When the Islamic Revolution in 1979 overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and established an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Khomeini, it represented a profound political and social transformation in Iranian society, particularly towards sexuality. The Revolution sought to counter the influences of secularization that became institutionalized under the Shah’s government. After all, most Iranians are Muslims; 90% belong to the Shi’a branch of Islam, which became the official state religion, and about 8% belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. Under the Islamic Republic, all laws in the new republic would be based on Islamic Shari’a law. Yet, the implementation of Islamic law is surrounded by controversy, particularly as it pertains to its attitudes towards sexuality. While much of the world was undergoing a sexual revolution that espoused the virtues of “free love” during the 1970s, the Islamic Revolution arose from distrust over this sexual liberalization. This offers clues to Iranian secrecy concerning sexuality and their attitudes towards psychosexual dysfunctions.
Sexuality in Islam is largely based on the Muslim holy book known as the Qur’an and the sayings of Mohammed within it. But, wide-scale policies regarding sexuality deduced from the Holy book have always been based on interpretation and perspective. How much of these laws are merely projections of the cleric’s views on sex, rather than the actual beliefs of Mohammed? Because of Islam’s ambivalence towards sexuality, the Islamic Republic has created an environment that lacks openness when it comes to discussing psychosexual dysfunctions suffered by Iranians.
When discussing sexuality in Islam, it becomes difficult to separate the truth from interpretation. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, an individual’s psychosexual health has to meet several criteria. For beginners, sexual relationship needs to be between a man and a woman. “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” told Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to an American audience in Setpember 2007. “In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon.” Homosexuality is a crime punishable by death under the country’s theocratic government. Since the 1979 Revolution, the government reportedly has executed more than 4,000 people charged with homosexual acts although reliable figures are almost impossible to confirm. Ironically, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa –or an Islamic legal pronouncement – stating transexuality is legal if it is accompanied by a sex change operation. Though they risk discrimination in a conservative society, many homosexuals undergo this process as a means to avoid imprisonment or death for homosexuality. Additionally, victims of homosexual rape rarely report their cases because if they do, the victim himself risks equal punishment as the perpetrator. In this respect, sexual attitudes in Iran are veiled in silence.
The prophet Mohammed is quoted as to saying: “Marry and procreate, because I will boast about you to the other communities on the day of judgement.” There are two important Islamic ideological pillars to this quote: First, sex is viewed in Islam in terms of having procreation value first and foremost. And second, intimacy as perceived within Islam is restricted to the context of marriage and a means of strengthening intimacy in the family. Though Islam stresses celibacy during times of menstruation, it otherwise encourages a spouse to have sex with their partner as often as their partner wishes. As a result, psychosexual dysfunctions, such as lack of arousal and low libido, are viewed harshly by Iranian society. Inability to conceive or perform sexually can hamper both efforts the tradition of reproduction, as well as creating a foundation of a healthy marriage. As a result, lack of sexual intercourse in a marriage, particularly due to impotence or erectile dysfunction in men, is one of the most common reasons why women divorce their husbands in Iran. And because divorce is uncommon in Iran, getting divorced becomes a scar on the reputation of the couple.
Islamic traditions encourage chastity and modesty towards sexuality by prohibiting pre- and extramarital sex. Under Islamic law, adultery is condemned as one of the greatest sins in Islam and is punishable by the death sentence, commonly by stoning. Pre-marital sex is equally discouraged though not as severe as adultery because it does not besmirch the sanctity of marriage. In Iran, pre-marital sexual relations are discouraged by the restrictions in socializing between men and women youth, such as dating. Iran has institutionalized this with the presence of “Moral police” on Iranian streets, as well as being imbedded into its education system. Teachers and mullahs present sexual behavior as spiritual and physical pollutant that hampers spiritual development. As a result, youths develop a negative attitude towards sexuality and its moral implications.
[ad#downcont]Psychosexual dysfunctions do exist. But, sexual functioning is rarely spoken of in Iranian society. Psychosexual disorders only become problematic when it affects the couple’s ability to conceive. In Iranian culture, this is the only psychosexual dysfunction that matters. Counseling and treatment of psychosexual dysfunctions, such as collapsed libido or pain during intercourse, remain a taboo when it is with a non-family member. Spiritual and herbal measures are more often employed by Iranians to overcome psychosexual dysfunctions than psychotherapy. Therapy is practically non-existent because it is not promoted in Islamic culture. Iranian attitudes towards psychosexual health are that it only exists on the surface: much like it took the Revolution to cleanse the nation from the impurities of the Shah regime, treatment of psychosexual dysfunctions requires a spiritual purity to heal itself.