Like any people in a dynamic modern society, Iranians live a multiplicity of lives that make generalisations dangerous, especially at a time when the conservative-liberal divide that runs through Iranian society is as significant as ever – there are as many ways of being Iranian as there are Iranians. Even so, there are some mainstays – the importance of religious faith, the significance of family, and a proud attachment to local culture and traditions while generally remaining warm and welcoming to outsiders.
How Iranians Live
Life is a struggle for many Iranians and often bears little resemblance to the lives lived by their parents and grandparents. The majority of Iran’s urban dwellers live in flats, and in major cities homes are rapidly being replaced with apartment blocks. Land in Tehran is as expensive as many North American and European cities, and the cost of living is increasingly prohibitive. With prices for rental properties outstripping salaries more with each passing year, the struggle to make ends meet means many Iranians work more than one job and, in the case of the middle classes, often both men and women work. Many couples live with parents for years before they can afford their own place.
Rich & Poor
The gap between rich and poor is huge. Teachers, earning not much more than US$300 a month, are the sort of middle-class state employee hardest hit by inflation rates running at more than 8% per annum (although it has hovered around 20% in recent years). On the other hand, a fortunate minority live in lavish villas or marble-and-glass apartments in the wealthy northern suburbs of Tehran. It is not uncommon to spend US$100 on a meal for two at a trendy northern Tehran restaurant, an amount most Iranians could not even dream of spending. The women of such families tend not to work but instead lead lives revolving around their children, visiting parents and friends and working out with personal trainers.
In contrast a middle-class couple may leave their modest apartment together in the morning after the typical Persian breakfast of bread, cheese, jam and tea. Their children, if small, will mostly be looked after by grandparents while the couple go to work. One or the other may make it back for lunch, unless living in Tehran where distances are greater and traffic hideous. In the evening the family meal will be taken together, often with the wider family and friends. Iranians are social creatures and many visits occur after dinner.
In poorer or more traditional families it is likely that the woman will stay at home, in which case her whole day revolves around housework, providing meals for her family and shopping (in ultraconservative families the men may do the shopping).
Iranian meals take time to prepare and though supermarkets exist and some pre-packaged ingredients are available, many women spend a decent chunk of each day just buying, cleaning and chopping the herbs served with every meal. Working women generally see to these tasks in the evenings, when they may prepare the next day’s lunch. Mostly it is safe to say that men’s role in the home is confined to appreciating the quality of the cooking. Which they do well, Iranians being true gourmets.
Family life is of supreme importance to Iranians and often a family will include children, parents, grandparents and other elderly relatives. As a result, Iranian society is more multigenerational than Western society, something that’s most obvious on holidays and weekends when you’ll see several generations walking, laughing and picnicking together.
Living alone is extremely unusual and unmarried children usually only leave home to attend university in another town or for work. Although the young people of Iran long for independence and their own space, just like their Western counterparts, there is not much cultural precedence for this. Those who do live alone – mostly men – are pitied. Women living alone are regarded with extreme suspicion. Being married and having a family is regarded as the happiest – not to mention the most natural – state of being.
For the most part, the average Iranian family is a robust unit and, despite economic and social differences, most operate in broadly the same way. They provide an essential support unit in a country with no state benefit system.
Education is highly regarded; adult literacy is well above average for the region at 86.8% (91.2% for men, 82.5% for women), according to Unesco. The average years children attend school is 15 (the same for men and women), again one of the highest in the region. Many middle-class teenagers spend up to two years studying for university entrance exams, though the sheer number of entrants, ideological screening and places reserved for war veterans and their offspring make it very hard to get in. And once out of university, there is no guarantee of work.
With the sexes segregated at school and boys and girls discouraged from socialising together, trying to get to know members of the opposite sex is a huge preoccupation for Iranian teenagers. They hang around shopping malls, in cafes and parks, parade up and down boulevards and spend lots of time cruising around in cars.
Football is a national obsession and Iran has been competing internationally since 1941, winning three Asian Cups during the ‘60s and ‘70s and qualifying for four World Cups (1978, 1998, 2006 and 2014). Many Iranians of a certain generation can tell you where they were when Iran defeated Australia in dramatic fashion to qualify for the 1998 World Cup, their first appearance in two decades. The men’s professional league has 18 teams in the top division and runs from August to May, with games played most Thursdays and Fridays.
You’ll see kids playing football in streets and squares across Iran, but you won’t see too many pitches. This is partly because religious strictures mean women should not see unrelated men in shorts, so most grounds are behind large walls. Women are barred from attending men’s sporting events even though they are, conversely, free to watch them on TV; this oft-debated issue is dealt with in Jafar Panahi’s film Offside. Wrestling, skiing, tae kwon do and archery are also popular.
Modern-day restrictions aside, Iran does have an interesting sporting history. Polo is believed to have originated in Iran and was certainly played during the reign of Darius the Great. Shah Abbas the Great also enjoyed polo, and today you can still see the burly stone goal posts at either end of Esfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Sq. Another ancient sport peculiar to Iran is the zurkhaneh (literally, ‘house of strength’).
Unique to Iran, the zurkhaneh literally means ‘house of strength’ and is a mix of sport, theatre and religion that dates back thousands of years. As it was refined through the ages, the zurkhaneh picked up different components of moral, ethical, philosophical and mystical values of Iranian civilisation. The zurkhaneh itself is a small, traditional gymnasium often decorated like a shrine, and what goes on inside incorporates the spiritual richness of Sufism, traditional rituals of Mithraism and the heroism of Iranian nationalism. Typically a group of men stand around a circular pit and perform a series of ritualised feats of strength, all to the accompaniment of a leader pounding out a frenetic drumbeat. The leader sings verses from epics such as the Shahnameh and recites poetry by Hafez. Most zurkhaneh are open to the public and it’s usually free to watch. You won’t see many local women, but Western women are welcomed as honorary men.
Women in Iran
Nowhere are the contradictions in Iranian society more apparent than in the position of women; some of the fiercest battles in Iran's ongoing liberal-conservative schism have been over the issues of women's rights. That said, the situation is far from black and white and is one that defies easy simplification.
Women Through the Ages
Historically, women have lived in a relatively progressive society and enjoyed more equality and freedom than their neighbours. In Iran women are able to sit in parliament, drive, vote, buy property and work. There is a long precedence for this. Archaeological evidence suggests that in pre-Islamic women in Iran were able to work, own, sell and lease property and that they paid taxes. Women managed work sites and held high-level military positions. But it wasn’t until the Prophet Mohammed that women’s rights were specifically addressed. Islam recognises men and women as having different rights and responsibilities. Men are expected to provide financially, therefore women are not seen as needing legal rights as men are there to protect and maintain them.
In reality, for Iranian women, the arrival of Islam after the Arab conquest saw a decline in their position at every level. Most of their rights evaporated, the Islamic dress code was imposed, polygamy was practised and family laws were exclusively to the advantage of the male.
Reza Shah started legislating for women in 1931 with a bill that gave women the right to seek divorce. In subsequent years the marriage age was raised to 15 for girls, girls gained access to an education equal to that of boys, women were encouraged to work outside the home and legislation was passed to abolish the veil, a move that polarised opinion among women. In 1962 Mohammad Reza Shah gave women the vote and in 1968 the most progressive family law in the Middle East was ratified. Divorce laws became stringent and polygamy was discouraged. The marriage age was raised to 18.
Many Iranian women were active in the revolution that overthrew the shah, but it’s safe to say that few foresaw how the Islamic Republic, and its adoption of a version of Sharia law, would affect their rights. Within a couple of years women were back in the hijab – and this time it was compulsory. The legal age of marriage for girls plummeted to nine (15 for boys), and society was strictly segregated. Women were not allowed to appear in public with a man who was not a husband or a direct relation, and they could be flogged for displaying ‘incorrect’ hijab or showing strands of hair or scraps of make-up. Travel was not possible without a husband or father’s permission and a woman could be stoned to death for adultery, which, incidentally, included being raped. Family law again fell under the jurisdiction of the religious courts and it became almost impossible for a woman to divorce her husband without his agreement. In any case of divorce she was almost certain to lose custody of her children. Women holding high positions – such as Shirin Ebadi, who became a judge in 1979 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 – lost their jobs and many gave up promising careers.
However, Iranian women had tasted emancipation, and they resisted a total return to the home. There were many rights that women did not lose – such as the right to vote and the right to hold property and financial independence in marriage – putting them at a marked advantage to some Arab neighbours. In fact, the rates of education and literacy for women have shot up since the revolution for the simple reason that many traditional families finally felt safe sending their daughters to school once Iran had adopted the veil.
In 1997 Reformist president Khatami was voted in by mostly women and young people, promising change. By 2001 there were 14 women in the majlis (Iranian Parliament) and calls to improve women’s rights became louder. Among the most prolific Islamic feminists is Faezeh Rafsanjani, the daughter of the ex-president, who herself was a member of parliament, a magazine proprietor, an academic, a mother and an Olympic horse rider.
The Khatami period brought a series of hard-fought minor victories. The Reformists managed to win the right for single women to study abroad, to raise the legal age for marriage from nine to 13 for girls (though they had proposed 15), to defeat an attempt to limit the percentage of female students entering university and to improve custody provisions for divorced mothers. Women make up almost two-thirds of all university entrants, though their subsequent employment rate is below 20%. Although women’s importance in the workforce is acknowledged – maternity leave, for example, is given for three months at 67% of salary or four months if breastfeeding – there is still widespread discrimination.
However, a woman’s testimony is still only worth half that of a man’s in court and in the case of the blood money that a murderer’s family is obliged to pay to the family of the victim, females are estimated at half the value of a male.
On the street, especially in Tehran, you will see that superficially the dress code has eased compared with the days when the black chador dominated. Despite crackdowns that ebb and flow with the political winds, women of all ages can often be seen wearing shorter, tighter, brightly coloured coats and headscarves worn far back on elaborate hairstyles. Some young women have lost their fear of being seen outside the home with unrelated men and are prepared to risk arrest to do so. Activists such as Shirin Ebadi, who works as a lawyer and champions human rights, are insistent that within Islam are enshrined all human rights and that all that is needed is more intelligent interpretation.
Any visit to an Iranian home will leave you in no doubt as to who is really in charge of family life – which is arguably the most important institution in Iran. Many Iranian women are feisty and powerful and they continue to educate themselves. Some will tell you that the hijab is the least of their worries; what is more important is to change the institutional discrimination inherent in Iranian society and the law.
After conservatives regained control of the majlis in 2004 and the presidency in 2005 (with Ahmadinejad), such change became more difficult to achieve. Since mid-2007, and more so since the Green Movement mass protests in 2009, the government has been much more aggressive in enforcing restrictive laws that had, in effect, been dormant during the Khatami years. Across the country, female university students were told to start wearing a maqna’e (nunlike head scarf or wimple) or stop coming to class. In cities, and especially in Tehran, the liberties taken for granted for a decade from 1997 are being challenged by periodic high-profile crackdowns on what is perceived as bad hijab – usually too much make up and not enough scarf. Many of the Khatami-era reforms remained, but the immediate future for women seemed less optimistic and more uncertain than it had been for almost a decade.
And then, the pendulum swung back: in 2013, Reformist-backed Hassan Rouhani won the country's presidential elections. Even so, the Reformist influence over legislative agendas and enforcement remains tenuous, and no-one dares to return to the optimism that gripped the Reformist movement during the Khatami years.
No matter how Iran’s political landscape changes, it seems certain Iranian women will continue to assert their rights and slowly chip away at the system, be it with a defiant splash of red lipstick, making visionary movies or becoming expert at interpreting the law and winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
At the end of your first taxi trip in Iran, there’s a good chance you’ll ask the driver ‘chand toman’ (how many tomans?) and he’ll reply ‘ghabeli nadari’. His words mean ‘it’s nothing’, but the taxi driver still expects to get paid. This is ta’arof, a system of formalised politeness that can seem confusing to outsiders, but is a mode of social interaction in which everyone knows their place.
Despite the apparent contradictions in the taxi, you’ll soon learn that ta’arof is more about people being sensitive to the position of others than routine politeness. So for example, an offer of food will be repeatedly turned down before being accepted. This gives the person making the offer the chance to save face if in reality they cannot provide a meal (they will stop offering after the second or third time). A good rule is to always refuse any offer three times but, if they continue to insist, do accept. When a shopkeeper, restaurateur or (less often) a hotel manager refuses payment when asked for a bill, do remember that this is just ta’arof – don’t leave without paying! If you accept an offer that is in fact ta’arof, the shocked look on the vendor’s face should soon reveal your error.
Ta’arof also involves showing consideration of others in your physical actions, so try not to sit with your back to people and expect to be delayed at doorways as Iranians insist that whoever they’re with goes through the door first with repeated ‘befarmayid’ (please). Be prepared for small talk at the beginning of any exchange, as the health of every member of your family is enquired after. Returning this courtesy will be greatly appreciated. Also be prepared for questions considered personal in the West, such as your salary, marital status, why you don’t have children and so on. This is quite normal. Steer away from politics or religion unless your Iranian host broaches the subject first.
And don’t forget to pay the taxi driver…think of it this way: it would be bad form for the driver not to offer you the trip for free, and worse form for you to accept his offer.
Iran’s Age-old Celebration of the New Year
No Ruz literally means ‘new day’ and while the celebration is for Persian New Year, much of the traditional ceremony is about renewal and hope for the future. The roots of No Ruz stretch deep into history, with the spring equinox (usually 21 March) having been celebrated since before Achaemenid times. It’s a peculiarly Persian tradition that has nothing to do with Islam – a fact many Iranians are proud of but which doesn’t sit well with the Islamic theocracy.
No Ruz festivities stretch for about three weeks. Apart from frenzied shopping, the outward sign of No Ruz is street-side stalls selling the haft seen (seven ‘s’es; seven, or sometimes more, symbolic items with Farsi names starting with the letter ‘s’). Like a Christmas tree, they are supposed to be set up at home, though you’ll see them everywhere from TV news studios to taxi dashboards. Today’s most commonly seen seen, and their symbolic meanings:
- sabzi (green grass or sprout shoots) and samanu (sweet wheat pudding) represent rebirth and fertility
- seer (garlic) and sumaq (sumac) symbolise hoped-for good health
- sib (apple) and senjed (a dried fruit) represent the sweetness of life
- sonbol (hyacinth) is for beauty
On many tables you’ll also see sekeh (a gold coin, symbolising adequate income), serkeh (vinegar to ward off bitterness), a mirror, a Quran and candles. You’ll also see sorry-looking goldfish in tiny bowls symbolising life – until they die in their millions after No Ruz.
On the Tuesday night before the last Wednesday of the year chahar shanbe-soori, (Wednesday Fire), people sing, dance (men only) and jump over fires. The jumping symbolises the burning away of ill luck or health, to be replaced by the healthy redness of the flames. Unfortunately, actually finding a fire can be tough.
Chahar shanbe-soori is viewed as a pagan festival by the government and there is sometimes open animosity between revellers and (half-hearted) police or Basij militiamen. Some towns have grudgingly ‘approved’ fire-sites, though visiting these can be deafening and rather hazardous due to the uncontrolled bursts of fireworks. In many cities, however, fires are banned altogether; ask locally for the situation.
When No Ruz finally arrives, families gather around the haft seen table to recite a prayer seeking happiness, good health and prosperity, before eating sabzi polo (rice and vegetables) and mahi (fish). Mothers are also expected to eat symbolic hard-boiled eggs – one for every child. At the moment the sun passes the celestial equator (announced on every radio station), people kiss and hug and children are given eidi (presents). For the following two weeks Iranians visit relatives and friends in their home towns.
Sizdah be Dar
No Ruz celebrations finish on the 13th day of the year, Sizdah be Dar (usually 2 April). Everyone goes picnicking out of town, taking their haft seen sabzi with them. The sabzi is either thrown into water or, in some cases, left to blow off the roof of the car. Either way, the sabzi is meant to have soaked up the bad aspects of the previous year, so this ceremony symbolises getting rid of bad luck.