TEHRAN — A 1970s building on Tehran’s Enghelab (Revolution) Avenue that ends in Azadi (Liberty) Square has recently been the site for a series of meetings on an unusual subject given Iranian social norms. Every Tuesday, experts and members of the public come together there to talk, sometimes heatedly, about sex.
Since Dec. 4, “Forums on Sexual Crisis in Iran” has been bringing together academics, documentary filmmakers, clerics, journalists, students and women activists to discuss such issues as polygamy, sex education, homosexuality and transsexuality. The participants have also looked at temporary marriage (nikah mut’ah) and semi-independent marriage (in which a young couple officially marry and then live with his or her parents for a while), the pros and cons of Western approaches to sex-related matters and sexuality.
The sessions generally revolve around the so-called sexual crisis in Iran. Most of the speakers interpret the term to refer to the phenomenon of young Iranians turning away from the sexual mores advocated by Islam, namely no sex outside marriage.
The forums have been organized by Safir Films, a company founded in 2010 by a group of students from the Sharif University of Technology. The company produces long-form documentary films as well as video and audio clips. Most of the content on the website, including a documentary Safir distributed called “I am Rouhani,” espouses hard-line views. A member of the company who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity denied rumors of the operation being linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), describing it as “an independent media group.”
He conceded, however, “[One] could not be really independent when it comes to documentary making in Iran because you must sell some of your products to either the OwJ, the Hozeh Honari or the Documentary and Experimental Film Center.” The OwJ is the IRGC's media company, and the Hozeh Honari, the nation's largest cultural center, is under the Office of the Supreme Leader. The Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry oversees the Documentary and Experimental Film Center.
Despite the seemingly daring subject of the Safir conferences, the speakers mostly present conservative views, which participants occasionally contest. Speaking at the first forum, Mohammad Reza Zibaee Nejad, head of the Family and Women's Research Center at the Qom seminary, dismissed the idea that there is a sex crisis in Iran.
“[Rather, the situation is that] our young generation has questions regarding sexual subjects,” he said. “A new rationality that stems from the Western schools of liberalism and individualism are exerting changes on our society. There are new developments regarding sexual matters. … The first step to address is sexual education.”
That said, Zibaee Nejad further stated, “We should be careful to provide education to our youngsters at the right time without playing into the hands of the Western policymakers who have a totally different agenda from us regarding sexual education, its goals and language.”
At the Dec. 21 session, Ebrahim Fayyaz, an anthropologist from the University of Tehran, told the audience that Iran is going through a phase of sexual crisis during which young people seek sexual relations outside marriage, an institution in which they have no interest. While extramarital sex is generally frowned upon by traditional norms and condemned by religious and political authorities in Iran, it is quite common.
Fayyaz remarked, “Men are turning into women while women are turning into men.” He also asserted, “Encouraging society to look at woman as the axis of family and society is the approach that could turn the current tide.” Fayyaz indicated that he is clearly for resolving the “sexual crisis,” which, to him, is the “tsunami of homosexuality.”
Alireza Lavar, a researcher at the National Family Foundation, agreed that there is a sexual crisis of young people turning to extramarital relations. The antidote, in his eyes, is therefore marriage.
He told conference participants, “Islamic teachings encourage marriage as one of the ways to prevent or decrease social harms and improve the quality of life, therefore the society and the government should facilitate marriage by paving the ground, creating jobs, changing some traditional attitudes and views that hinder marriage between the young.”
On a more progressive note, Lavar said that women should play the main role in fighting back against some traditions, such as polygamy and nikah mut’ah.
One of the forum organizers, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, said, “We wanted to address the social and religious issues preventing some of the 20 million young men and women of sexually active ages from having legal and socially normal relationships.”
The figure he referenced stems from the 2016 census, published by Iran’s Statistics Organization, which showed that 11.5 million men and 8.6 million women over the age of 18 had never been married. He also noted that from 2015 to 2017 the rate of marriage fell by 16%, and the divorce rate increased by 7%, with the highest rate in Tehran.
When asked to assess the “Forums on Sexual Crisis in Iran,” Fatima Seraj, who has a doctorate in gender studies, gave the sessions a mixed review. “The forums were a good platform to ask questions but were not successful in offering solutions,” she told Al-Monitor. “The problem with debating such topics in a religious society such as Iran’s is that all discussions are from the Islamic point of view, particularly the Shiite branch of Islam, and they don’t take into consideration Western points of view.”
Documentary filmmaker Fatima Ismaili has been happy with the content. “They are trying to professionally address sex and sexual matters from an Islamic perspective,” she told Al-Monitor. “Some sessions really turned into a battlefield, especially the one about polygamy, when the female speaker who opposed polygamy, could not convince the audience [of her position].”
The forum sessions will conclude in the coming days. Asked whether Safir Films might revive the series at a later date, the organizer who spoke to Al-Monitor said, “We have to evaluate our achievements. If we are convinced that more discussions are needed, then yes, we may continue with them.”