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Sex and the ayatollahs

When it comes to sex education, the Iranian authorities are anything but squeamish

  • Tuesday June 10 2008

  • Article history

Pomegranate-flavoured condoms anyone? In Iran, sexuality in public may be cause for police harassment and worse but sexuality in private (as long as it is heterosexual) is there to be enjoyed as a blessing from God - or so the authorities would have it. A decade ago there were more flavours of condom in Iran than in London, New York or Paris.

Gay people, infamously, can be singled out and killed, but gay and lesbian activity thrives in Iran's big cities, just as in other countries that abuse such human rights.

However, it is in the realm of sex education that Iran is markedly different from most countries in the region. HIV/Aids seems a good gauge of the effectiveness of sex education policy in terms of health. After all, this is a country that has suffered massive violent upheaval followed by a US-fostered renaissance of drug and human trafficking on its borders. It seems that a Shia theocracy isn't a bad system when it comes to sexual health.

While NGOs backed by politicised money like to concentrate on the bizarre emphasis of President Ahmadinejad on a ridiculous herbal "cure" for Aids, the Islamic Republic has in fact been earmarking tens of millions of dollars for Aids programmes. It was back in 2005 that postage stamps bore the red ribbon for Aids awareness and today, vending machines in the capital sell cheap condoms and syringes. Official estimates put the number of regular drug users in Iran at two million among a population of just over 70 million - per capita, the highest rate in the world. The situation has worsened since start of the US-backed war in Afghanistan from where 2,500 tonnes of narcotics a year now enter the country.

It was in the 1980s - not long after Britain screened its first advertisements warning of the dangers of HIV - that the Iranian government began Aids-awareness campaigns and a modicum of sex education. It was also around that time that campaigns were launched to promote two-children families, overturning Khomeini's postwar policy of outlawing contraception and instructing women that their chief role was to bear children. In 2002, a wide-ranging study in Tabriz pointed to the effectiveness of sex education in schools in preventing the spread of HIV. The clerics of Qom and Mashhad gave their blessing. Nevertheless, government bureaucracy is preventing Iran from being a world-leader in HIV/Aids-prevention – specifically the lack of statistics and basic record-keeping that blights Iranian medical research in all fields.

Iran is, however, ranked by the UNDP as having some of the best health and education provision in the region. Perhaps it's not surprising that a country that has gone through the turmoil of a revolution and an eight-year war with Iraq should not be on top of things. The current economic crisis alone is degenerating into a prostitution epidemic. A remarkable facet of Shia Islam, though, is its lack of squeamishness about teaching youngsters the dangers and practicalities of sex - unlike many Christian and Sunni countries. One only has to look across the Gulf at a fleshpot dictatorship like the United Arab Emirates where 80% of the population live in abject poverty and the government gives a tacit nod and a wink to the massive, miserable sex trade.

But for all this, the role of women in society is the key indicator when it comes to any analysis of sex education in Iran. Despite the high proportions of women in senior management and the professions, they still tend to be treated like children. Given that Iranian women have not even organised themselves to get rid of the compulsory hijab let alone achieve equal property rights, sexuality even in the large middle class is dictated by men - not least when it comes to depictions of what is most alluring. Whether it be the high rates of rhinoplasty surgery at one level to the much more shadowy world of the temporary – even hour-long - marriage, blessed by clerics, Michel Foucault would have had an easy time ascertaining the power relations here. But a post-structuralist analysis demonstrating the importance of identity over class when looking at sex education in Iran would only be a beginning 

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