Passionate Uprisings in Iran

Author Pardis Mahdavi wrote Passionate Uprisings from personal experiences during the seven years she spent observing politics and sexuality in post-revolution Iran. Mahdavi claims that the country is undergoing a momentous generational shift away from religious traditions toward democratic values. This changing image is missing from mainstream news in the west but in fact, Mahdavi says, people in the west have a lot in common with this new generation that embraces individual freedoms.

This new generation confronts unique problems in Iran. There is little to no access to information or education about safe sex, protection from sexually transmitted diseases, nor reliable access to birth control. In a review of the book, reporter for The Nation Laura Secor sums them up in this passage:

for all their promiscuity and seeming sophistication, many of these young Iranians suffer from a lack of sexual education and resources that fits the official culture of pious abstinence rather than the actual one of looseness and risk. The birth control method of choice among Mahdavi’s informants is withdrawal. Women who take the pill frequently lack the most basic information and take it only erratically, depriving themselves of almost all of its effect. Condoms are considered so filthy and embarrassing that even people who share florid details about their sex lives with Mahdavi blush at their mention, and no one wants to be seen requesting them at a pharmacy. AIDS, educated young Iranians tell Mahdavi, is transmitted through visits to the dentist or hairdresser, and other STDs come only from a certain unsavory sort of woman. While wealthy women can obtain abortions–illegal in most cases but common, thanks to poor contraception–from sympathetic doctors at vast expense, poorer women acquire on the black market pills or injections meant for animals.

A woman smiles at police after recent crackdowns on Islamic dress (via Flickr user Amir Farshad Ebrahimi)

A woman smiles at police (via Flickr user Amir Farshad Ebrahimi)

Politically speaking, the younger generation is stuck in an unfortunate bargaining position with the powers that be. They want to change the moral code and to be free from the established religious authorities but have sacrificed a moral basis to reform the Islamic regime. According to reviews, Mahdavi ends her book with a hopeful forecast for social reforms in Iran. Yet such claims seem hasty as critics point out. Questions about religion in Islamic society and governments matter too. Secor broadens the issue and asks:

do Iranian young people feel they are questioning the state’s monopoly on Islam, or are they questioning Islamic sexual morality itself?

Secor goes on to say the universal problems among Iranians today are mainly due to social, cultural, and economic factors. Reforms to education, quality health care, and financial independence for women are desperately needed. Still, reform has already started but on a smaller scale. Some Iranian women are emerging leaders in society as lawyers, doctors, and scientists. Mahdavi’s ideas about a newly liberated and democratic generation is not a new idea in Iran, but part of a debate that has been going on in the decades since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Human rights leader and Nobel-Prize winner Sharin Ebadi can relate to frustrated youth. The Islamic Revolution did in fact mark a new era of independence for the nation, as Ebadi recounts to BBC news from her own experience, but Iranian citizens are still fighting for the freedom everyone expected from a new regime. The women’s movement and Islamic feminism have had a long history of slow, but steady advances. The social problems this generation faces are new but the debate over individual freedom is clearly part of a larger movement. Ebadi and other prominent activists in Iran do seem to agree with Laura Secor that the goals of their movement are mainly social and cultural, but also add that efforts for reform are based in Islamic faith and a more authentic moral order and traditions, one that authorities in power have repressed as well.

Mainstream news reports and many reviews of the book do tell us that Muslim women fight for equal rights and rebel against injustice under sharia, but question whether young adults are engaging in moral reform at all. Certainly, the women’s movement in Iran does have ambitions for equal rights, justice under sharia, and new laws based on Islamic tenets.

Grassroots efforts have placed international pressure on government to follow through with such reforms. One of the most well known of these is the “One Million Signatures” campaign. Could this shift also represent a movement toward democratic reforms? Any answer depends on whether political leaders will deliver as well. Whether or not the next generation advocates for democratic reform, the decision to pass new laws depends on whether national government will enforce them. As Iranian activist Sussan Tahmasebi says:

Part of the responsibility also falls on Iranian authorities — who fully know that Iranian civil society is not looking to bring about regime change. Civil society and women’s rights activists are looking for positive and constructive strategies to address social problems, and the Iranian government should welcome such an involvement, which demonstrates the maturity of Iranian citizens and their commitment to their country.

A walk through the Grand Bazaar in Tehran (via Flickr user kamshots)

A walk through the Grand Bazaar in Tehran (via Flickr user kamshots)

Perhaps Pardis Mahdavi’s sense of urgency in predicting the future for Iranian leaders makes a statement about Iran’s society today, even if it’s not exactly the one she intended and articulated for today’s youth. The next generation has fresh attitudes and ideas and rebel against government authority. However, a political movement depends on national government to take responsibility for enforcing individual freedoms and new reforms on a large scale. In the future, there must be a political model for leaders to emerge in the spirit of this generation and take government office but right now, there is none.

The question isn’t when change will begin. It has already begun, and Muslim women seem to be leading the political reform movement on the community level and attracting international attention, but are still repressed by national government. The real dilemma is whether or “passionate uprisings” will give rise to political leaders willing and able to work alongside Islamic feminists and change the national landscape in Iran.

Sexual revolution may indeed be a developing political movement. It’s also a reminder that Islamic reform could take diverse interpretations. Even among democracies like Britain and Canada, sharia takes various roles in the civil court system. Moreover, individual freedom may not lead to other democratic values like a representative regime. The success of women’s rights to reform government may encourage the the next generation to mature with a new and non-western model in mind and later empower them to carry out this political legacy. Whether leadership is democratic may not matter as long as it is authentically Iranian and progressive.

What do you think about the future of Iran? Have you read Passionate Uprisings? Please leave any additional thoughts about the book or Iranian youth here on Inside Islam. Also, if there is a comment about political Islam, the 30-year anniversary of the Iranian revolution, or women and sharia for us consider on Inside Islam, feel free to share it below or send us an email message.

2 thoughts on “Passionate Uprisings in Iran

  1. A fascinating piece. For those who were similarly interested by it, you may consider submitting a piece to the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Its forthcoming issue will be entitled “Engaging the Taboo: Gender, the Body, and Sexuality in our Religious Traditions.” For more information, feel free to check out

  2. I haven’t read Passionate Uprisings but a good friend on mine just returned from Iran. He told me that while it’s still overwhelmingly conservative, he’s started to notice some subtle changes that seem to be heading in a more tolerant direction. I certainly hope we see positive change there soon.