- Negotiating with Modernity: Young Women and Sexuality in Iran
Iranian society has changed considerably during the past twenty-seven years. While these changes are mostly visible in the appearance of the people and cities, less visible changes have also happened in traditional family norms and private life, especially where the young people are concerned. When they are acknowledged, these changes are referred to as a “generation gap” that occurred after the Islamic revolution.1 Among young women, changes in behavior and identity are evident not only among the “misveiled” (badhi-jab) girls (those who wear hijab in order to accommodate themselves to Iranian legal requirements yet intentionally disregard the spirit if not precisely the letter of the law) but also among “veiled” girls (often referred to as chadori, whether or not they actually wear the chador). Based on research done in 2005–6 through in-depth interviews with young urban Iranian women about their private and public lives, this essay examines whether as these girls are becoming less overtly traditional they are claiming their own subjectivity. The analysis indicates that although these young women are not as docile to traditional norms as previous generations were, they can hardly be considered a radically modern generation in terms of breaking with the deeper social conventions of the past.
The surprising inner conservatism of the youth, in comparison with their public claims to modern styles of identity, reveals the misperception of two common interpretations of youth behavior. The first is that misveiling is a kind of political resistance against the Islamic.regime; young women themselves characterize their style of dress as a personal choice and an indication of social rather than political identity. Therefore, although misveiling has some implications of political resistance, one can hardly interpret these new kinds of behaviors as directly oppositional. The second misperception is that removal of the veil is equal to the free expression of female sexual desire and agency; although young Iranian women (both misveiled and chadori) may be engaging more freely in premarital sexual relationships, they do so in a social context, which is still very much structured by the privileging of male desire over female sexual expression. Given the surprising contradictions and continuities revealed by the research, this essay looks at ways to interpret the changes that have occurred among the younger generations, especially young women, in Iran. [End Page 250]
A New Generation in a Changing Society
Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, many changes have occurred in the political, social, and cultural, as well as the private and public, aspects of life in Iranian society. These changes so deeply reshaped the face of the country that except for some explicit manifestations such as women’s veiling, today Iran seems less Islamic than it used to. More than any other aspects, these changes are visible within youth culture and the younger generations’ attitudes and behaviors. In practicing new lifestyles, which are different in many ways from the previous generations’, the new generation by and large does not seem as Islamic as the ideological government had expected it to be.2
Iranian youth culture is a heterogeneous phenomenon, consisting of different dimensions including new styles of dress, makeup, language, music, weltanschauungs, beliefs, and identification; longer life expectancy; different heterosocial relationships; drug use; and leisure time. Despite this heterogeneity, the differences between the generations are so big as to be referred to as a generation gap.3 The generation gap includes the misveiled girls as much as it does the chadori girls.4 While in most youth studies, chadori girls are excluded and are assumed to be religious and loyal to the Islamic Republic, it is worth considering their experiences and the differences that exist between them and their parents regarding private and public aspects of life.
In order to understand the significance of the changes in contemporary young Iranian women’s lives, it is necessary to put their generation’s experiences within the historical national context. The consistencies and social transformations within more than two decades of postrevolutionary formal political policies have resulted in a younger generation that is cynical toward formal politics as well as organized social action. Their preference is...