By Shima Shahrabi
Back in the 1990s when I was in my early teens, I was sent to the school office at Hoda Girls Middle School for being found in possession of a Michael Jackson videotape.
The school counselor forced to deal with me pulled her headscarf forward and glanced warily at the videotape on her desk. “Do you know this singer? Does anybody know whether he is a man or a woman?” she asked, not waiting for an answer before continuing, “They live like animals. They only want to satisfy their sexual urges. It makes no difference whether they sleep next to a man or a woman. They don’t care if they have babies from dogs or…”
She lowered her voice and asked me: “Did you know that this very same singer or dancer or whatever you want to call him has relations with animals?” She pronounced the sentence as though she knew every detail of Michael Jackson’s relations with animals.
It was the first time that I had ever heard about bestiality, something that according to my counselor was very common in the West.
I thought back to that moment in the school office when I read statements this week by Mehdi Bayati, the cleric who directs Iran’s Strategic Center for Chastity and Modesty. Back when I was in middle school, both my religion teacher and that school counselor dedicated long hours to how Western men and women have lost their taste for one another, how they are emotionally broken and have turned to animals to satisfy their desires. All this was meant to encourage young students to observe the Islamic hejab, instilling fears in them about what would become of a society in which women were not sufficiently chaste.
Mehdi Bayati has been putting forward the same argument. “The growth of feminism in the West and the fact that 60 percent of Western women prefer to sleep with dogs rather than men is the result of the absence of hejab [the veil] and the diminished threshold of women’s sexual arousal,” he told the Resa News Agency, run by the Qom seminary.
He did not specify the source of this figure, but referred to the provocative nature of women’s hair. “It is said that the Prophet Mohammad stated that women’s hair sexually arouses men,” he said, conceding that “perhaps modern science has not proven this” but “it was said by somebody who only speaks the truth.”
Invoking one of the less frequently discussed rationales for imposed dress codes, Bayati also said that “the absence of hejab lowers the libido of men and this would not benefit women.”
Iranian clerics have long promoted Islamic hejab by arguing about sexual corruption or deviance in the West, but one of the strangest comments came earlier this year from the cleric Mohammad-Mehdi Mandegary, a member of the ultra-conservative Endurance Front and the head of an organization called Foundation for Promoting the Way of the Martyrs.
Mandegary declared Western women are sexually promiscuous in a manner not even found in the natural world. “In the West when one woman has relations with several men, they take pride in it,” he said. “But animals are different and a female of the species does not have relations with several males at the same time.”
Mandegary, like many hardliners, believes Iranian culture has become too Westernized and distant from true Islamic culture. In a speech he asked Iranian men and women to abstain from sex after watching satellite TV so that the embryo would not be polluted. “Unfortunately some people are not careful about the moment of conception,” he said in warning. “They do it after watching satellite TV and listening to inappropriate music. But all this affects the embryo.”
Even leggings have been pulled into the fray. Recently tight leg apparel has become the focus of controversy among Islamic Republic officials, and the issue was brought to the floor of parliament by the Tehran MP Ali Motahari. In an open session he displayed pictures of women in leggings and argued in remarks broadcast on television that “sexual deviations, homosexuality and bestiality are results of unbridled behavior and the trampling of morality, which hejab would prevent,” and legging, it would seem, incites.
Another bizarre comment comes from Mohsen Gharaati, a cleric who is the representative of the Supreme Leader at the Literacy Campaign and a frequent TV personality. In a speech he declared that, “Westerners have been cheated when it comes to sex.” He then compared a kiss between an American boy and girl with the kisses that he used to get from his grandmother.
“When I was in America, I saw boys and girls who were kissing each other but it was as though they were kissing a brick wall,” he said. “The kisses were not solid because perhaps this was the 96th person they were kissing that day. But when our grandmother kissed us it felt like she was sucking us in.” When the audience laughed he added that “they think freedom would benefit them but they were cheated.”
I turned to Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, a reformist cleric who spent three years in prison for his political positions, to help me understand the religious or social context for such views. “These words astonish me as much as they amaze you,” he said. “I ask myself whether these gentleman are delusional or have been given wrong information. But I cannot find a clear answer for such nonsense.”
Eshkevari noted that such views have a long history, and cited Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic, who returned from Paris and justified imposed hejab by saying that ‘women’s hair radiates a spark that arouses men.”
Banisadr, according to Eshkevari, also interpreted a verse from the Qur’an to mean that some women were aroused when beaten. Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi interpreted the same verse in the same way about seven years ago, Eshkevari says, concluding that physical harm arouses some women.
“If an Islamic thinker and a Western-educated man such as Banisadr resorts to [such things] to justify himself, what do you expect from Ayatollah Shirazi?” Eshkevari said.
But it is not only clerics and Islamic ideologues who use offensive words and images to describe the sexual life of Westerners. Last winter the commander of the Basij paramilitary force, General Mohammad-Reza Naghdi, used this theme to criticize nuclear negotiations with the Americans. “Thirty-five percent of babies who are born in America are bastards,” he said, without citing a source for his statistics.
A few months later, Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi, a member of Iran's Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, went even further in a speech about human rights. “In Western societies 75 percent of children do not know their fathers and are raised by their mothers,” he told his audience. Defending the death penalty by stoning for adultery, he asked, “Why do Western countries consider this punishment against human rights?” He answered his own question by saying that “there are no sexual complexes in Islam because in Islam marriage makes faith complete whereas in Christianity marriage is not a Godly affair.”
Last month Hassan Abbasi, the head of the Center for Doctrinal Strategic Studies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a theoretician in the office of the Supreme Leader, claimed that the “Western human rights approves of incest. Incest is very rare in animals but the Western man has debased himself so much that he supports incest as a human right.”
“In America 100 percent of men have free sexual relations after marriage,” Abbasi said in another speech, which was aired on TV. “While in Iran perhaps two men out of ten thousand might marry a second wife. Listen to them shout about equality between men and women.”
Abbasi then referred to Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American astronaut and the first Iranian woman in space. “The basis of the Shi’a thought is chastity and the West uses women to destroy Shi’ism. Why did they send this woman Anousheh Ansari into space with a few men? They want to kill chastity. This is the main plank of feminism and feminism is the foundation of American lifestyle.”
Reading and researching such statements, I wonder how widely held such attitudes still are today among mainstream Iranians. On a whim I went on Facebook and searched for my old school counselor, who in her profile picture still wears hejab, but not as strictly as in those days.
I noticed a picture of her daughter, who was our classmate, and out of curiosity visited her page. She was not wearing hejab, but more surprising that that, is married to an Englishman. I was reminded of what her mother, the school counselor, told us so many years ago: “Ninety percent of Westerners have sexual problems. They are not aroused and most of them have relations with animals.”