Mitra, a 41-year-old divorcee from Tehran, is quick to point out the hardships of living alone. “As a woman, you face a lot of problems in society, including not being able to rent a home easily. Most landlords don’t rent their properties to single women. The majority of estate agents reject you from the outset.” Mitra separated from her husband nine years ago. But, after two years of living on her own, she found that society’s disapproval was too much for her to handle.
In theory, the law in Iran permits young, single people to live by themselves. But the reality is that society frowns upon it, regardless of gender.
“Some estate agents and landlords treat me like a criminal,” says 39-year old Saeed.“They ask me a lot of questions and many of the landlords aren’t willing to let their properties to a single man, even though I’ve got good references and a good job.”
Some hardliner media and authorities equate the term “home for a single person” with a “place of depravity, debauchery, drug addiction and crime.” In June 2014, the website Shafaf ran a report that linked the increasing number of drug addicts in Iran with the fact that more young people had chosen to live alone, an argument that was corroborated by Khabaronline earlier this year when it published an article that claimed drug addiction among students was highest for those living alone. According to Tabnak news, living alone also leads to violence. It reported on the story of a female drug addict who lived on her own, got into a fight with some friends and murdered a young man. And recent reports by Hamshahri newspaper claimed that "living alone can damage family values."
Although single living in Iran is difficult for all young people, it is especially challenging for young women.
“I never mentioned to the agency or my landlords that I lived by myself. I usually went with my mother or uncle to view a flat, so they thought I’d live with them,” says Zahra, who lived alone in Tehran for eight years. She saw a marked difference between relatively wealthy northern Tehran and the comparatively poorer south. “There are a lot of landlords in northern Tehran and the posh areas who are willing to rent their properties to single people. But the situation in the south or in traditional areas, where renting is much cheaper, is totally different. I prefer to pay more and live away from conservative society.”
When asked why she hid the fact she lived alone from her landlord, Zahra replied, “for my safety and security — I couldn’t trust them or my neighbors.” Previous experiences have taught her to be cautious. “When one of my neighbors found out that I lived alone, he came and rang at my door at midnight, wanting to come in, so I moved out the following week. I never said I was alone, but I received numerous prank phone calls.”
Iranian authorities do not support single women living alone, partly because they deem them to be at great personal risk. Fahimeh Farahmand, the interior minister for women and family affairs, voiced this when she said that the increasing number of single women living alone “worries us” and that the issue threatens society and traditional family values.
“When I search for a new place to live, I have to pretend that my ‘husband’ is on a business trip,” says single mother Roya. “One of my landlords was very curious about my husband, and I don’t know how, but he found out that I was divorced. He tried to break into my flat one night. I was lucky though, because I’d changed the lock. I was so scared and I didn’t know what to do… I threatened to call his wife, and then he left.”
After a pause, she added, “At that moment, I was only thinking about my child. Because of what happened, I’m even thinking of getting back together with my ex-husband so my child and I are safe — even though he cheated on me and will do it again.”
Iranian women feel society treats them unfairly, and this is particularly the case for divorced women. “Men see me as an opportunity for having sex,” says a 33-year-old divorced woman from Yazd. “They think women only care about their virginity and when they’ve lost it, they’ll have intercourse with anyone.”
Unfortunately, the Iranian media and authorities are partly to blame for spreading this myth. According to a news report published on December 22, 2008, “a third of divorced women ‘sin’ within just nine months of their divorce.”
Hoda, a 32-year-old woman living in Tehran, has also encountered difficulties with living on her own.
“We had many issues in our marriage three years ago, so we decided to live separately for a few months and to work on our marriage. So I rented a flat in the same building that my brother was living in in eastern Tehran,” she says. “I noticed that my neighbors looked at me differently. One day my brother came over and asked me whether someone was with me at home. I realized then that was what everyone was thinking about me, so I left my apartment and went back to my husband, even though we still had problems.”
Ultimately, many Iranian women, like Hoda, would rather stay in unhappy marriages than face the difficulties of being divorced and living on their own as a single woman.
This mentality is deeply entrenched with Iranian society, and has led to authorities trying to segregate women and men in certain sectors. In July 2014, the gender segregation initiative in Tehran was launched, aimed at deliberately separating workspaces for men and women and limiting the number of high level jobs that could be given to women — a plan that was welcomed by many conservatives and hardliners in Iran.
“When I asked my wife if she was happy that I was going to work in a place where I have to work with three women, two of whom are divorced,” Morteza Talai, the Deputy Chairperson of the Tehran City Council, said, “She replied, ‘I’ll break your leg if you do that. I, as a woman, want my husband to feel secure at work.’”
The number of single-person households in Iran is growing, greatly due to the increasing number of unmarried people and a rising divorce rate. Altogether, a fifth of marriages in Iran end in divorce, according to figures from Iran’s National Organization for Civil Registration. In the past 15 years alone, the divorce rate in Iran has nearly tripled, with some of these women choosing to live alone rather than with their parents. This undeniable pattern is why society should adopt a more modern outlook on the issue. At the same time, the media must assume some responsibility, increasing awareness about the reality of living alone, and supporting those people who live alone for whatever reason.