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Iran's Youth and Women's Movement

For nearly two weeks the ground shifting protests in Iran's capital city of Tehran has seen an unprecedented number of young people and women who have risked their lives to speak back to the regime in opposition of the suspect re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


Their faces, voices and deaths have become the symbol of what could possibly be seen as an emerging revolution. But amazingly none of this recent and historic activity can be credited to or actually began with the questionable Iranian presidential election. In fact for years prior to the June 2009 protests, Iran had already been undergoing a quiet but rapidly growing sexual revolution where young people, women, and gays have been speaking back to the regime with their bodies, behaviors and dress.

Previously, an increasing number of women in Tehran had been wearing lipstick, gay nights were being held at night clubs, and the youth of Iran were beginning to speak more openly about sexuality, sexual activity and sexual identity all at the risk of being caught by Iran's strict morality police. As a result, the world could potentially be witnessing a tipping point of Iranian political change chiefly credited to the long-term simmering twin movements and efforts of Iran’s youth and women.

Iran's Passionate Uprisings
In December 2008, this reporter interviewed Pardis Mahdavi, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Pomona College. She is also the author of the book, Passionate Uprising: Iran's Sexual Revolution. Six months before Iran's presidential protests, Mahdavi shared that Iran was undergoing massive internal changes led by its youth and women. The "revolution" she described was sexual in nature fought by the efforts of women and young people to redefine the social and sexual norms and behaviors of a rigidly fixed society.

Born and raised in the US, Mahdavi began writing about Iran's Women’s movement shortly after turning 21 when she initially visited the country. And for seven consecutive years she spent several months at a time living in Tehran. She also lived there full time between 2004-2005. Her field work led Mahdavi into the unchartered world of Iranian young people and women who had already been discussing amongst themselves what they had termed as a sexual revolution underway in Iran.

These burgeoning Iranian social changes can actually be encapsulated into four categories which serve as both the backdrop and the springboard for Iran's post-presidential election turmoil. The thirst and hunger for human rights combined with a boiling angst for personal and sexual freedoms has catapulted the Islamic Republic of Iran into brand new socio-political territory.

The Size of Iran's Youth Population
Today 70% of Iran’s 70 million population is currently under the age 30 with 50% between ages 18-30 Mahdavi reports. She explains that the awkwardly skewed demographic is due to government polices which began shortly after the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79.

"In the 1980’s they [Islamic regime] enforced a pro-natalist policy whereby families were encouraged to have as many children as possible. And the way they encouraged it was by subsides. Any family that had five children or more got a free plot of land" she explained. She adds that the idea was to "Populate the nation with young people who would serve Islam." In addition Iran also engaged in an eight-year war with Iraq during the 1980s and there was a strong nationalist desire to replenish its population.

This large community of young people are now questioning "why" and also questioning the authority which governs them. They’re young, oppressed and beginning to push back on the norms of society as they begin to understand themselves and the rest of the world. Much of their rebellion targets their required dress, gender separation and sexual behaviors.

"Young people are saying this is a regime that has either come to power or operationalized its power through a fabric of morality and we are going to attack the regime by attacking that morality. And we’re going to use our bodies we’re going to use our bodies speak back to the regime" explains Mahdavi.

She elaborates that Iranian youth feel that "This is a regime that is so overly focused on our bodies, has laws about what we have to wear, Islamic dress codes, has laws about socializing. Young men and women who aren’t married shouldn’t socialize, no drinking, no dancing, no partying, no having fun."

And in recent years Iranian youth have rejected these rigid rules by socializing between genders, hosting underground parties some of which turn into orgies and by listening to non-Islamic approved music.

"They're using their bodies and engaging all these different types of behaviors to speak back to the regime." Iranian youth are saying that "You haven't won our hearts and minds. And we're going to do this to show you that you haven’t won our hearts and minds. We're going to carve out spaces for ourselves by engaging in social behaviors that the regime would deem immoral."

And from an Islamic perspective Mahdavi explains that "Many of the young people I interviewed saw themselves very much as secular. We may be spiritual but because religion has been shoved down our throats we have problems sometimes with organized religion, sometimes with the fact that religion is running the country" the Iranian youth revealed to her.

But what about the morality police those individuals charged to ensure that the general public adheres to Iran’s strict religious based laws? "It becomes a numbers game because you have so many young people that the morality police cannot possibly arrest every single one of them for being subversive" Mahdavi explained.

Technology and Iran's Youth
As witnessed by the Iranian presidential protests, young people have utilized the internet and cell phone technology to capture the most brutal and riveting images of the regime's crackdown. Social media sites such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have become the 21st century tools used to capture the opposition demonstrations in lieu of network television ground crews.

But months prior to these demonstrations, Iranian young people were already exploring the internet to understand what life was like outside of their country. They were also searching for answers to questions often deemed as taboo such as topics dealing with sex and sexuality. Similar to other young people from around the world they are curious about the intricacies of intimacy, sexual orientation, and the risks of HIV/AIDS.

According to Mahdavi "Persian which is the official langue of Iran is the third or fourth most used language on the blogosphere." She adds that “At any given point and time there are millions of Iranians who are online. So they absolutely have access to this globalizing youth culture. And so I think they could be taking their cues from any number of places."

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According to her research although the average age of marriage may be 25, the average age of first sexual intercourse is 15. "There is a 10-year gap between when people first start engaging in sexual behavior and when they get exposed to the education about managing the risks and about managing sexual health."

And for Iranian youth who go against religious law and engage in pre-marital sex, they're often forced to do so without condoms thus increasing their risk for contracting HIV/AIDS. "Pre marital sex is illegal so a young unmarried person is not going to feel very comfortable walking into a pharmacy to purchase condoms. Technically the pharmacist wouldn’t ask for a marriage license but they might harass them."

Mahdavi adds that the typical rhetoric of many young Iranians when it comes to the fear HIV/AIDS is that "I'm more afraid of getting caught by the morality police or my uncle than I am of getting HIV. If I get HIV I'll deal with it then but right now I’m trying to get by on a day to day basis."

Pardis Mahdavi

Pardis Mahdavi

The Memory and the High Education of Women
There is a segment of older Iranian women who remember a much better life under the Shah of Iran. During this era, women actually lived with more basics freedoms to vote and to hold political office. But after the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and repealed those advances and reinstituted extremely rigid and strict moral code of law which came down harshly upon women.

But Iranian women still continued to push for reform buoyed by their higher education; women make up 65% or more of university students. They were also inspired by past Iranian women who prior to the Iranian Revolution held Cabinet level government positions and who had contributed heavily to the scientific, literary, and arts movements.

"Women are very strong and very prominent in Iran. Islamic dress is much more harsh on women. Intellectually they’re also very strong, very goal oriented. The woman cowering behind her veil is very wrong. Women are reasserting their sexuality" explains Mahdavi. She added that women still excel in other areas of life citing examples that there are "Women race car drivers, champion women golfers, horseback riders, and Nobel prize women” who are Iranian.

Another example of Iran's women's sexual revolution was their fight to wear open toe shoes something that might appear to be frivolous to American’s but was a monumental victory for Iranian women.

Mahdavi recounts that "In the summer of 2002 and 2003 young women pretty much decided to come out en masse all of them wearing open toe shoes. Now maybe the first thousand or the first ten thousand could get arrested. The fact of the matter is you cannot possibly arrest a hundred thousand women wearing flip flops. Picture arresting a hundred thousand women wearing flip flops. It's just not possible. So what happened? Young people can now wear flip flops or open toe shoes. Now that’s just something they're not going to get arrested for. We may not see that as a lot but it is a lot and it is significant because it's them speaking back to the regime and the regime has no choice but to sort of accept it."

Mahdavi also details in her book when she and a female friend were driving back from a party. "We're wearing tight outer coats, my friend is wearing a lot of makeup, our head scarves are slipping pretty far back and the morality police pull us over and all they want to do basically is flirt with us and ask us out [on a date] instead of arresting us. It's a numbers game. They can't arrest everyone. There's been a lot more space for social behaviors."

Iran's Gay Community
Under the Shah of Iran gay rights and homosexuality in general was tolerated. In fact there were even night clubs that catered to this community. But all of that changed after the Iranian Revolution. Since then public hangings, lashings and intense rhetoric against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community has been the method used by the regime to oppress this community.

In 2007, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly denied the existence of gays within his country at a speech given at Columbia University in New York City. But still a quiet sexual revolution had already begun to take place over the years in the city of Tehran where some nightclubs started to once again host gay nights. Further, online Iranian LGBT communities have sprouted up providing a connection and support under the oppressive regime.

"Now you have gay night [at night clubs] which you wouldn't have had seven years ago. And we have to really credit the youth movement for creating that space." And identical to straight youth, gays also have their challenges in obtaining knowledge and using protection against HIV/AIDS. "HIV I think is a big problem but we don't have good statistics on it. We don't have good base line data on it. I think many people are afraid to get tested or they just don't" Mahdavi explains.

In May 2009, Iran's Health Ministry reported that there are nearly 20,000 people in Iran who are HIV positive. The highest infection rate (40.2 percent) occurred among men between the ages of 25 to 34. In total 13.5 percent of all cases were contracted through sexual contact with 77.5% through intravenous drug use. Iran is reported to have some of the highest rates of drug use in the world along with a rising number of intravenous drug users. The nation is also bordered by the opium generating country of Afghanistan


So What's Next?
As of June 2009 many question marks remain concerning the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Everyday the twin youth and women's movements are converging upon the overall desire for human rights. Will there be another Iranian Revolution or will the regime stay in power, badly weakened but empowered nonetheless. And will the outside world place additional pressure of isolation as its response? In the days, weeks, and months to come either ground shifting history will be made or fierce suppression will continue. The people of Iran and the world deserve far better than the latter option

Herndon Davis

Herndon Davis is a media consultant/journalist focusing on issues of diversity among people-of-color, women and LGBT. He can be reached at