republic has been obsessively battling against sex, but as with anything that is suppressed or banned, people have learned to sidestep the punitive regulations. 


An Iranian woman adjusts her headscarf in central Tehran. Photo: Getty

An Iranian woman adjusts her headscarf in central Tehran. Photo: Getty

Like most girls in her neighbourhood in Tehran, Tahmineh is a virgin. In her world, virginity is still revered. For many men, a woman’s virginity is a non-negotiable prerequisite for marriage. Even among some of the richer classes that ostensibly live more “western” lives, partying with alcohol and music, the men will happily sleep around but will want to marry someone “pure”. Virginity is seen as a marker of decency, of good family stock and morals.

In the narrow, twisting clutch of roads where Tahmineh lives, revealing your hair even to an uncle or a male cousin is not acceptable. Here, a woman’s virtue is the cornerstone of life, and local people blame bad hijab and declining morals for everything from high inflation to unemployment. Women live under constant risk of being branded loose for behaviour as anodyne as laughing too raucously or wearing the colour red.

Tahmineh wears the all-encompassing, black chador because her parents insist on it, and because neighbours in her conservative community gossip about women who choose to wear the headscarf and manteau, the overcoat that is meant to keep curves concealed. But in Tehran, being a virgin does not mean that Tahmineh has not had sex. “I first had anal sex when I was 21. Of course I want to have proper sex, but until I know for sure that my boyfriend wants to get married, I can’t risk it.”

Before Tahmineh graduated to anal sex, she and her friends were having la-paee (literally, “thigh”) sex, where the man uses a woman’s clenched thighs to orgasm. Tahmineh believes there are rising numbers of girls like her, who are from religious or traditional families but prepared to experiment sexually before marriage.

“Most girls in my area think that just being in a confined space with a boy is a sin, but my best friend has had la-paee sex, and I know lots of girls from less strict families who are allowed to hang out with boys, but who are still expected to be virgins, so they all have anal sex instead.” This phenomenon is so ubiquitous in Tehran that anal sex has become the butt – pun intended – of many a Tehrani joke.

For more than 30 years, the Islamic Republic has been obsessively battling against sex. It is preoccupied by how and with whom its people are having it. Lawmakers and scholars devote hours to discussing sex, condemning sex and sentencing people for having sex. Mullahs on television and radio philosophise and advise about it, sometimes in surprisingly lascivious detail. Government posters warn of the link between immodest dress and dubious morals; find-a-fatwa websites warn of the perils of self-love (everything from psychological damage to wreaking havoc on the nervous system) and offer cures to masturbators (lots of prayer and fasting).

As with anything that is suppressed or banned – such as alcohol, which flows through homes the length and breadth of the city – people have learned to sidestep the restrictions. And they are hungrier than ever for that which is not allowed. There is a sexual awakening in Tehran, and it is spreading beyond the rich, northern foothills of the city, where the more liberal and secular families live. There are some parallels with the sexual revolution that followed Franco’s fall in Spain, mainly that it is a backlash against repression, but in Tehran it is happening underground and behind closed doors. Graphic photos are bluetoothed and texted across the city; internet chat rooms and social sites are full of hook-ups. Not forgetting the city’s “special” women – the government’s euphemism for prostitutes.

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Women on the frontline

Unreported World's Ramita Navai marks international women's day at an Amnesty event about the role of female journalists in reporting conflict


I was chuffed to be asked to take part in a special panel discussion at Amnesty International's HQ last night on women reporting from the frontline, not only because it was a chance to reflect on my work and the nature of our journalism, but because I was going to be in good company – the three other female foreign reporters are not any old reporters, but among the best in the country – Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor of Channel 4 News, Christine Toomey and Marie Colvin, both of the Sunday Times.

Amnesty was holding the event as part of International Women’s Day and invited us to talk about the old chestnuts that are often thrown at female reporters – how being female affects our journalism, and whether newsrooms and editors are bastions of sexism. They also wanted us to share our experiences of how women’s lives are affected by war and whether media attention and campaigning can make a difference to their lives.

So, do we women journalists report differently from our male colleagues? All of us on the panel took slight umbrage to the question to start with – good reporting is, after all, simply good reporting. When you're singled out as a sex for reporting differently, it's hard not to suspect sexist assumptions – that women reporters are more tuned into people's emotions, more sensitive to the impact of war on families while, of course, allowing ourselves to be clouded by our emotions and so implicitly less able to stand back, analyse and be objective.

But we soon agreed that there are some undeniable differences. We cover the same stories as our male colleagues, but we get access to stories that are often denied to them, and so our insights on how conflicts affect women, say, are broader. Christine Toomey, a feature writer who has written award-winning articles on the postwar impact of mass rape in Bosnia, said that the subjects that often interest her are different from male colleagues, as is the way she interacts and communicates with people.

These differences also work to our advantage, including the frequent and potentially-irritating occurrence of not being taken seriously. In countries where there are restrictions on media freedom, there is nothing more satisfying than having your requests and questions met by mild amusement and curiosity, which does wonders in loosening tongues. It can also help distract government minders.

We were also asked whether there's a tendency for us only to cover women's stories, and if we are boxed into a category by commissioning editors. Just looking at the range of issues that each of us has covered – wars, gang violence, murder, trafficking, politics etc etc - the answer was a resounding no. Having said that, if you want to uncover human rights abuses, women's issues are obviously part of the territory. And if you want to uncover the world's unreported stories, it is very often women and children who are the most forgotten and the most vulnerable.

Lindsey Hilsum said it's important not to show emotion when reporting to camera, in order to appear authoritative and objective. She noted a double standard here, saying that if a male reporter became teary-eyed he'd be applauded for being sensitive and empathic, instead of the eye-rolling 'well, it's a woman' response that we would receive. But keeping my emotions in check is something I still struggle with. Although Lindsey did admit to the lump-in-the-throat moment, she was quick to add: only when the camera is OFF! With the style of Unreported World – where the cameras are constantly rolling in order for the viewer to get to see events unfold as the reporter follows the trail of a story – I don't always have that luxury. And when you're faced with a little boy telling you his world has been shattered and he is in constant pain because his penis and testicles were hacked off to be sold, or when a young girl breaks down as she says she has lost six babies and has such horrific injuries from childbirth she is incontinent for life, and the smell of urine that permeates from her means that her community have cut her off, it's not always easy to keep the emotions at bay. I'm a reporter, but I'm also a human, moved by tragedy, loss and despair. But luckily editors can work wonders, so wobbly moments can magically disappear...

Many in the audience at Amnesty, who included aspiring journalists, activists and campaigners, wanted to know if our work has a positive impact on the stories we cover, and also how we cope with the job. We all had encouraging tales of how pieces we had written or broadcast have inspired readers and viewers – even some politicians – to act. After seeing my report on child brides in Nigeria, a couple from the north of England contacted Channel 4 and are now trying to sponsor the young girl I mentioned above, and the hospital that was treating her. We had a similar response from viewers who saw the little boy in our film about the sale of human body parts in South Africa. All the panelists agreed that we do this job because we feel that exposing these stories to the world can make a difference. Even if it's a tiny difference.

But we also had a reminder that there are still many stories that desperately need telling – a young Sri Lankan woman in the audience at Amnesty broke down as she asked us our view on why the war in her country is so neglected and under-reported when conflicts like that in Gaza, rightly, command acres of news coverage.

This is a subject close to Marie's heart, having doggedly reported from Sri Lanka, and having been seriously injured there while on the job. It’s because the government has systematically banned the foreign press, local journalists have been killed and forced to flee their country if they dare file reports. Even reporting undercover has become nearly impossible. The result is an ongoing war without witnesses, which means less pressure on the international community to act.

As to how we keep ourselves sane and happy in the face of some of the horrors we have all witnessed, detachment is one of the keys to self-preservation in this business. Although Marie's method is preferred: 'I go to a lot of bars,' she said in her magnetic drawl. Hear, hear!

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