World News

Iran Taboos Give Way to Weddings Worthy of Instagram

Posted June 2, 2018 1:17 p.m. EDT

TEHRAN — To get to the Emarat wedding hall, you have to drive outside Tehran and into the countryside, down a series of rural roads until you reach an entrance marked only by a number. There, a security guard checks your name off a list and directs you to a parking lot screened from the road that seems to have enough space for hundreds of cars.

Leaving the car, you walk through a series of arched walkways, covered in vines, leading to a lush garden that ends at a large wooden door. It is the entrance, at last, to the main hall that, on this day, is crowded with tables decorated with flowers and basking in the light of dozens of chandeliers.

The party, celebrating the wedding of Amir Hashemi and Melina Hashemi, is well underway. Men in tuxedos and women in revealing dresses with costume jewelry in their immaculately coifed hair have hit the dance floor for a favorite tune, the pop classic “The Pretty Ones Have to Dance,” by the exiled Iranian singer Andy. Couples at the tables enjoy small talk as some sip from small plastic water bottles.

In short, besides the remote location, nothing out of the ordinary for an upscale Western wedding reception. But in this case, the celebrants are violating no fewer than six of the fundamental laws governing personal behavior in the Islamic Republic: mixing of the sexes; women baring flesh and failing to wear headscarves; dancing; playing pop music; and, last but not least, consuming alcohol (in the vodka-laced drinks in the water bottles).

In another era, all these violations would be punishable with a lashing or jail sentences. Some, such as failing to wear the head scarf and drinking alcohol, still are.

At traditional weddings, men and women celebrate in separate rooms and applaud from their seats. When they meet afterward outside the venue, they are not supposed to shake hands, as any physical contact is forbidden. But the Hashemis’ wedding and many other equally relaxed social events illustrate how the old rules are giving way to the inevitability of change. “We wouldn’t even consider throwing a traditional party,” said Amir Hashemi, 36, who sells office equipment.

“We want to party with everybody,” said Melina Hashemi, 29.

Up until about a decade ago, the risk of getting caught by the security forces and the morality police trying to uphold the law would have been high. But today, in Tehran at least, young couples can choose on Instagram between dozens of wedding halls that have sprung up along dark side roads in the plains south of Tehran — some of them enormous venues with security, catering, DJs, bands and fireworks. Those places, like Emarat, are long-term investments that cost millions of dollars to build.

The events remain illegal, and at times the police still show up, sometimes to collect kickbacks, but mixed weddings have become a large industry here, and the venues host marriages almost every night.

“There is just so much demand for modern weddings that the state has decided to tolerate it most of the time,” said Asal Rastakhiz, 36, a prominent wedding photographer.

When millions joined the clerical-led revolution that ousted the Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, strict Islamic laws had widespread public support as a preparation for the afterlife. But not too many years later, the consensus began breaking down, and Iran’s clerical government and the increasingly modern society it leads have been engaged in a tug of war ever since.

Despite monopolizing Iran’s politics, the educational system, the courts, the security forces and most news media outlets, Iran’s conservative leaders have long been in retreat. While the laws are rarely changed, the flagging public support makes enforcement of the rules increasingly complex, with many former taboos now tolerated by society. “This ruling theocracy is stuck in its own proclaimed ideology, which is not clear and predictable,” said Shahla Lahiji, a publisher and civil rights activist. “It cannot even accept an iota of change in law and can only tolerate change if is forced to do so by the people.”

The pendulum can swing widely in Iran, with periods of relative liberality alternating with crackdowns. During the eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency, for example, the police presence was far heavier. But that ended in 2013, and even then people kept pushing for more personal freedoms. Most Iranians say the changes underway are so widespread and so widely accepted that it would take a cataclysm for them to be reversed.

“The social change is not reversible in Iran, because the traditions have changed; the way people interact and relate to each other has changed,” said Nader Karimi Joni, a journalist. “No law or crackdown can reverse this.”

At times, of course, the society’s frustration with the government has erupted in open rebellion, as when Tehranians took to the streets in protest in 2009 after what they believed was the fraudulent re-election of Ahmadinejad to a second term.

The rise of Instagram, which spread images of Tehran’s modern lifestyles, has led to similar demands by residents in smaller towns. During nationwide protests in December and January in more than 80 provincial towns, most demands were economic, but some in the weeklong protests said they wanted more freedoms.

But these outbursts provoked official crackdowns, and did not translate into increased freedom. That has been accomplished in subtler ways.

It is not just in wedding halls that the rules are being stretched. When Asal Khalilpour, 35, started her first fashion event six years ago, she took a big risk. In those days, when the police occasionally raided shops selling “improper” clothes, a show like “The Ladies Weekend,” which brought a blossoming group of underground fashion designers into the open, stood out.

“At the time, there simply wasn’t any fashion event,” said Khalilpour, who is from a family of entrepreneurs. “Fashion was officially frowned upon, but people were longing for it, aspiring to be different.”

Dress has long been a battleground between Iranians and their government. In addition to the compulsory veil, women have to wear a closed overcoat that falls over the knees. Men are not allowed to wear shorts, and for decades only doctors were allowed to have ties, long deemed symbols of the West.

But Iranians have always found creative ways to bend and even flout the rules, with fashion crazes like Western-style mullets and skintight coats for women. Currently, open coats are all the rage for women. While the morality police continue to roam the streets and at times arbitrarily arrest women they deem to be improperly veiled, the state has given up enforcing much of anything but the rules on headscarves and shorts. At one of Khalilpour’s recent events, sponsored by BMW, young women went through racks filled with products from local fashion designers. “Not only are we not bothered, they now praise us for producing locally,” she said.

At one of Tehran’s three Sam Café outlets recently, Dua LIPA blasted from the speakers, where until three years ago only instrumental music was allowed. Young people sat in front of MacBooks with white earphones sipping lattes as if the capital of the Islamic republic was just another city in the wider world.

For years, coffee shops in Iran were secluded spaces where young lovers would meet secretly. Often the police would cast an eye about the place to catch any violators of moral norms, meaning no kissing or holding hands.

But the owner, Mohsen Majidikhah, wanted a more welcoming environment. So this Sam Café has floor-to-ceiling windows opening the place to the street. People could sit along shared tables and converse with strangers. Majidikhah, who said he believed in the power of community, also acknowledged that his cafe had twice been shut down by the security police.

The decadelong game of push and pull between society and the state is growing tiresome for many people. Sure, they are pleased with the freedoms they had wrestled from the state, said Hojat Kalashi, a sociologist, but what do those mean when you can still be arrested at a mixed wedding party?

“We are changing nonstop, but the ruling establishment has no theory or vision how to run the country,” he said. “They have no plan how to deal with needs and instincts of people.” Ultimately, this will lead to collapse or explosion, he concluded. “What is clear is that this conflict between gradual changing society and rigid laws cannot go on forever.” Some take that point further, regretting having missed a chance to codify the changes in law.

“We should’ve pushed harder for new laws, and we should’ve urged people to take to the streets,” said Hamidreza Jalaeipour, a reformist politician and sociology professor. “We have simply failed to get this all in writing.”