Eighty percent of Iranian women engage in premarital sex, according to a recent report published by parliamentary researchers. But despite this, conservative sections of society still insist that women refrain from having sex until marriage — a moral code that translates directly into practical, official aspects of Iranian life, including the national ID, or shenasnameh. If a couple separate during their engagement and a woman wishes to remove the name of her husband-to-be from her shenasnameh, she must prove that she is still a virgin. In some cases, this has led women to take drastic measures.
“A woman's virginity needs to be verified according to judicial decrees and the divorce document,” says Mohsen Esmaeli, a senior official at the National Organization for Civil Registration (NOCR), a body that issues identification documents to the Iranian people. “However, an Iranian man who has divorced his wife can take her name off his shenasnameh if he marries a second wife and registers the second marriage with the authorities.”
Traditional social mores hold that an Iranian couple is allowed to spend time together when they are engaged but are not permitted to have vaginal sex. It is according to this dated, traditional notion, one that is steadily being eroded across Iranian society, that the NOCR came to its decision; tradition suggests a woman will be a virgin until her wedding night and so proving her virginity during the engagement period should not be a problem.
The societal pressure on women to remain virgins has also had the effect of creating a niche market for operations that reconstruct women’s hymens. Women, who feel pressurized by their families to be virgins on their wedding nights, can have their hymen “restored” by unlicensed “surgeons” in unofficial clinics across Iran. Many women bleed the first time they have intercourse, which many believe proves her chastity. But women can break their hymens doing physical exercise or other activities, so just because a woman does not bleed, it does not mean she was not a virgin.
The NOCR's decision on shenasnameh has created a frenzy online, most of which is critical. For instance on the Tabnak news site, an anonymous user stated, “This is ludicrous. What’s the difference between eliminating the name of an ex-wife or that of an ex-husband? This society was only created for men.” While another user commented, “Discrimination again! I'm sorry I'm a woman in this country.”
However the move has gained the approval of some. On the Khabaronline news site, a man calling himself Majid wrote,“how would you react if you found out that your wife had been with someone else? Maybe it's not an issue for you but it's very important for a lot of people.”
The NOCR's discriminatory ruling and the subsequent reaction online highlight the more significant problem within Iranian society of gender-based “double standards,” sometimes poignantly. Dr. Hassan Fereshtian, an Islamic jurisprudence scholar with PhDs in law and political science, accounts this to embedded cultural norms rather than Islamic law. “Some families don't allow their daughters to interact with men but allow their sons to do whatever they want. This paradoxical behavior is unrelated to Islam and is cultural,” he told IranWire.
The Iranian Elite
Iran’s political elite is divided over what they perceive women's role in society to be. More traditionalist factions still believe that women must stay home to do the housework and take care of their families. However, this standpoint is often challenged by other elements of the ruling class. For instance, in April 2014, President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatic conservative, criticized those “who consider women’s presence in society a threat,” and said, “We will not accept a culture of sexual discrimination.” He added, “Women must enjoy equal opportunity, equal protection and equal social rights.”
The sexual freedom of women in Iran is curtailed in other ways. Conservative sections of society believe women should remain virgins until they consummate a marriage and that virginity is a sign of chastity and moral purity. However, young Iranians take a more relaxed stance, with more and more of them engaging in pre-nuptial intercourse.
By law in Iran, a virgin Muslim woman needs the permission of her father or grandfather to get married, something the government justifies through its interpretation of Islam. However there are Islamic scholars who reject this interpretation. Fereshtian points out that this code is outdated: during the time of Prophet Muhammad, women were largely uneducated, and so they needed male guardians. But today, women are educated and play an influential role in society, with many holding public jobs in business, parliament and other social sectors.
“When a woman reaches puberty and is intellectually mature enough to make her own decisions, she can't be expected to ask her father or grandfather permission to get married”, says Fereshtian. He points out that the practice of deferring to family elders, like the double standards that apply in the treatment of daughters versus sons, is part of the Iranian culture — and not a tenet of Islam.
Despite the government and segments of Iranian society pushing for women to refrain from premarital sex, male chastity is completely overlooked. Men are not discouraged from engaging in sexual intercourse before marriage. The only way they could be affected by societal pressure is if women followed the government’s recommendation of remaining virgins until marriage; this way, men would struggle to find sexual partners. Though the hymen test is an inaccurate way of telling whether a woman is a virgin or not, it is still upheld by some as an indicator. But there is no comparable “test” to determine whether a man has had sex or not.
The issue of female sexual freedom in Iran highlights a country in transition, with modern and traditional elements co-existing side by side and dividing public opinion. Traditionalist circles still try to control and subvert women by pressurizing them into staying virgins until their wedding nights; at the same time, young Iranians take a much more relaxed view and engage more and more in pre-marital sex.
The National Organization for Civil Registration’s insistence that women undergo ludicrous assessments in order to update their ID cards is a reminder of just how hindered women are in Iranian society, despite President Rouhani’s claims to the contrary. Even if segments of society are changing and fighting for equal sexual freedoms for both genders, the fact remains that women do not enjoy equal rights with men, from sexual freedom and legal rights to child custody and full access to further education. These inequalities are not only embedded in social customs but are enshrined in law.