Negotiating with Modernity: Young Women and Sexuality in Iran

Negotiating with Modernity: Young Women and Sexuality in Iran
Author: Fatemeh Sadeghi

Iranian society has changed considerably during the past twenty-seven years. While these changes are most visible in the appearance of the people and cities, less visible changes have also happened in traditional family norms and private life, especially where 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” (bad hi-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 chador, 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.

Bibliography: Sadeghi, Fatemeh, “Negotiating with Modernity: Young Women and Sexuality in Iran”, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and theMiddle East, Vol.28, No.2,2008.

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