21 gsh 2010

She is my Girlfriend

In MEY: English, Persian
Here is Iran. A young boy goes hand in hand with a young girl. Or they’ve just resorted to a not-so-much-crowded quarter of a park. Or they hang out together.

A Police Officer approaches them. A familiar scenario is as follows.

The officer asks the boy, “Excuse me, what is your relationship with the lady?”
The boy replies, “We are engaged,” such a common answer.
“Are the family of the lady aware of this?”
“No. I’m just trying to find out whether or not she is the one.”
“Please call the family of the lady to come here to learn about your relationship, or we’ll bring you two to the police station.”

In most of the cases, the two are not formally engaged but friends. And in Iran, where girls and boys are separated from an early age, the young would not seek for a ‘simple’ friendship. They wanna be intimate friends. They want to experience something they’ve been long denied.

With a large number of the single having a friend of the opposite gender, this practice is becoming more usual day in day out, especially in metropolitan areas. Even many middle- and upper-class parents feel that a friendship of this type might be acceptable should the two seek for a long-term relationship probably leading to the marriage. And if the two don’t cross some certain redlines (i.e. no consummation before formal marriage), more parents may welcome their friendship.

Investigating the cause, statistics come to join natural inclination as the compound reason explaining a growingly observable social trend. Iran is of a surprisingly young population, almost half of which are 30 years old or younger. And the average age of marriage is going up. According to Parliament Research Center, marriage age is 29 and 28 years for the boys and the girls, respectively. So, who waits +28 years to have his/her first experience of the opposite gender?

Where the young find each other doesn’t matter that much. It might be a chat room where young Iranians seek for friends of the opposite gender and exchange numbers. Or just in the streets with the common form being the boy giving a free ride to the waiting girl. Or in the university. Or in a simple party. Or in friendship circles. Or in subway with exchanging looks and blinks. Or in the workplace.

What matters the most is that they used to hesitate to make their secret public because neither the former generation nor the formal regulations would approve it. According to the old tradition and state-run culture, it shall be either formal marriage or nothing. And for the young generation, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Change, however, is happening as a growing number of the young publicly declare they have a girl- or boy-friend. While a not-formally-married couple would have been isolated in the past and might prefer not to appear in the public, now they can easily find similar couples (as well as public acceptance) and engage in various social efforts, ranging from spending a few hours in café or parks to going on a vacation together.

The trend is so meaningful that even the mainstream media can’t ignore it anymore. In parallel with the facts on the ground, The Distance, a drama aired by Iranian state TV, crosses former red lines and portrays a boy, Saeid, son of a veteran and devout Muslim, who meets a pretty girl in the workplace and befriends her. As opposed to old customs, the fact that some relatives or friends may see them together doesn’t frighten him. Their defiance culminates when his uncle (also a religious figure) asks him who the girl is, and he insolently, and even proudly, maintains: “she is my girl*friend.”[1]

Not surprisingly, the story line of The Distance tries to discourage such friendships. It goes on to provide more details about personal life of Saeid’s girl*friend, Bitaa. Her father had been found guilty in a murder trial and sentenced to death. Bitaa should gather US$ 60,000 to pay the family of the murdered so as to save her father’s life. Since she has got no good-paying job, her last resort is to befriend men, old and young, and try to either steal some money from them or blackmail them. Saeid’s father follows Bitaa and learns about her indecent behavior. He first tries to aggressively discourage his son from befriending Bitaa. However, his efforts were fruitless because his son was in love with Bitaa. Then, he tries to be patient and let his son find out the truth. His patience finally pays off and the morale of the story is established: street friendships are bound to fail.

That drama offers an almost unique story. Parents’ patience in The Distance helped them maintain and strengthen traditional norms. However, in real life, society’s patience may work in the opposite direction because not all the girls/boys who befriend someone of the opposite gender are indecent ones. In fact, many of the young boys and girls form sincere relationships. And in the long run, people may come to believe that such friendships should be not only accepted, but also supported and encouraged.

Besides statistics and street evidences, there is another meaningful argument indicating that such friendships are becoming quite normal in Iran. A few months ago, there were rumors that a new department called Relationship Police was to be tasked with patrolling streets and public places and taking into custody or penalizing not-formally-married couples. Subsequently, in a TV interview, Ahmadinejad firmly decried this act [2]. His stance faced harsh criticism of clergies and hardliners. However, he reemphasized his position. Ahmadinejad, as a populist president sticking to power no matter what, knows that swimming against the current is a grave mistake. And, in this case, he sided with the people, I believe.

[1] This translation may be disputed. The original dialogue is “she is my friend.” However, as noted earlier, a simple boy-girl friendship is almost meaningless in Iranian culture, and a female/male friend usually means a girl*friend/boy*friend.

[2] He was quoted as saying: “to stop a girl and boy in the street and investigate their relationship is really hideous. Their relationship is none of your business.”