Iranian culture is Class based, traditional and patriarchal. Tradition for most is rooted in religion and class and patriarchy have been constant features of Iranian society since ancient times. Class in its simplest form is mainly based on income and financial status or family genealogy, though modernity and traditionalism might also be used to distinguish classes. In Iran different classes are bounded together through different processes and have different cultures. For example kinship is a primary source of security and financial support for low-income families. While with the affluent kinship is a source of emotional and psychological support and welfare. Division of labor could be a relatively simple division between the public (men’s work) and domestic (women’s work) for the poor and/or uneducated, or a technical division in sophisticated work environments for highly trained and educated professional males and females. Generally the lower and uneducated classes may regard females as inferior or different who are entitled to a lesser position in the society. On the other hand the modern classes normally strive to guarantee the equality of sexes and eliminate gender discrimination.
Tradition is mostly based on religion particularly Islam and its’ prescribed codes of behavior, however it contains elements that are much older. For example the prominent position allocated to family as reflected in the Islamic sources and legal codes is a continuation of universal practices adopted by most Eastern societies since ancient times. What makes a difference with respect to Islam is the belief held by many Muslims that “Islam is a body of values, ideas and beliefs that should encompass all spheres of life, including personal and social relationships, economics and politics”. Consequently for the traditional practicing Muslim the only accepted relationship between the sexes may be through marriage or concubines. The two are the only forms legitimized by Shiite Islam. For such families there may be no question of males and females openly dating or socializing with such intentions before they are legally bounded through the prescribed unions (e.g. arranged marriages). In such cases what is usually classified as group behavior could also be identified with religious behavior. Separating the two might become a daunting task for outsiders not familiar with the intricacies of the traditional and or Muslim culture.
On the other hand decades of westernization and modernization during the Pahlavi era has created modern and ultra-modern groups that easily fit into any modern setup anywhere. The way people behave, eat or drink, dress and how easily they interact with the opposite sex is normally an indication of how traditional or modern they are (even what class they belong too) and what to expect when dealing with them. More traditional people normally dress conservatively (females do not expose their body parts and may cover their hair), they will not drink alcohol, do not consume pork and feel more at ease with their own sex rather than the opposite one. They might not dance at mixed gatherings and observe religious holy days and mourning rituals. They might refuse going to parties and join celebrations during major religious happenings. Some might practice segregation of sexes though this practice has mellowed down considerably in the 20th century. Some might primarily associate with people from their own religion.
Very conservative Muslims may avoid shaking hands or kiss unrelated individuals from the opposite sex. At the same time it is well accepted for the individuals from the same sex to kiss on both cheeks, hold, embrace and hug each other whether they are related or not. Iranians are very conscious about the way they dress and on the whole they dress well and dress codes are very important in distinguishing modern and traditional groups. Generally with the affluent, men and women are expected to dress expensively and fashionably with expensive jewelry and accessories (mainly watches and rings for men) and drive luxury cars. With the more modern, females have no problems wearing heavy make up, exposing body parts or dress sexy while in company of males. With the more traditional, female dress codes are modest and a lot more conservative with darker colors and little make up. With such groups, at mixed gatherings males and females normally end up as clusters on their own if not segregated in the first place. However at private all female gatherings even traditional Muslim women may dress sexy and expose body parts.
Amongst more traditional families the way younger generation dresses up could be a source of conflict with the parents. Wearing shorts or tank tops and heavy make up by girls will be regarded as indecent and corrupt. Boys may be scolded for wearing earrings and coloring their hair. Such fashion statements are regarded as womanly and many parents believing in distinct male and female roles and codes of behavior have problems with their sons acting in such manners. Boys are expected to dress formally with suite and tie for all major occasions and parties unless if they are very young. On the whole Iranians dress up formally even for ordinary parties and dressing up casually is reserved for very informal occasions with immediate members of the family. Formal dressing for men always included suite and tie, however since the Islamic revolution some Muslims have dropped the tie and identify it as a Western symbol. Dressing up formally and appropriately is also regarded as a sign of respect and people may get offended if their guests arrive in casual outfits and sneakers. Many amongst the modern and younger generations growing up in the Western countries have adopted the current life styles in such societies and might not be distinguishable form the majority or follow their own individual style, however once in the company of Iranians many still follow the expected codes.
Contrary to the stereotype images of Muslim males through the media most Iranian men do not have beards and if they do, it is not necessarily for religious reasons. However in Iran itself since the revolution beard has become a mark of alliance to the theocratic government and for this reason alone many refuse to wear beards though moustaches have always been popular and still are. Some practicing Muslims particularly the older generation does not shave as a sign of mourning during major religious occasions such as the deaths of Shiite Saints. Iranians party a lot, are great entertainers and are known for their hospitality and generosity at such occasions. People are anticipated to behave politely at parties, being loud is considered inappropriate unless people know each other very well. People stand up when new guests arrive except with the elderly who will remain seated and sometimes women will only stand up when other females arrive. Card games and jokes are a popular past time at parties but normally unsavory jokes are exclusive to males and are not mentioned in mixed gatherings with females present and definitely not in front of the elderly or parents.
Iranians will not normally joke about each others wives or other related females, unless if they are very close friends or related. If alcohol is served, males will normally serve the drinks and many women specially the older generation do not consume alcohol. It is best to ask people if they do drink alcohol before offering any to them, however very strict religious people might be offended if they are offered alcohol. However such people either do not socialize with non-Muslims or will make it clear before hand that they do observe Islamic codes with respect to eating and drinking. Many modern Iranians may not follow such codes and socialize freely with few reservations. Food preparation is a major part of any get together and there will be plenty of different dishes. The higher the status of the guests the more elaborate is the party. Guests are constantly served with some edible item, tea or drinks and the host mainly the lady of the house (sometimes daughters too) has the task of serving and refuse to take no for an answer and insist that guests should have what they are offered. This is a very popular etiquette and is known as ‘tarof’. Guests are not obliged to eat everything they are offered and can politely insist on refusing. Tarof has other implications at other circumstances and can be very confusing. People may insist that they will do such and such for you and they might not mean it at all. This is also called tarof, or if you admire something in their house, they will offer it to you repeatedly and again this is just tarof and they do not mean it. There are no set rules but if one is not a very close friend or a close family member most of what Iranians say or offer is very likely tarof and one should politely thank the person and refuse the offer.
Respecting elderly is another ancient practice that has survived. Traditionally the older people are respected, listened to and are treated accordingly. It is customary for all to stand up once they enter a room, the best seats are allocated to them and they are offered drinks and food before anyone else. Younger people are expected to be polite and restrain themselves and even avoid drinking alcohol or smoke cigarettes when elderly are present. Mothers particularly are revered and well into 20th century when traveling was a major task, sons would regard it as a tremendous achievement if they could finance their mother’s trip to Mecca or other holy shrines. Till recently grandmothers and aunts were trusted with the task of finding suitable spouses for the young in the family. The elderly are still consulted with such matters and play a very important part in bringing up their grand children and sometimes even naming them at the time of birth. While speaking to them or about them third person is used as a sign of respect and they normally have both a formal and a nickname allocated to them. There are no standard terminology used to refer to them and local variations exist and are important.
Iranian culture is patriarchal, legally and culturally males have more rights and privileges than females. Centuries of gender discrimination and segregation of sexes has created distinct roles and codes of behavior for both the sexes and many are still practiced today. Many women particularly the older generation feel more comfortable being with other women rather than in mixed company even though most do not practice segregation of sexes. Parents normally have double standards concerning their children. Usually, there are more restrictions for girls compared to boys with respect to individual freedoms, dress codes and association with the opposite sex. Virgin brides are still in demand by many Iranian males and their families, while there is little stigma attached to males having girl friends and sexual relationships while single.
Male offspring is preferred amongst many particularly the poor for whom male children are still a source of financial support. However such practices are eroding with the modern generations. For many families the father or the husband takes most major financial decisions. It is more common for such males to consult with their male relatives or friends than their spouses. It is only recently that wives have started participating in such decision-making processes. Gender roles are normally well defined and clear. The priority for females is marriage and childbearing. Due to economic necessity and with the phenomenal increase in the number of highly educated Iranian women such culturally accepted norms are creating major problems for working mothers and challenging the status quo. So far the solution for most appears to be reliance on family members such as grandparents to look after the children. Day cares are not on the whole trusted and nanny’s are preferred if affordable.
Iranian culture is adult oriented with parents being involved in making major decisions for their children such as, whom they should marry and what profession they should have. Nevertheless children are very loved and are the priority with most families. Education is highly praised amongst all Iranians and quite often children are pressured to succeed academically. Mothers and recently fathers spent lots of time with their children and if they can afford it they will financially support them all the way till they have finished all their education and beyond. It is quite expected with the rich to buy property and expensive cars for their children and provide them with a good life style from an early age. Children on the other hand are expected to trust and respect their parents and follow the guidelines designed for them. Family traditionally comes before the individual and family members are brought up and expected to understand and respect such notions.
Despite adaptation of western codes of behavior by many Iranians living in western countries spouse selection in majority of cases still involves parents and their approval.
Class considerations are very important; many people regard it as degrading marrying into classes lower than their own. It is accepted for parents to look for suitable spouses from amongst relatives, friends and people they know and trust. Appropriate candidates will be introduced through such connections and with the young peoples’ approval engagement and marriage will follow. Forced arranged marriages are a thing of past with modern urbanized Iranians. Many young people have no problems with the system but if they make their own choice and the spouse is not approved by the family major conflict is expected. Most Iranians have elaborate weddings and if they follow the traditional system of dowry and bride price the young couple will have to rely on parental financial support at time of marriage. Such practices in turn increases parental control over children. Groom’s family are expected to pay for all wedding expenses and if they do not they will be looked down. Bride’s family on the other hand provides dowry in form of necessary items such as furniture etc. The higher the status of bride and groom the more elaborate are the parties, jewelry, bride price (mahr) dowry etc. Though the younger generations are moving away from such practices nevertheless many Iranians still follow many of these traditions.
Interracial and out of religion marriages vary with different classes and are less common amongst traditional people and on the whole are not very popular. It is a lot more prevalent for males to marry non-Muslim foreigners than for females. This is mostly due to the fact that Muslim women are legally barred from marrying non-Muslims unless if the future spouse converts into Islam. Iranian family and inheritance laws favor males. These issues might create serious problems at times of divorce, custody rights and death.
If marriages are registered with the Islamic authorities the Iranian legislation will be applied to such marriages both in Iran and outside the country. In such cases when divorce occurs, the legal divorce document should be certified and validated at an Iranian consulate or Embassy plus getting an Iranian divorce as well to stop further complications. Children born from non-Iranian fathers even if the father has converted can not became Iranian citizens since it is their fathers’ nationality that matters and not their mothers. They are not able to own property in Iran, have an Iranian ID or passport. Such legislation has created immense problems for the Afghani refugees living in Iran who are married to Iranian women. Their children cannot attend schools since they have no legal status. If holding an Iranian passport, even non-Iranian wives may need their husbands certified permission to travel out of Iran. Father’s permission is also required for minor children traveling. If marrying an Iranian it is best to check all facts with the Iranian consulates before hand and be very clear about such matters.
It has become a common practice for many women to sign a prenuptial agreement with their husbands before or at the time of marriage. Such documents are incorporated in Aghed Nameh or marriage document and contain various articles such as guarantying women/children’s right of travel without the husband’s permission, the right to initiate divorce and custody and property rights at time of divorce. Lawyers and notary publics can process all documentations but they have to be certified by Iranian authorities to be recognized as legal documents.
Male/female relationships seem to be a complicated matter for many Iranians. Educated and modern classes have little problems understanding the dynamics of such relationships and engaging in them. Both sexes respect and treat their partners as equals and most have left behind medieval courting habits generations ago. However traditional and less educated groups might have problems with western courting styles. Males belonging to such groups normally marry virgin women, could be controlling, expect obedience and may not involve their wives in decision making processes. Any socializing with the opposite sex might be regarded indecent and offensive. Dress codes are tightly observed and children are also controlled and expected to behave according to the communal codes rather than following their own individual styles or western ones. It is advisable to know the family and background of your Iranian mate before hand to avoid complications in the future. Divorce itself might be unacceptable amongst some families and again it is advisable to discuss it beforehand.
It is also recommended to discuss birth control and abortion issues since some Iranians may object to such matters based on tradition or religious conviction. Such issues might still be taboo for some Iranians and they might find it difficult to discuss such matters especially with the opposite sex. However it is important to know what is your mate’s standing on such issues to avoid complications.
On the subject of infidelity it is hard to make any conclusions without stereotyping. There is no statistical data available and one can only guess that Iranians are the same as others. It is more acceptable for men to be adulterous than women and in fact adulterous women and their lovers are severely punished in Iran. Traditional males may regard such acts as contrary to their religious codes, but may and could practice polygamy or acquire concubines to comply with their faith. There are modern high profile Iranian females married to super rich Muslim men in North America who have accepted polygamy. There is very little information on the practice of temporary marriage or concubines outside Iran, but there are known cases of single and married man practicing it. However such practices are rare and socially unacceptable and very few people will openly admit to engaging in them.
Though on the surface it is not acceptable for married men to have affairs but some have and many wives prefer not to know about such matters. However with the modern generations women are loosing their tolerance with such behavior and divorce based on adultery charges have become more common than it has been in the past. On the whole one way to know an Iranian mate is to investigate their past and family background, habits and traditions. To socializes with their family and friends and talk to them extensively about all maters including, divorce, birth control, abortion and equality of sexes. All people marrying Iranians should consult Iranian authorities with respect to their (and children’s) legal status after marriage in order to avoid complications in future.